"Cocaine! Plates of cocaine! Hundreds of thousands of dollars!" a drunken CBS employe shouted, a vein throbbing in his forehead, his fists clenched as he glowered at an ABC producer. Wild accusations. Unprovable allegations. But in Beirut, beautiful city of unparalleled violence, decadence and deceit, it is easy to conjure nefarious alibis when you've been beaten. It is a national pastime. It fertilizes the hate.
The ABC producer, without stooping to denial, needled CBS from across the Commodore Hotel bar: "Think about tomorrow," he said, grinning ear to ear. "Don't talk about the past. Think about tomorrow."
Was Beirut corrupting the networks, I wondered as I witnessed this exchange. Or were the networks corrupting Beirut?
On this day, ABC had had another scoop. It had been a lunch with three of the American hostages, a relaxed affair with correspondent Charles Glass by the sea somewhere in the Shiites' southern suburbs. A few days before, it had been a walk out onto the tarmac for a chat with the TWA pilot, a gun to his head, an uneasy smile on his face.
That image made the covers of both Time and Newsweek.
ABC's ability to get exclusive pictures and interviews with key figures in the TWA hostage drama -- the hostages themselves and the mediator, Amal movement leader Nabih Berri -- brought out the envy and the enmity of just about every journalist here. Every scoop evoked screams of outrage and behind-the-scenes accusations, but never any evidence to back up the innuendo. The accusations, hotly denied by ABC every step of the way, were still more seamy and unseemly because of the alleged payola that was supposed to be going to the kidnapers and murderers of Americans.
For the other networks feverishly laboring here, the worst part was that whatever ABC was doing, in terms of getting the story, it was so obviously doing it right.
ABC's monopoly, moreover, was one it carefully enforced. And it had been designed that way from the start. While other networks stayed at the traditional journalists' haunt, the Commodore in downtown West Beirut, ABC checked into the Summerland, a little bit of Miami Beach on the Beirut seacoast, complete with Shiite bathing beauties in bikinis. What they gained in comfort they also gained in secrecy.
ABC put more Americans on the ground in Beirut faster than anyone since the U.S. Marines. According to ABC's producers, it had more than 20 American passport holders working in Beirut when other networks were leery of committing four or five to the world's kidnap capital. You could say this was irresponsible, and that if things had gone wrong it might have added 20 hostages to the lists. But ABC got there first, with the most, and quite literally seized a beachhead no one else was able to challenge.
ABC also had been consistent in its coverage of Lebanon, particularly the war in the south, and had thus made a lot of contacts with a lot of loyalty. Its local stringer, Julie Flynt, had never left Lebanon, even during the worst months. Personal contacts are everything in the Middle East, and this kind of continued presence is long remembered.
Then there was the matter of local talent. ABC had drivers who were thick with Amal, it had people on contract who were very tight with Amal. This is not unusual overseas. Networks don't pay their sources, but they frequently hire employes who have good access to sources through family or social ties.
But ABC also had the fiercely loyal friendship of Ali Hamdan, the official spokesman for Amal, and it was Hamdan's role that caused the greatest controversy. One ABC producer described him as "the Amal guy in our pocket."
According to ABC producers and correspondents, he was central to setting up the initial interview with pilot John Testrake on the tarmac, but not particularly important in their later coups.
The ferocity of Hamdan's ABC bias continued, however, to raise problems, even when another network had gotten the scoop.
For instance, a videotape of the hostages sitting around a room being asked simple, brief questions by an anonymous voice was filmed at Amal's invitation by a local Visnews crew normally affiliated with NBC. But the tape was then taken by Amal, who offered it to CBS for certain considerations in return. CBS officials in Beirut say no cash changed hands, but they said Amal did demand cassettes of some CBS coverage from earlier years -- apparently to be shown to the hostages.
"What they wanted was videotape of the '82 Israeli invasion," said one senior CBS official here. "So we said, 'Sure, we'll give you videotape.' "
(Ann Morfogen, director of communications for CBS News, told Washington Post reporter Eleanor Randolph yesterday that while one CBS official in Beirut believed there would be "no problem" in handing over the cassettes, no videotape was ever released from the network files in New York.
("I can't believe a 3-year-old tape would have been provided by the facilities we had in Beirut. It would have had to come from New York," she said. "The bottom line is CBS News here did not provide the footage.")
Amal also wanted to edit the hostage tape before handing it over. "We said, 'We'll have to take what you give us,' " the CBS official in Beirut said.
But Amal is a large and diverse organization, and these negotiations were not held with Hamdan, but with Akram Balawi, another spokesman.
When Ali Hamdan heard that CBS had the tape, he said he called a CBS correspondent and warned him that if the tape were not immediately "pooled" -- made available to all news media -- CBS could forget about covering the hostage story in Beirut.
Other accounts of his language are rather more dramatic: on the order of, "Pool that tape or go with it when you ship it to Cyprus."
When I asked him about all this, Hamdan was something less than good-humored.
He confirmed the phone call and asked who told me. When I declined to answer, he started naming possible names. You could see the blacklist forming in his mind.
I asked him if he had been paid off. He equivocated. "It's already well known, bakshish," he said first. Pressed, he said, as ominously as he could, "You are dealing with Amal." Finally: "There was nothing, no money at all," he said.
Other networks tried to compensate for their relatively poor showings by bringing in heavy hitters from New York. But no one in the Middle East knows a New York heavy hitter when he sees one. It's relationships, not ratings, that count for a reporter here.
So when ABC was handed the biggest coup of the story -- the hostages' "farewell party," NBC's Tom Brokaw was left waiting for Ali Hamdan to meet him in the Commodore lobby. When Hamdan showed, he said nothing was happening at the moment, maybe tomorrow.
A CBS vice president, David Buksbaum, found himself even more frustrated when he flew from Beirut to Syria and was informed there was no way he could get into the country without a visa. He sat around for 10 hours in the scenic Damascus airport before flying back out again. At one point, according to a CBS staffer, he started shouting. Did they know he was a vice president of CBS? "So what?" said the Syrian immigration man.
All this, of course, had been discussed and debated, whispered about and shouted over for two weeks during the run of America Held Hostage II. Yet when the final ABC scoop came off, no one -- some staffers say not even ABC -- was ready for its scope or its surreal imagery: a farewell dinner with 32 hostages overlooking the moonlit sea from the pool at the Summerland beach hotel.
As ABC correspondents and producers tell the story, they did not know what was happening until they looked out their windows and saw the hostages and the boys from Amal standing around the pool just before midnight. Of course, no one believes this.
While a few print reporters stood around the Commodore bar and Brokaw slouched on a sofa in the lobby, at the Summerland ABC producer Chris Harper was reading off a roll call of the hostages present, a farewell cake was served, the hostages were interviewed one by one, and Amal militiamen raised on the margins of survival in the southern suburbs stared aghast at the opulence of their surroundings.
Word did leak to the other networks at the end, around 2 a.m., and they were able to beg a few scraps of interviews before Amal took the hostages back to the suburbs and, everyone thought, to Damascus.
NBC's Brokaw, who kept his composure and his humor throughout, said wearily at dawn, "We're the Tommy Hearns of network television tonight. Third round."
The next night, when the hostages didn't arrive in Damascus as expected, rumors began to fly and speculation was raised that Berri had lost control completely, that there were many new demands, that everything had fallen apart.
This was a time when instant communications were needed to clear the air, if possible. But when Berri's spokesman was interviewed by NBC, NBC cut the line on him after 20 seconds, then couldn't get back to him. New York said they couldn't find anyone to talk to Berri's spokesman. New York said the line wasn't good enough. Finally NBC's Roger Mudd came on the line, but by then his show was over.
Later, Berri's spokesman went over to the Summerland. He walked up to ABC's office. They put him on the air with Peter Jennings.
(When it was all over, ABC protested bitterly that its credibility had been irremediably harmed, its integrity called into question. Attributing the charges to a sour-grapes attitude, Richard Wald, senior vice president of ABC News, told Eleanor Randolph in a telephone interview yesterday that the network staff had "had their work tainted by the envy of others."
(Wald added that "because we were the tallest tree, we attracted the lightning, and we found it very unfair. All the rumor and innuendo -- unfounded and untrue -- it was directed a little bit against the other folks, but mostly was directed against us."
(ABC was "annoyed and a little bit startled at the reaction" to its first scoop, he said. Glass had gotten the interview with the captain and crew, Wald said, by convincing Berri that the American people would not believe they were safe until they saw them. "I don't know whether anybody else paid for anything," Wald said. "But I do know that ABC never paid for an interview.")
Through most of the crisis, what news ABC did not get, the other networks did. To my knowledge not a single newspaper reporter got a one-on-one interview with Berri or any hostage between the first airport press conference and the final 24 hours of the ordeal.
Yet now that the dust has settled, I think that one must say it was not just the resources, it was not just staffing, it was not a matter of payola that gave the networks and particularly ABC such dominance over the story. It was time: the very short time needed to communicate to the United States whatever the people here had to say about developments in the crisis.
TV gave Berri, for instance, a direct phone line to a majority of the American public. Newspapers allowed him nothing more than an overnight letter to a select group of readers. In Berri's position, you don't need to be terribly sophisticated or media-conscious to make that decision. And for the hostages, television was an unmatchable way to reassure their families of their well-being.
I think that on balance the role of the media -- television particularly, and ABC specifically -- was a central element in keeping the hostage crisis from escalating into a hostage disaster.
In any hostage situation on any dog day afternoon it is essential to keep the kidnapers or the hijackers talking. The media did that -- not only as a vehicle but as a lure to make them talk. What was an essential part of the deal that finally got the hostages out? A press conference for the original hijackers themselves. Reporters meanwhile had access that no American official could have imagined or hoped for.
At the same time, as the United States was brought to the point of blind, aimless anger, the presence of the hostages -- unharmed and individually interviewed on television -- and the face of Nabih Berri, beardless and looking more like a rug merchant than a terrorist, could not help but dissipate some of the fury.
Nobody is going to prove anything about how TV handled its coverage, and everyone knows it. But in Beirut, city of people quick on the draw, and the dead, keeping a few among the living is no mean thing.