Troop movements, secret missions, angry confrontations, open hostilities. That's not the war in the Persian Gulf; that's the TV news coverage of it. Anchors and correspondents become the news as well as report it during a protracted crisis like this.
Among the latest in troop movements: Dan Rather of CBS News remained in Baghdad yesterday, the network calling him "the only Western correspondent still in" that city. NBC's Bryant Gumbel is expected to be reporting from Saudi Arabia as of this morning's "Today" show. Ted Koppel of ABC News has returned to Washington from Baghdad; correspondent Forrest Sawyer has gone back to Amman.
If U.S. and Iraqi officials are not talking to each other directly, meanwhile, they do seem to communicate through the networks. It's a de facto hotline. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is said to be monitoring the situation via the globally satellited news of CNN.
And though neither the United States nor Iraq has yet to declare American citizens stranded in Iraq to be "hostages," that formality, should it come, will be an anticlimax, since Koppel already made the pronouncement on Thursday night's edition of "ABC News Nightline."
"Perhaps it's time we began using that word, in place of the more refined and ambiguous terms like 'detainees' and 'restrictees,' " Koppel said, reporting from Amman, after having been gently kicked out of Baghdad.
Koppel was even more emphatic the next night, on one of the most electric and combative "Nightlines" ever. Barbara Walters was the substitute anchor, but Koppel's flight from abroad landed early enough at JFK Airport in New York for him to rush back to Washington and appear on his own show as a guest. In the hot seat was Mohammed Sadiq Mashat, Iraqi ambassador to the United States.
He was surrounded.
"All this nonsense about using euphemisms like detainees and restrictees is ... something that belongs in the garbage can," growled Koppel early in the program. "These people are hostages, they're being treated like hostages, and they're going to be used like hostages."
The ambassador said they were not hostages. "Let me ask you what your definition of a hostage is," Koppel countered. Later Koppel told him, "In all respect, may I suggest to you, you're in no position to know what's happening to them."
Walters and Koppel aggressively questioned -- one might even say pummeled -- the ambassador, frequently interrupting his rambling or bumbling responses. When Mashat repeatedly evaded questions or answered with accusations against the United States and Israel, Walters asked him, "Aren't you in contact at all with your own government?" Mashat said, "I don't have to give you any excuse why I didn't check with my government, do I?"
After several more heated exchanges, Walters told the flustered ambassador: "Perhaps it's two against one. We should give you a chance for your final thoughts. ... I'll be nice and quiet."
Walters, who also took over "This Week With David Brinkley" yesterday for an absent Brinkley, said after that show that she didn't think she and Koppel had been unfair to the ambassador. "He just would never stop talking," Walters said. "One had to interrupt him to get anything out of him."
She said the questioning was no more intense than Koppel has been on some of his feistier "Nightlines," but that two questioners may have made it seem more "forceful" on the air. Contrary to appearances, she said no, her blood wasn't boiling during the frustrating session.
"I think he was just dodging the questions so. If he had only answered, it would have been different. I think these are very special circumstances. We keep hearing we're on the brink of war, and this is the only person we have available to talk to, and he is a man who doesn't answer questions. He just gives rhetoric.
"It's the role of the journalist, the duty -- and I hope I'm not going to sound pompous about it -- to try to get some answers," Walter said. She also gave her opinion of Mashat: "This ambassador obviously knows nothing."
Koppel, reached at home yesterday, was asked if the interview had been fair.
"Fair? What's fair?" Koppel said. "Two on one? No, that's not fair. By the same token, what the ambassador was telling me on that broadcast has in the subsequent 36 hours or so been shown to be totally false. That's not fair, either."
Koppel spent 2 1/2 days in Baghdad with the permission of the Iraqi government. He says he knows he was being used. "We were there for an express reason," he said. "The foreign minister was presenting the soft line on Iraqi policy. That's why they let me in and why they let me talk to him.
"It was only to use us as, as best as they can, a megaphone, and it's our job to let the American people know what they're trying to do."
A few times on Friday's "Nightline," Koppel and Walters sounded as though they were speaking for the American people -- in fact, for the American government. Mashat would charge this or charge that, and Koppel and Walters would rebut the charge, referring to the United States as "we."
When the ambassador tried to compare Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to the U.S. invasions of Panama and Grenada, Koppel said, "We did not go in and seize Panama. We did not go in and seize Grenada."
Walters said yesterday that such uses of "we" and "our" by a reporter are merely "colloquial" and impromptu. "Obviously, we're not representing the United States government," she said.
Koppel said, "If I was saying 'us' and 'we' for the U.S. government, then that was inappropriate. I'm not official and I should never let myself be used that way." It's a slightly sensitive area for Koppel, since often his work on "Nightline" has seemed to transcend journalism and enter the area of diplomacy. For years rumors circulated that he wanted to leave TV to be secretary of state, rumors he dismissed.
In an announcement promoting its coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis, ABC quoted a critical accolade calling Koppel a "TV statesman." Informed of this, Koppel said, "I sure as hell hope that's not what ABC is saying." An ABC spokesman said late yesterday the promo would not be running again.
ABC News has out-reported the competition by a mile on the gulf crisis, but CBS News is working hard to narrow the gap to a quarter mile or less. Rather is indeed the only network reporter still in Baghdad. Insiders expect he'll be asked to leave soon.
Yesterday Rather scored a major coup of his own: interviews with Americans who have managed to take shelter at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Unfortunately, the scoop was almost obliterated by bumbling technical sloppiness during the "CBS Evening News"; a CBS News spokesman said the technical glitches were corrected for the second feed, at 6:30.
On Friday, Rather broke the story that U.S. citizens in Iraq were being moved to military bases, munitions plants and other sensitive spots to serve as "human shields" in the event of a U.S. aerial attack.
If some would criticize the networks for making their own news in the Persian Gulf, it could be because other news is so hard to come by, and not just because of the Iraqi government. Also because of the U.S. government.
Charles Kuralt, the usually placid anchor of "CBS Sunday Morning," delivered a personal commentary yesterday complaining about Pentagon management of the news from the gulf. He said reporters are "herded from place to place" and that their dispatches are subject to the meddlings of "government censors" and bureaucrats.
"American reporters were able to send out more real news from the presumed enemy camp last week than they were from the American camps in Saudi Arabia," Kuralt charged.
Sam "the Ham" Donaldson, on the Brinkley show, grilled Defense Secretary Richard Cheney about restrictions placed on reporters -- specifically, on being forbidden to give the names and hometowns of American military personnel interviewed in the Mideast. Cheney said, "Restraints that were perhaps necessary at the outset have been relaxed." Donaldson was reporting from Bahrain.
Iraqi Ambassador Mashat was surprised to see Walters again when he showed up for the Brinkley show after having tussled with her on "Nightline" Friday night, Walters said. There were moments in the "Nightline" fracas when it looked as if the ambassador would bolt. But when Walters asked if he would stick around through another commercial break, he smiled and said yes.
"I think he'll come on, no matter what," Walters said yesterday. "He is going to come on and deliver his set speech." Koppel said, "As long as his function is to present the sort of reasonable side of the Iraq position, as long as that's his job, he'll continue to show up."