Peter Jennings sat on the floor -- that's right, Peter Jennings sat on the floor -- to ask the kids in the studio how they felt about the war in the Persian Gulf.
"God made us all brothers and sisters," a little girl named Mary Kaye told him. "We shouldn't be fighting and killing each other, 'cause we're supposed to be brothers and sisters."
Moments like that, and there weren't many of them, seemed to justify the latest innovation (some would say gimmick) in TV's ongoing, arguably overdoing, Persian Gulf coverage: A Child's Garden of War. Both ABC and NBC ran Saturday morning specials in which they endeavored to explain Operation Desert Storm to children and to answer their anxious questions.
It was ABC's idea; on the previous Saturday, Jennings anchored an impromptu special during which he addressed himself to kids. The performance earned considerable praise, so a more structured effort was planned. NBC jumped on the bandwagon.
The specials are virtual no-lose propositions for the two networks. Even if they didn't bring in as much revenue as regular Saturday morning fare, they qualify as smart public relations. So instead of funsy-dumb shows like "New Kids on the Block" on ABC and "Guys Next Door" on NBC (these networks do think alike), young viewers saw news specials.
CBS, third in network coverage of the war (fourth if you put it behind CNN), did nothing. For years, CBS led the networks with a regular Saturday feature, "In the News," offering youth-aimed news reports -- and there didn't have to be a war on, either. But like so much else at CBS News, this noble venture was the victim of maniacal budget-cutting.
Maybe there's a correlation, come to think of it, between the Draconian cuts imposed on the news division by CBS President Laurence A. Tisch, and by previous CBS management, and the fact that CBS has been taking king-size lumps for its war coverage. Today's economy moves can come back tomorrow like Marley's ghost.
ABC's Saturday morning show, "War in the Gulf: Answering Children's Questions," was beautifully and sensitively produced, and Jennings anchored it brilliantly. Even before he sat down on the floor, TV's snootiest anchor proved himself human by dealing intelligently and yet delicately with the kids. NBC's special, which came wrapped in a veritably interminable Saturday morning edition of the "Today" show, was stiff and static and sometimes embarrassingly lame.
If calming children's fears was one goal of the programs, it probably didn't help that NBC News reporter Katherine Couric, talking about the way Saddam Hussen dealt with political opposition in his own country, recalled that one Iraqi official who spoke against Saddam "was later cut up and sent in a plastic bag to his wife."
Mommy, Mommy! Is Saddam Hussein going to cut up Daddy and put him in a plastic bag? That's what the mean lady on TV said!
NBC also aired a promo during the program for a prime-time movie about the search for a serial killer.
Jennings was trying to soothe children, not terrify them. "We do not need to be frightened here," he said, when asked about possible bombing of U.S. targets by Iraq. "Between you and terrorists, there's an awful lot of protection," he said when the topic of terrorism came up.
He also said, of antiwar protests, "It's a very natural thing ... and a very honorable thing to do." A report from Saturday's protest march in Washington was not too honorable, however, since ABC let it appear that a demonstrator, Amy Laura Hall of Yale University, was an ABC correspondent.
She stood outdoors with a hand-held microphone telling young viewers that there were "tons of people here" protesting, "wanting to tell our president that we disagree with the fact that he sent mommies and daddies over to way-far-away to fight a war, and we're really hoping that he'll try to end that war as soon as possible and bring those mommies and daddies home."
By contrast, NBC's show played like an indoctrination session that not only gave wholehearted support to the war but, by implication, to Bush administration policies. At one point stolid co-anchor Garrick Utley (teamed with the equally starchy Mary Alice Williams) exclaimed that a question about preventing future wars was right in line with "what President Bush has been talking about -- a new world order."
Even NBC's phone-in number had a built-in promotional hook: 1-800-NBC-1-USA, an attempt, perhaps, to associate U.S. victory in the gulf with NBC's victory in prime-time ratings. The commercials interrupting NBC's program were aimed mainly at adults, unless kids are interested in Goodyear tires and Merrill Lynch these days, and this contributed to a sense that this great public service was mere window dressing.
For their part, however, the kids who phoned in to both networks asked good questions:
"What would happen if we run out of Patriot missiles?" (NBC). "What would happen if we ran out of Patriot missiles and if Saddam would still have the Scud missiles?" (ABC).
"Will this become a world war?" ("That's just not gonna happen," uttered Utley, not so convincingly).
"Could Saddam's missiles hit us?"
"Why isn't Israel attacking back?"
And this stumper from Sharon, 14, of Scottsdale, Ariz., to NBC: "Why are they bringing on the newscasts over and over again?"
Some of the questions and questioners sounded set up in advance. NBC had an awful lot of calls from New Jersey, two of them from the town of Toms River (home of a few NBC executives, perchance?). Some children were clearly reading material prepared by parents or other adults, like the boy who asked with suspicious formality about preventing more wars: "If the U.S. were to win the war in convincing fashion, would there be less likelihood of future wars?"
"In convincing fashion" does not sound like a little boy.
Both networks had experts on hand to supplement the answers of reporters and anchors, sometimes to little avail. Adm. William Crowe didn't adjust his terminology for young viewers, who may not have understood terms like "militarily insignificant" and "southern flank of NATO." ABC science correspondent Michael Guillen, on the other hand, did as good a job as could probably be done of explaining to children the difference between biological weapons, chemical weapons and nerve gas.
One caller to NBC asked about CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, missing for a week with his three-member crew. There was nothing new to report. On the subject of danger to journalists, Williams told correspondent Arthur Kent, piped in from Saudi Arabia, "We worry about you every day and pray for you every single night." Yesterday on "Face the Nation," Lesley Stahl said of Simon and his crew, "We're all praying for them."
Naturally everyone is concerned, but are these hardened reporters really praying? If so, that may be a scoop in itself.
Even NBC's show had its highlights. A child asked if reporters were ever scared. Kent, who has been perhaps the most-noticed new face among the reporters on the scene, said in response, "Sure, many of us are. And we would be silly not to be scared sometimes."
Near the end of Jennings's program, he took a question from Rachel of Albany, N.Y., who said, "I'd like to hear if terrorists can bomb us." Jennings was a bit taken aback. "Okey-dokey," he said, in preface to his answer.
Later, he reassured the young viewers, "Wars do end and most people who go to war come home from war." And while he allowed as how it was understandable that people would hate Saddam Hussein, he also said, "Let's not end up hating all the innocent people who are involved in the war as well."
Did ABC's special do any good? It probably didn't do any harm.