It had seemed, if such a thing is possible, a calm day of war. About the biggest news of the day had been the loss of the CNN signal from Baghdad after 17 hours of audio broadcasts from a hotel there.
Then, just over 24 hours after war broke out on Wednesday's evening newscasts, Tom Fenton of CBS News gave the first reports of Scud missiles launched by Iraq against Israel. At 7:05 p.m., Fenton told anchor Dan Rather of flashes in the sky and explosions.
Nothing of this could be seen on the screen. CBS had lost access to its satellite connection to Tel Aviv at 6:45, so only a photo of Fenton and a map of Israel were on the screen. But there was the ominous aura of a nightmare just the same.
Then, at 9:54, CBS showed the first video pictures of the damage to Tel Aviv from the missile strike.
Within the first few minutes after the initial reports of the attack, viewers saw what may have been a grisly television first: correspondents, prepared for a possible nerve gas attack, reporting on camera while wearing gas masks, their voices muffled by the apparatus. Fenton told Rather he had to put his on, and Rather told him to go ahead; they'd get back to him later.
Dean Reynolds, ABC's man in Jerusalem, told anchor Peter Jennings he didn't think he'd be able to talk with the mask on. The usually unflappable Jennings was stern: "Well put it on, Dean, and then we'll figure out whether you can talk through it."
Many of those working at CNN's Jerusalem bureau could be seen walking about wearing the gas masks while a camera swung and panned wildly. On NBC, Martin Fletcher delivered much of his reportage from Tel Aviv wearing one of the masks; in New York, anchor Tom Brokaw seemed visibly shaken by this symbol of the war's escalation, calling the reported use of nerve gas by Saddam Hussein "unthinkable" and "unspeakable."
Here, it seemed, was the unthinkable being thought and the unspeakable being spoken. Communications technology had made it possible to learn almost instantly what another kind of technology had wrought -- the latest thing in up-to-date, modern barbarism.
Until this moment, the war that broke out on television Wednesday had seemed orderly, well planned and even, with only one U.S. casualty reported during the day, virtually painless. Now it took on a potentially apocalyptic cast. "The dimensions of the war have changed over the last hour," Rather said at 8:47.
As might be expected, the airwaves deteriorated into near pandemonium. Circuits went dead, misinformation was given out, conflicting reports were circulated, much of it about whether the missiles were conventional or loaded with chemical warfare materials. First it was reported two missiles had struck targets in Israel, then three, then six, then 10. At 9:12 Rather told viewers there was some good news: "no casualties" in Israel. About 15 minutes later, Fenton reported "seven confirmed light casualties."
All the networks assumed, and told viewers, that retaliation by Israel must have begun, but shortly after 9:30 p.m., the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations declared in New York that no retaliatory strikes had been launched.
It was thought at one point that a Scud missile had been seen in the skies of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where air raid sirens had sounded, and ABC played tape of an explosion in the sky over and over so experts could analyze whether it was a Scud. It turned out to have been one of the allies' anti-missile missiles misfiring.
No one knew where this would go. No one knew where anything would go.
There were moments of awkwardness and tastelessness. Channel 4, the NBC affiliate in Washington, cut away from a report by Fletcher in the early moments of the new crisis for a rice commercial. CNN showed an ad for "Love Boat" cruises a short time later. Walter Cronkite, joining Rather at the anchor desk briefly, flashed an inappropriate avuncular smile as he talked about Israel being drawn into the war.
In Washington, several callers phoned Channel 5 (WTTG), a Fox affiliate, to protest the airing of "The Simpsons," Fox's hit cartoon, instead of the CNN news feed that Channel 5 had carried the previous night. Some callers to The Washington Post said they were treated abusively when they phoned the station to complain.
At 8:30, once the high-rated "Simpsons" was over, Channel 5 rejoined CNN, whose coverage has been widely acclaimed as having been the most responsive and comprehensive since the war began.
All the networks had in effect become all-news networks like CNN as the war moved into its second day. CNN was a story as well as a storyteller, and that story took a dramatic turn earlier yesterday when Iraqi authorities put an end to CNN audio broadcasts from the ninth floor of the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad.
Just before 11 a.m., CNN viewers heard the network's reporters dickering with an official of the Iraqi Defense Ministry who'd come to their room to tell them to stop making their sporadic audio reports from the city. They were entering their 17th consecutive hour of broadcasting.
And they lost the argument.
"We have unfortunately been ordered to cease transmitting," said CNN producer Robert Weiner from the ninth floor of the Al-Rashid Hotel. "We have been told that we may no longer transmit live to our audience, and that in the future, taped reports will be subject to censorship."
"Well, that's that," sighed correspondent John Holliman. "Obviously this is something that is just abhorrent to all of us, and we'll talk to you as soon as we can."
"I hope we can resume our communication with you in the very near future," said reporter Peter Arnett. Anchor Bernard Shaw was silent after a long night. Then everything went silent, followed by a hum and a buzz. CNN held its map of Iraq on the screen for a few moments, as if it were a memorial to the suspended dispatches.
The Iraqis could, of course, have shut down CNN much earlier, but neglected to do so, and not even CNN executives knew why. Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that one way he and other military officials gauged the effectiveness of the bombing of Baghdad was by listening to "CNN reporters who were watching it unfold."
In the briefing, Powell made two friendly references to "Bernie," who everyone knew was CNN anchor Shaw.
CNN sources said yesterday that CNN's correspondents in Baghdad were able to outdistance their competitors when the war broke out because they had received permission from the Iraqis to set up a private open phone line called a "four-wire" after weeks of what CNN Executive Vice President Ed Turner yesterday called "lobbying and begging and being a nuisance."
It was as much stubborn persistence as journalistic enterprise, Turner said: "All we did was badger the hell out of them for a long time."
On Wednesday night, with the bombs bursting in air, the three other networks all asked for a chance to use CNN's priceless four-wire (which actually rents for $15,000 a week), since the only other way they could have gotten reports out of Baghdad would have been to go outside the hotel to satellite dishes near its swimming pool, Turner said.
Instead of letting them use the wire, CNN President Tom Johnson offered them interviews via the special hookup with anchor Shaw. NBC News President Michael G. Gartner and anchor Tom Brokaw were the only ones to take up that offer.
Turner called the four-wire "a simple installation" and said the loss of the signal was "political, not technical. As far as we can tell, the wire still works." Shaw, Holliman and the other members of the CNN staff in Baghdad were safe, Turner said, and trying to get back on the air.
Ratings figures released by CNN yesterday showed the cable network beating all other networks over a 24-hour period for the first time in its history. CNN spokeswoman Lisa Dallos said that for the three hours of prime time Wednesday, CNN registered a 19.1 rating compared with a 14.4 for ABC, a 13.8 for NBC and a 10.9 for CBS.
CNN was being watched in 10.8 million cable households, Dallos said, roughly 10 times as many as on an average night. These figures don't take into account the 200 regular broadcast stations throughout the country that had the option of switching to CNN coverage.
Nielsen reported yesterday that President Bush's address to the nation Wednesday night may have drawn the largest television audience ever, with 78.8 percent of the nation's 93.1 million television households watching.
The signal also finds its way into 103 countries, one of them Iraq, where it is not available to the general public but is seen in hotels and in government buildings.
While it may have had the most intrepid reporters on the scene, CNN lacked pictures of the conflict, just as all the other networks did. The Pentagon released a few brief shots of cruise missiles, surprisingly wobbly in their trajectories, being launched from the USS Washington, and there were shots of pilots returning, exultant mostly, from bombing missions, but otherwise there was very little that captured the war in visual terms.
Video footage shot from the cockpits of U.S. planes that made the bombing raid would be released, reporters said -- but not until Friday. Finally, just after 10 o'clock last night, ABC aired the first televised footage of Wednesday night's bombing raid of Baghdad, shot by ABC News cameraman Fabrice Moussus at the Al-Rashid Hotel and sent by courier to Amman for satellite transmission.
CBS, whose coverage seemed much more industrious yesterday than it had during a sluggish start, unfortunately appeared to have cornered the market on tearful spouse footage. On Wednesday, an anti-war activist mother and her daughter wept on camera. Yesterday, a man in Denver rubbed his eyes and cried while the CBS camera zoomed in for a close-up.
And because hard news on the story was so slow in coming, all the networks took the easy route of cutting to antiwar protest demonstrations, whether they could genuinely be considered significant or not.
If CNN had the best reportage, it also had some of the worst, mainly from a roving correspondent named Jeff Flock who kept materializing from what he called "Middle America" with reports allegedly describing the mood of the nation. These consisted of Flock thrusting a microphone in slightly stupefied faces and asking, "What are your thoughts today?" or "What are your thoughts about what's going on there now?" or "What goes through your mind now?" These were about the dumbest pieces of non-news to be seen anywhere.
ABC earned one very dubious distinction in the marathon coverage that started during the evening newscasts Wednesday; it was the first network to resume commercials, airing one as early as 7:45 p.m., according to a network spokesman. NBC held off commercials until 5:10 a.m. Thursday. CBS aired no network commercials until 10:13 a.m. CNN also kept commercials off until early yesterday morning.
All the networks stayed on all night Wednesday, with Rather of CBS anchoring until 3 a.m., and Brokaw of NBC staying on until he was relieved at 2:30. Ted Koppel arrived just in time to do "Nightline" Wednesday after his flight from Amman, Jordan, was delayed. He went before the camera in such a rush that Jennings had to brief him on the air about what had happened.
Although pictures from the front were extremely scarce, there was the occasional gripping graphic moment. Taped footage from Iraqi TV of Saddam Hussein kneeling on a prayer rug and talking calmly to military aides was accompanied on CNN by the counterpoint of air raid sirens wailing in Baghdad. Reporter John Holliman was holding his microphone out the window.
It was only a few moments later that the line went dead.