Those who stayed glued to their television screens last night, and it would have been awfully hard not to have, saw two compelling stories unfold: the opening shots of war against Iraq and the cliffhanging adventures of CNN correspondents Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett, who will long be remembered for the way they braved the bombing of Baghdad.
Other correspondents headquartered at the Al-Rashid Hotel apparently took cover, but CNN's men on the scene stayed in their room and watched through the windows as U.S forces began shelling strategic targets in the city just as the evening network newscasts were going on the air. Soon all network newscasts were scuttled, continuous coverage took over and the network prime-time schedules were wiped out.
To say that the media have been filled with talk of war in recent days would be wild understatement, yet when it finally came last night there was a palpable sense of shock, coupled with an odd feeling of relief that the tension had broken. This would be a true television war, we had been told, with the possibility of live reports from the battlefield. But as it began, it was a radio war -- all the reports from actual sites of battle were audio only, accompanied by maps and graphics on the screen.
The correspondents had to fill the same role that radio correspondents filled during World War II. You didn't really see a war begin on television, but you heard it begin and you felt it begin.
ABC was actually first to report that bombing had begun. Anchor Peter Jennings was on the air with reporter Gary Shepard, who spoke by phone line from Baghdad and assured Jennings early in the newscast, "absolutely nothing happening here." Moments later, Shepard, still on the air, reported "flashes of light" in the distant sky and told Jennings, "There's obviously an air raid under way right now."
But although ABC got the scoop, CNN took over the story and dominated the coverage with little real competition. At one point, Shaw even reported on the whereabouts of the other correspondents for the benefit of viewing news organizations that were worried about them. CBS News, for instance, lost contact with its reporter, Allen Pizzey, just before "The CBS Evening News" signed on. The loss severely impaired the reporting abilities of CBS, which had one of the worst nights of breaking news coverage in its history.
Shaw reported that Pizzey was safe, sipping tea on the floor of the hotel's basement bomb shelter. The CNN reporters appeared to be in peril and even joked about it on the air. Once they ducked for cover when they heard something outside the door of their room. "We've got to run," Shaw said. "Somebody's coming in the door. We're going to hide." They left the air for a few minutes, but they returned. Shaw spent part of his time reporting from the floor of the hallway between rooms.
At a press briefing from the Pentagon just after 9:30 p.m., when asked about casualties in Baghdad, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told reporters, "The best reporting that I've seen on what transpired in Baghdad was on CNN."
A little later, CNN was paid another supreme compliment. NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed Shaw by phone. When the debriefing was over, Brokaw praised Shaw, Holliman and Arnett for being "very enterprising" and "brave indeed" and told viewers, "CNN used to be called the little network that could. It's no longer a little network."
CNN has had many milestones in its 10-year history but the first night of the gulf war was a blindingly brilliant moment. There were reports of network affiliates in various parts of the country dropping their own network's coverage to take CNN's. Channel 5 here aired CNN reports from the inception of the bombing until the start of the station's 10 p.m. newscast.
Holliman wasn't even certain his words were being heard on the air when he began transmitting from the hotel shortly after 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, 2:30 a.m. Iraq time. "Hello Atlanta, Atlanta. This is Holliman," he could be heard saying. "The skies of Baghdad have just been filled up with the sound of gunfire tonight."
At first, on all networks, there was understandable confusion. Not long after the first word of the attack from Shepard, Jennings announced to viewers, with maddening imprecision, "We believe that something is going on in Iraq. We know there is something going on Iraq. We do not know what." All night long, CBS news anchor Dan Rather kept cautioning viewers that reports were sketchy. Unfortunately, they were sketchier on CBS than they were elsewhere.
Rather did seem to be making it official, however, when at 7:05 p.m. he told viewers, "It's clear that war has begun in the Middle East." Rather was also the only anchor to show emotion when discussing the grim realities. "It always brings a lump to your throat" to report a war beginning, Rather said, and there really was a lump in his. Later he choked up when he said of the bombers heading for Iraq "There are people, there are men, in those aircraft."
Walter Cronkite, who had appeared earlier in the day on CNN, was brought out of semi-retirement to join Rather in the studio. It was sobering to hear Cronkite say, at about 8:30 p.m., "There are Americans dying, undoubtedly at this hour." CBS coverage did have heart; it just didn't have enough reportage.
George Bush spoke to the nation from the Oval Office for 12 minutes, just after 9 p.m. "Operations are proceeding according to plan," Bush said. He referred again to "unspeakable atrocities" and to "terrible crimes and tortures" committed by the Iraqis occupying Kuwait, but Bush offered no evidence or examples. Still, he seemed encouragingly assured. "This is an historic moment," he said.
It was not a stirring speech. But Bush's never are. "I was struck by the fact there was no table pounding by the president," said John Cochran of NBC news, associating Bush's calm with his desire to emulate Teddy Roosevelt. On ABC, Jennings told viewers, "One thing is certain: this war is going to define George Bush's presidency."
So far, all that the war has really defined is CNN's ascendancy.