The political Richter scale that is television registered seismic vibrations yesterday as hopes first rose, and then quickly fell, that war in the Middle East might be averted. Where TV differs from a seismograph is that it can cause the jolts it later reports.
All the networks were on the air for part of the morning and most of the afternoon in a marathon teleplomatic session that followed meetings in Geneva between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
When those talks, expected by some pundits to last only a few minutes, were still going on after two hours, and didn't break up until after nearly 6 1/2 hours, network anchors and correspondents interpreted it as an encouraging sign. "Hopes did begin to rise that a breakthrough was near," said Tom Brokaw at the start of last night's "NBC Nightly News."
Accordingly, as the TV reports aired in the morning hours, the stock market also began to rise and then, just as accordingly, fell in the afternoon, once the news turned sour and the round of dueling press conferences began. Baker, then Aziz, and then George Bush took to the airwaves to say that there had been no breakthroughs and that the situation had not improved. And by not improving, it had worsened.
"I think we're going to go to war," said retired Gen. George B. Crist on CBS, where he serves as a consultant to the news division on Middle East coverage. Dan Rather began last night's "CBS Evening News" with this spoken headline: "War draws nearer as the Baker-Aziz talks fail."
Baker and Aziz met at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Geneva, but the meeting place really was the global town hall of television, where the world could watch, and where much of the posturing and negotiation following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has taken place.
Television channels now seem to count for more than diplomatic channels. It sounded almost quaint that Bush had given Baker a diplomatic letter to deliver to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (a letter Aziz rejected as "rude"). Diplomatic letters sound like something from another century. And Baker didn't have to come back to Washington to give the bad news to Bush because Bush saw it on TV like the rest of us.
It wasn't surprising, either, that Aziz mentioned having watched CNN -- whose signal travels to the Middle East as well as from it -- in his afternoon press conference, which was carried live on all the networks soon after Baker's concluded. "We listen to the American radio," Aziz said, smiling, "and I have the advantage of seeing the CNN, which is very active in covering the political activities, especially the statements of the American officials." Aziz said he had seen Baker on TV "several times in the last few months" and seen "almost all the statements of President Bush."
Television is the window through which world leaders now shout yoo-hoo, or some other greeting considerably less friendly, to each other.
"I watched much of the Aziz press conference," Bush told reporters at the White House later during his own press conference, just before 4 p.m. Even as he denounced the Iraqi position, Bush seemed oddly to admire the way Aziz performed on TV.
"I thought it was a very rational presentation, but wrong," Bush said. "His style was good," Bush added, critiquing Aziz further. He said the "atmospherics were all right." Bush himself seemed weary if not as irritable as might have been expected under the circumstances. He looked slightly disheveled and stumbled over words a few times, saying "helpful" and then correcting it to "hopeful," and "implicate" when he meant "implement."
But then, it was a tense day. One could feel the tension mounting on TV. The fact that some statements sounded so definitive, rather than the kind of diplomatic waffling you usually hear, made the experience all the more sobering, as when Bush said categorically of Saddam, "Nothing I saw today -- nothing -- leads me to believe that this man is going to be reasonable."
Or when Aziz, asked if Iraq would attack Israel should war break out, replied, "Yes. Absolutely, yes." Rather noted later that Aziz made the same grim pledge in an interview he got with Aziz in Baghdad on Monday.
The rise of expectations and the subsequent fall was almost dizzying, for viewers and for the broadcast journalists working on the story.
"We're on an emotional roller coaster here, and the ride was going, I felt, very well this morning," said Joe Peyronnin, CBS News vice president, late yesterday. "There seemed to be a good chance that something positive was going to occur. But when Jim Baker walked out there, I could tell by the look on his face that the optimism would come crashing down.
"We realized this war situation was now more of a reality than we ever thought it was."
Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News," said he saw what looked like a hopeful lead story for last night's newscast turn into a discouraging one. He heard the change in Baker's words rather than reading it from the look on his face.
"When I heard Baker say the word 'regrettably,' I knew the story had changed," Friedman said. What Baker said, early in his press conference, was, "Regrettably today ... I heard nothing that suggested to me any Iraqi flexibility whatsoever on complying with the United Nations' Security Council resolutions."
As there was talk of calling up 1 million more reserves should armed conflict actually erupt, the networks were talking about calling up reserves to cover it. "We are as ready as we can be to cover this war in the event of war," said Peyronnin of CBS.
Will it in fact be technologically possible to broadcast, for the first time, live reports from the battlefield? Vietnam was considered the first television war, but satellite technology was still in its infancy then.
"I think that it's technologically possible," Peyronnin said. "The technicians of CBS News have proven they can do anything. But it is not realistic to expect we are going to endeavor to put live pictures of a war on the air."
What if the competition does it?
"We have to be very responsible in our coverage," Peyronnin said. CBS News President Eric Ober could not be reached, network spokesmen said; he and the three other network news presidents yesterday signed a letter addressed to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in which they protested the military censorship being imposed on journalists covering the Middle East conflict.
We keep hearing, meanwhile, that a desert war in the Middle East would be unlike any other war America has fought. One way the war will definitely be different than, say, World War II, is that World War II had no logo. The networks always endeavor to package long-running news stories, and this one is no exception. CNN labels its coverage "Crisis in the Gulf," using a typeface not unlike that used to advertise the movie "Sahara," a 1984 Brooke Shields flop.
Much, much worse is the continuing, indeed obsessive, use on CBS of the promotional slogan "Countdown to Confrontation," with a ticking away of the days to the Jan. 15 deadline set by President Bush. It's an unseemly touch especially glaring on CBS, where this kind of tabloidism is normally shunned.
"Imagine what CBS would be saying if someone else did that," said NBC's Friedman of the gimmick. "I think it's a cheap rip-off of 'America Held Hostage,' which worked 10 years ago for ABC with 'Nightline' when it was backed up by a solid program, but which is not the case in this instance."
Told of Friedman's remark, Peyronnin first declined to comment. Later, noting that NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol had recently been critical of CBS Sports coverage, Peyronnin said, "If all the NBC executives can do is watch us, this war is going to pass them by. One thing for sure: We're not looking over our shoulders at NBC."
Five days to go in the countdown to confrontation and already hostilities have broken out.
The network news departments do not report on themselves, however; they only report on the world. And what they reported during a long cold winter day yesterday was sobering, gripping and, as even they seemed to be admitting to viewers, brutally depressing.