"You know, I've looked at this view so many times," said a tired American correspondent at 1:30 this morning, staring past his scotch to the seedy Commodore Hotel lobby and the black streets where half-seen gunmen roamed. He shook his head. He grinned. "But goddam, it's good to be home."
Suddenly, after months in which no American journalists would come here, or were allowed to, all of them seem to be back.
They arrived in Lear jets and night boats and drinking champagne on Middle East Airlines, reporters and producers and camera crews called in from assignments in Europe, Asia, New York and Atlanta -- almost everyone who had any experience here and many who didn't.
Two weeks ago there was not a single journalist with an American passport working in Beirut. Two American journalists had been kidnaped here, others threatened, others psychologically burned out. The last resident American photographer left early this month.
The U.S. Marines were long gone. The Israelis were almost out of southern Lebanon. The U.S. government, which often sets the focus for news coverage and which has a long history of failures here, had little to say recently about what happened to these people. The story seemed, if not dead, too deadly to cover.
Some Lebanese journalists note rather bitterly that the fighting between Shiites and Palestinians that cost hundreds of lives between May 19 and June 19 went unseen by a single American correspondent.
But to cover the drama of 40 Americanhostages from the TWA hijacking, about 50 American journalists are now here.
They are crowded once again around the famous Commodore Hotel bar. They've come together in what the Boston Globe's Curtis Wilkie calls "a class reunion -- incredible de'ja vu."
By Thursday there were so many, and the competition was so intense, that an airport press conference with five of the American hostages had, as one correspondent put it, "all the aspects of a feeding frenzy for sharks."
An international horde of journalists climbed on the conference table, shoved one another and shouted so loudly that one of the hostages had to plead, "Please be quiet and act like gentlemen."
It was, said a newspaper reporter there, "the first time I've seen fear in the eyes of the Amal militias."
He was only half joking. The militiamen guarding the hostages responded finally with raised guns and flying fists. Cameras were smashed and order was restored. Few of the correspondents who were there fault the Lebanese for what happened.
Administration officials suggested the next day that the American media were being cynically manipulated. Memories are evoked of the 444-day hostage ordeal in Tehran and the way the students played the press there.
As in Iran, the media give the holders of the hostages a platform for their demands. As in Iran, there is the need each day to find a story even if developments are few.
"You're in a position where anything that happens is news," said CBS correspondent Larry Pintak. "America wants to know every day what's happening to its hostages."
With a demonstration one day, a press conference the next, the Shiites watching over the hostages have been able, in effect, to control the news, repeating their demands like a drumbeat.
"Death to America," shouted bearded men and chador-clad women burning an American flag before the cameras at the airport Friday. Only the language seemed to have changed, from Persian to Arabic.
"The stakes are raised by our presence," said David W. Fitzpatrick, who was in Iran for CBS and is now running his network's operation here. "The administration gets a lot of its information from us. They react, or are forced to react, to what Amal says on television."
For the reporters, meanwhile, the frustration in getting information is exactly the same, he said. "Here, there's only one source of information, really. That's Amal leader Nabih Berri. In Iran it was foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh.
"Ghotbzadeh was trying to be the middleman with people he couldn't really control -- the students. Berri is trying to be the middleman with the hijackers."
But Fitzpatrick and others take issue with the idea that they have been used, particularly at the Thursday press conference.
"Would the Reagan administration rather have no look at these people at all?" asked ABC's Ray Nunn. "Every day we get to see these people and know that they're alive, it's got to help the families."
Several correspondents said they thought the press conference was a good-faith effort by Berri to reassure the American public that the hostages were well. In Iran the students made their own tapes and then released them, with no questions allowed.
To get out whatever bit of news there is, American television is spending enormous amounts of money, even by its usual high-rolling standards. The rough figure most often cited is about $100,000 a day for each network. "But the fact is we won't even look at the bills for four or five months," said one producer. "The important thing is to get the story."
CBS appears to have the technological edge, having used an enormous jet transport to fly an entire satellite ground station to Larnaca, Cyprus, the most likely first stop for hostages who are released.
"We've got a two-plane air force here to get tapes out," said Fitzpatrick. The CBS Citation jet sits on the runway just a few hundred yards from the hijacked TWA 727.
But it's not always technology that gets the scoop.
ABC scored the greatest journalistic coup of the crisis Wednesday morning when it interviewed the captured TWA pilot and crew.
"The reason we're doing so well," said ABC Rome bureau chief Chris Harper, "is because of the people we've got. We've got a lot of old hands here. We've got three former Beirut bureau chiefs."
Yet for all the resources that have been brought to bear, they are less than one might have expected in almost any other environment. While interest in Beirut is enormous now, and the story has changed from the time the last American correspondents left, the fears have not.
NBC correspondent Rick Davis identified himself as an American at one checkpoint and had a switchblade stroked along his throat and face by a surly militiaman.
An ABC cameraman made the mistake of photographing a donkey in one Shiite neighborhood. Local militiamen who thought this made them look backward machine-gunned his car and trampled his camera.
Crews staking out the TWA plane at the airport are periodically shot at but still return to train their lenses on the forlorn 727.
"It's been a cat-and-mouse game for the last few days," said Fitzpatrick.
Everyone here is aware that if the negotiations for the hostages go sour and one group or another is looking for a new grandstand, the most readily available source of fresh American captives sleeps every night at the Commodore Hotel in the heart of west Beirut.
Many news organizations only reluctantly allowed their American staff members to come here. They had relied instead on local stringers, some of whom have spent years with the organizations.
Not until the end of the week did The New York Times and The Washington Post give the go-ahead to their American staff reporters to come to west Beirut. The Los Angeles Times, whose Charles Wallace was the last reporter for a major American paper to leave here, has not allowed him or any of its other staffers to come back.
In many instances, the most seasoned American reporters are the most disturbed and apprehensive about what they have found here. A lot of change has come quickly, and always for the worse, they say. The de'ja vu, for them, has a lot of nightmare in it.
"Everybody is here. It's like nobody ever left," said Pintak. That is, when you're in the Commodore with the press corps.
The street scene the veterans are used to is ominous. Every wall is pocked with bullet holes or cratered by shelling. Corner garbage dumps mingle the trash of daily life and daily war: milk cartons, juice cans, spent cartridges, tank traps. No one even seems to flinch at the sound of gunfire, as common as the squeal of tires.
Yet, as Pintak told a newcomer, "if you look at the streets, it doesn't look as ominous as others who have been here before feel it to be."
"We're crazy to be here," said one American magazine reporter who was among the first to arrive back. "The thing about Beirut is that nothing happens until it happens."