Washington is a town full of newsmakers and news obsessives, and when the going gets tough, there's always been one automatic response: Turn on the Tube.
So yesterday, in offices from Capitol Hill to news bureaus all over town, Cable News Network blared away with the kind of coverage it does best -- the nonstop kind.
As a sort of television version of all-news radio, CNN quickly shifted from regular programming Monday night as word of the bombing of Libya became available. The verbal wars that are usually waged on "Crossfire" at 7:30 p.m. were scrapped for word of real battle, and CNN covered Libya "wall to wall," as they call it, for the rest of the night and most of the day yesterday.
"We had the highest hour we've ever had between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Monday and the highest rated sk,2 sw,-2 ld,10 prime-time Monday night," said Judi Borza, spokeswoman for CNN.
"It's for the real news junkies like myself," said Cleve Corlett, press secretary to Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), yesterday. "I've had it on all day."
News reports of startling proportions -- such as the bombing of Tripoli, the shuttle disaster or the Achille Lauro hijacking -- generally have an addictive quality to them. And while the other three networks repeatedly broke into their regularly scheduled shows yesterday, it was only CNN that offered continuous replays of news about Libya.
"With the networks you have to deal with the soaps and interruptions every time something interesting happens," said Jonathan Spear, administrative assistant to Rep. William Hughes (D-N.J.). "CNN is on all the time. I have always found them up to date. We keep it on all day."
"It's the only station we watched all day," said Ron Boster, assistant to Rep. Willis Gradison (R-Ohio). "They show their capabilities in situations like this."
"Today I heard the rumor that we had bombed Tripoli again," said Corlett, "and I quickly turned all the channels. Nothing. Then there was CNN, with a denial from the Pentagon."
"I live 70 miles from here and didn't even know Libya had been bombed until I got to work and turned on CNN," said John Sherman, spokesman for Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).
"Like most people on the Hill, we were monitoring the crisis from moment to moment on CNN," said Peter Loomis, press secretary to Sen. John Warner (R-Va). "No question it helps the senator. Capitol Hill is an island, and it's nice to have a link to the outside world. If something happens, I'm able to advise the senator immediately."
CNN's Borza said Nielsen ratings that usually average about 1.2 jumped to 6.3 Monday night as news of the crisis began to unfold. CNN's share of the audience leaped from a normal 2 percent to 9, with 2,119,000 households tuned in for the evening.
There was no hard data immediately available for how many people in Washington tune in to CNN automatically during a crisis, but the Washington bureau chief of the network, William Headline, said he believes the town's news addicts turn to his channel when they can't get enough on the regular networks.
"I must say we've gotten used to the idea that official Washington watches us when there is a breaking story, because we always get feedback after the fact," said Headline. "We get back word that we were up on the big monitor in the situation room, and we know when there's a major breaking story, people tune us in and stick with us."
"I also know that our colleagues at the other networks watch us because we're a very good source for them," Headline said.
At the other networks, reporters said privately that they often used CNN as a tip service for good people to interview or possible angles to a breaking story. But public relations people for the networks acknowledged only that CNN was viewed sporadically and not monitored for information.
"We're not glued to it," said an ABC spokesman, adding that ABC had at least five live specials during the day.
Print journalists said that CNN offered editors the chance to see news breaking virtually as their own reporters are covering it.
"It moves us faster along. If we see something, it allows us to alert Chicago that there is a new development. We don't file stories from it," said Nicholas Horrock, Washington editor of the Chicago Tribune.
"It's often a little faster than your reporter getting to the phone. It's like a tip service," Horrock said.
Albert Hunt, Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, said that while CNN was off and on in the bureau yesterday, "we've not been monitoring it by the minute. You have people out reporting, the wires, and this is not to denigrate them, but we're not making our news decisions based on what is on CNN."