War coverage is becoming war culture, thanks to television. The story didn't let up much over the weekend, and neither did the networks. In the process, the reporting seemed to get sloppier, the journalistic decisions shakier, the tension greater.
The dramatic high point of yesterday afternoon's coverage was probably a frantic report from NBC's Arthur Kent in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, during a Scud missile attack. Kent didn't know he could be heard on the air and shouted, "Get me audio!" as the sirens wailed and the missiles approached. He could be seen on camera pointing to the streak of a missile in the sky.
Later, Scott Pelley materialized from Dhahran on CBS shouting through his gas mask, "The air base here is under attack!"
As of yesterday CNN was the last American network to have a reporter (plus a producer and cameraman) in Baghdad, all the others having been thrown out. With Peter Arnett remaining behind, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman, the other heroes of CNN's earlier coverage, arrived in Washington and appeared last night on a special edition of CNN's "Larry King Live."
A banner greeted Shaw at CNN's Washington bureau: "Welcome Back, Bernie," it said, and he was given a standing ovation by members of the staff when he walked into the newsroom. But troubling questions were being raised by CNN's continuing Baghdad presence. All of Arnett's reports were now being reviewed by Iraqi censors, clouding their credibility and diluting their value.
In addition, CNN aired audio soundtracks from what Iraqi TV called "interviews" with American prisoners of war captured in air attacks. One of the pilots said, "I think our leaders and our people have wrongly attacked the peaceful people of Iraq." CNN noted the interviews were "recorded in captivity" and "cleared by Iraqi censors," but were these propaganda broadcasts really news?
ABC refused to air the audio tapes. In a special report yesterday afternoon, Diane Sawyer told viewers the reason they weren't being played was because of news division policy.
"We have had a lot of experience with statements made by people who are being held against their will, including hostages in Lebanon," Sawyer told viewers. "We want to be especially careful because the words they use are often not their own. They are often forced to read statements under threat of their lives."
A statement issued in New York said, "ABC News will be careful not to do anything that either endangers the well-being of Americans in captivity or furthers the aims of those holding them."
CNN officials, meanwhile, were not wildly receptive to a suggestion that since they had the only remaining American journalistic presence in Baghdad, all Arnett's reports should be considered pool reports, available to other news organizations.
"That's not something we would be anxious to do," said CNN Washington bureau chief Bill Headline. "It was CNN's initiative that got Peter in there, and it was his determination to stay that keeps him there still.
"I do believe that there can come a point in the business of broadcasting when the interests of the public are better served by sharing a resource like that, but it would be under extraordinary circumstances and I don't see such a circumstance arising."
The idea will become moot, of course, if Arnett is thrown out soon, but Headline says that as things look now, he will be allowed to stay.
With its uncensored link severed, CNN lost its air superiority, and coverage on all networks seemed to even up. CBS came from behind and scored strongly with Friday and Saturday prime-time specials anchored by Dan Rather. Friday's, at 8 p.m., actually earned better ratings in a 25-market "overnight" sampling than did a special Friday-night edition of NBC's popular "Cosby Show" that aired opposite it.
The special included an interview from Paris with Iraq's ambassador to France, Abdul Razzak Hashenu, who told Rather that Israeli planes had participated in raids on Baghdad and that he could prove it. "We will be interested in seeing that documentation," Rather said coolly. The charge was later dismissed as "ludicrous" by Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval on the same broadcast.
Preliminary ratings indicate that the public is not tiring of war news, but that with real-life trauma so omnipresent, the appetite for escapist entertainment may be down. Something of a pall hung over the NFL games on NBC and CBS yesterday, both interrupted for news reports and both including shots of fans in the stands waving American flags and brandishing anti-Iraq placards.
The war was everywhere and there was no escaping it, except on cable, where, but for CNN and C-SPAN, the usual routine of fluff and babble continued unabated. In an unprecedented move, however, Showtime, a pay cable network, has begun airing occasional updates on the gulf war produced by All-News Channel, a syndicated service.
More and more, reporting was fragmentary and unreliable. Rather told viewers at 4 p.m. yesterday that two Scud missiles had been intercepted by anti-missile Patriots before hitting Saudi Arabia. Only moments later, CNN's Wolf Blitzer said there had been three Scuds, "not two, as earlier announced."
Later, Rather amended his estimate to "three Scuds knocked out of the sky" as well. He narrated footage of the missiles being intercepted: "There's one! Boom, down goes the Scud." On CNN, a British Ministry of Defense officer declared at a briefing, "It's been urgently necessary to deal with the Scuds ... to hunt the Scuds down ... and kill them."
The Scuds. Sewer-dwelling mutants from Mars? A punk rock group? A new war brings a new lexicon -- some of the pilots are now calling themselves "Scudbusters" -- although the British official sounded much like an RAF commander in an old World War II movie. Coverage has been haunted by such eerie echoes of wars past.
The American fighter pilot, our new national cowboy, behaves on camera much as one would expect. One pilot, arriving exhilarated from a bombing mission, smiled when he saw the TV crew and said, "I've been very fortunate. I've had a really swell life. The Lord blessed me with a good woman, and made me an American fighter pilot."
Allied commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf made the rounds of the Sunday TV talk shows, and did another great public relations job. He seemed irked by a comment from Cokie Roberts on "This Week With David Brinkley" about how, in the aerial combat footage released so far, warfare looked like fun and not horror. Schwarzkopf said it was being taken very seriously and that there was no time for "frivolity."
And yet time was found even on the Brinkley show. The closing round-table discussion was fairly jovial and earlier, Sam Donaldson in Saudi Arabia waxed lyrical, sort of, when speculating on the seeming disappearance of Saddam Hussein. "He seems to have folded like a wet banana," said Sam.
On some of the talk shows, participants came off a bit like little boys playing soldier, and throughout the coverage, women reporters and anchors have been largely pushed aside so the menfolk could take over. In one case, this may have been just as well; Connie Chung, on CBS, has looked a trifle uneasy when anchoring lately.
But Sawyer did a first-rate job anchoring ABC's news yesterday -- Peter Jennings finally getting a day off -- and on CNN, anchors like Mary Anne Loughlin and Catherine Crier have been steady and solid. As for Lesley Stahl and yesterday's edition of "Face the Nation" on CBS, it might be noted that both Schwarzkopf and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens were very patient with her. Very patient indeed.
One looks for signs of war in every corner of the television schedule, and often finds it. There appears to be, thus far, no new Iraqi villain in the pro wrestling world, as there were Iranian villains during the hostage crisis, but it's surely only a matter of time. An announcer on Ted Turner's Atlanta-based SuperStation said Saturday that a wrestler had done to his opponent what America was going to do to Saddam Hussein.
Getting up in the morning and turning on the television set -- assuming one didn't stay up all night and watch CNN coverage -- has become a somewhat unnerving experience. On Saturday morning, it was a relief to turn on the TV and see the networks doing business as usual with their normal kidvid fare. That suggested there had been no overnight developments so catastrophic that they called for special reports.
Stupid cartoons never looked so good.