War has quickly become a fact of television, and yesterday, on the third day of marathon war coverage by the networks, there was behind-the-scenes warring about what the facts were.
The Persian Gulf war also made its first real visual impact on the air when black-and-white footage taken by nose-cone cameras in U.S. planes as they bombed Iraqi targets was released at a military briefing. And spectacular shots of Wednesday night's bombing of Baghdad, taken by a resourceful ABC cameraman, also got wide circulation on the air.
In addition to battles on the screen, network journalists were engaging in skirmishes of their own.
Even as CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, reporter John Holliman and other journalists fled Baghdad and were making their way across the Iraqi desert to Jordan by car-and-truck caravan, reporter Tom Aspell, an NBC freelancer still in Baghdad, was on the air by telephone complaining about unfair advantages that have allegedly helped make CNN's coverage the most talked-about in the country.
"One American television network, CNN, is getting preferential treatment from the Iraqi government," Aspell charged, "and has frequent communication with the outside world. Last night, when told to sever the link or share it, they elected to cut it." The "link" Aspell referred to is a dedicated line called a "four-wire" that operates outside the regular phone system. Until the plug was pulled Thursday morning by the Iraqis, the line had enabled CNN to out-report all the other networks with regular audio dispatches from Shaw and Holliman and from reporter Peter Arnett, who remained behind in Baghdad yesterday when the others left.
Ed Turner, CNN executive vice president, dismissed Aspell's charges as well as others made by network sources who asked not to be identified. Those sources claimed CNN was getting its "preferential treatment" from Iraqi authorities partly because CNN had supplied Iraq with free satellite equipment and had paid the government large fees to establish a bureau in Baghdad before the war began.
"I think that correspondent, finding himself outplanned and outmanned, was having a tantrum on the air," Turner said of the Aspell charges, which he referred to as "whining" in an earlier statement. "It's not true" that CNN shut down the four-wire rather than share it with the other networks, Turner said. "Faced with that alternative, we would share our reporting, but that was not an option and never has been."
Asked for his opinion on the dispute, Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News," said without hesitation, "We stick with our guy. Why would he say it if it wasn't true?"
Turner did concede that CNN rebuffed entreaties from the other networks to give them access to the prized four-wire. "We have a competitive advantage which we're not going to share with the competition," Turner said. He also denied that CNN had given satellite equipment to the Iraqis as a way of getting a foot in the door.
"Not true. We don't have equipment to give away. We're not in that business," Turner said. As for fees, Turner said it was "common practice" in the Middle East for countries to charge fees of up to $75,000 a month for access to satellite uplinks but that no such fees were being paid to the Iraqis by CNN at this time.
Turner said the stories were spread because competitors were jealous.
"We have outgunned them and out-lobbied them on getting the four-wire into Baghdad, and they just can't stand that," Turner scoffed. "If they had a four-wire, I can just see them letting me use it!"
Shaw and Holliman, meanwhile, resurfaced on CNN at 8 p.m. by satellite from Amman. They sat in a small studio and told war stories to anchor David French in Washington. Holliman said they'd been stopped 15 times by Iraqi military officials on their way to Jordan. Shaw said the Iraqis had confiscated videotaped footage of the Baghdad bombing and the cameras that shot it, "and there was nothing we could do about it."
Shaw said he was tired and hungry and needed a shower; he'd been living largely on candy bars bought in Takoma Park, where he lives. French told the two reporters, "I was in awe of your work that night."
CNN was also boasting about Nielsen ratings that showed it out-rating the conventional networks in cable homes; cable covers about 60 percent of the country. In national Nielsens of all TV households, ABC was leading with its coverage, with NBC second and CBS, generally considered to have lagged behind in the early stages of the story, coming up last.
ABC, CBS and NBC had hoped to go back to entertainment programming Thursday night, but when Iraqi missiles rained down on Israel, the plans changed. Last night the three networks aired a mix of entertainment shows with special reports; NBC showed the episode of its high-rated "Cosby Show" that had been preempted Thursday. All the networks returned to news after midnight when another missile attack on Tel Aviv was reported.
Spokesmen also said there had been talks with the National Football League about possibly postponing this weekend's games if the war heats up, although "the NFL is not eager to do it," a network executive noted.
That war is Hell was becoming achingly clear to the networks, since the continuing coverage was costing each of them up to $6 million a day in lost revenue -- in addition to the expenses of coverage.
Network sources responded, too, to criticism that some reporting has been sloppy and that misinformation has been rampant on the air. NBC reported Thursday night that 12 people had been treated for nerve gas in the Iraqi attack on Israel, but it was later found that the missiles had not contained any chemical warfare components and the reports were false.
NBC said it had gotten the information from Israeli radio and an Israeli hospital and that it was corrected on the air as soon as possible.
Wolf Blitzer, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, repeatedly told viewers that the Republican Guard, Saddam Hussein's private army, was "decimated" by the U.S. missile strike, though there is apparently no foundation for the claim. Turner said yesterday that Blitzer eventually retracted the story on the air and that the mistake was "old news."
There is, of course, bound to be misinformation when the news-gathering process occurs on the air, before the eyes of fascinated, sometimes irritated, viewers. Just after 5 p.m. yesterday, CNN viewers, and Atlanta anchor Lou Waters, heard correspondent Richard Blystone in Israel shouting, "Come to us! Come to Tel Aviv!" because Blystone saw something -- he knew not what -- streaking across the Israeli sky.
"We don't know what it is, but it sure looks strange," Blystone exclaimed as the camera panned up to a white light moving from right to left. "It looked like some sort of flash, some sort of light," said Blitzer from the Pentagon, stating the painfully obvious. Then CNN cut to Charles Jaco in eastern Saudi Arabia, who said people were taking cover there based on Blystone's panicky report, even though no air raid sirens were sounding.
"Sorry to alarm you, folks," Blystone said sheepishly at 5:43 p.m., still having failed to identify the flying object. On the "CBS Evening News," Tom Fenton in Tel Aviv reported that the cause of all the fuss had turned out to be an old Soviet satellite reentering the atmosphere.
The nose-cone footage had been shown much earlier, at a press briefing conducted by Lt. Gen. Charles Horner and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander; CNN's John Sweeney, from Riyadh where the briefing was held, accurately compared it to "a lethal version of an arcade video game." There was no audio, just the overhead views from the planes of vaguely outlined targets on the ground. "This is my counterpart's headquarters in Baghdad," said Horner, calmly narrating, as a gray building blew up.
Reporters on the scene chuckled.
The laser-guided bombs could be sent into a building's air shaft and blow it up that way, Horner explained -- and the footage brought to mind the climactic Death Star attack from "Star Wars," when Luke Skywalker dropped explosives into an air shaft on his crucial bombing run. "Just like Beggar's Canyon back home," Luke said.
CNN showed examples of the inevitable graffiti scrawled on bombs. The most graphic, and perhaps the most identifiably American, was "Bend over, Saddam!"
Horner was another of the authority figures appearing on television who seemed certain to inspire confidence in viewers. The same was true of Schwarzkopf, nearly a dead ringer for NBC weatherman Willard Scott, who early in the day referred to bombing raids on Iraq as "errands" when reporting cloudy skies in the Mideast.
George Bush also has emerged as someone who comes through in a crisis. Repeating the assessment Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had delivered the day before, Bush said, "So far, so good," in a press briefing held just after noon, "37 hours into Operation Desert Storm." Bush said he was "somewhat concerned about the initial euphoria" in news reports about the war and warned of darker days ahead.
Bush seemed more assured and reassuring than he usually does in his television appearances. One couldn't help but be impressed with the conduct of the war thus far -- with the seeming triumph of American know-how; with the efficiency and precision of the costly, high-tech weaponry; and with the dedication and spirit of American military personnel.
Of course, strict censorship was still in effect. The only bombing missions viewers saw were the successful ones. Claims by Iraq of having downed more than 70 allied bombers were dismissed, but the press could not make an independent estimate.
Horner was asked at the briefing if TV news reports had been helpful to him. "I don't have a TV set in the command center," Horner said, but after looking at videotapes of the coverage, "I think I'm going to put a television set in."
If every network had weak spots, each also had strengths. Among the anchors, NBC's Tom Brokaw was remarkable for his tirelessness, CBS's Dan Rather was impressive with his passionate perseverance, and ABC's Peter Jennings displayed the most expertise on the Middle East.
There was the Jennings hauteur to contend with, of course, but even he had his rumpled human moments, as when he found himself linked by phone to the home of ABC radio correspondent Peter Frost, somewhere between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Frost wasn't home, it turned out, so Jennings talked with Frost's wife, Nicky, about what was happening in Israel.
To a large extent, the war on television remains largely a talk show. When the ABC footage of the Baghdad bombing raid was played, it became a light show. Though correspondents described the raid with words like "terrifying," on the air it looked eerily pretty, the infrared nighttime photography dying the picture a fuzzy green, as if this were all a fireworks display over the Emerald City.
Low points in coverage? There were many. The lowest was hit by a Washington area cable system, which ran a ticker tape "crawl" across the bottom of the CNN signal -- even during footage of the Baghdad bombing -- to advertise a forthcoming pay-per-view wrestling show called the "Royal Rumble." As a primordial depth of tastelessness, this one would be hard to beat.
Everyone was watching, everyone had complaints, and there was much to complain about. But asked for his assessment of the coverage so far, NBC's Friedman said, "The media has done a pretty good job." He'd hit the nail on the head, even if the networks' aim hadn't always been quite that good.