In a bit of daring that made even some war correspondents shudder with concern, four television networks chartered a twin-engine plane yesterday and flew over the U.S. fleet to try to get videotape of its confrontation with Libya.
However, soon after their Cessna Citation began filming the American military ships and planes, three U.S. jets began to escort the press plane outside the combat zone.
"They did not cross the line," said James Noonan, a spokesman for CBS in New York, referring to Muammar Qaddafi's so-called "line of death" across the Gulf of Sidra. "They made one turn around the fleet to make some footage and then the Navy came up and flew along with them and told them it was probably not the best place for them to be."
Network and government sources said that besides the worry that U.S. forces might mistake a small plane for a new form of Libyan kamikaze, there was also considerable concern that Libyan planes and missiles could find the slower twin-engine plane a more attractive target than the American military jets.
"You might say they protected us out of the area," said Judi Borza, spokeswoman for CNN.
CNN's correspondent, Anthony Collings, who filed a report filmed from a seat in the plane, showed footage of interceptor jets, including air-to-air missiles on one jet's wings. Collings said in his report that one U.S. military pilot used hand signals to get the Cessna pilot to flip to the right radio frequency. Then, as the Americans led the small plane "away from the area of battle," as Collings put it, one U.S. pilot offered a terse bit of advice: "I suggest remaining all clear."
Yesterday's flight was the second small plane the networks had chartered from Rome (the first went out on Monday), at a reported cost of $10,000 per customer. Its passengers included journalists from CBS, CNN and Independent News Network; NBC, which shared the cost of the charter, purchased its coverage from the pool.
"It's part of covering a story. Correspondents have been covering war situations as long as there have been correspondents," said Timothy J. Russert, vice president of NBC News. "The important thing is that when the U.S. military advised this plane to turn back, it turned back." Russert added, "When wars were ground wars, that's where you found correspondents. When wars got more sophisticated, so did our methods of covering."
ABC, which participated in Monday's shared flight, decided against taking part in yesterday's excursion.
"The reason we didn't participate is that Monday's pictures of ships sitting dead in the water were just that and we didn't expect any more than that," said Robert J. Murphy, vice president for television news coverage at ABC. "It was purely a financial decision. We just decided the news value was not worth the $10,000 it would cost to buy the charter."
Murphy said that ABC may go with future pools, adding, "We're not afraid of flying in open airspace even if the Navy disapproves of it."
Several network executives said that the U.S. military has been organizing its own "pools" for all news media. The sanctioned pool flew out of Naples Monday and is expected to be airborne again today.
One network official said the networks contacted the U.S. military Monday evening to tell them that the airplane with television crew and reporters would be roaming as close as possible to the combat zone.
"They advised against it," the network official said. "But by the time the word got back to Rome, it was too late to stop the plane and they were already on their way."