For CNN, yesterday was one long chorus of "Saddam That Got Away."
The all-news network's much-ballyhooed interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, videotaped by an Iraqi crew in Baghdad on Monday with CNN correspondent Peter Arnett asking the questions, still hadn't aired more than 24 hours after CNN announced it had obtained it.
At 4:24 p.m., four minutes of video did show up, with Saddam sitting in a white and gold chair that looked like a throne -- or something one would see in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel. He was wearing a formal suit, a moderately festive necktie and an unmatching silk pocket handkerchief. He looked creepy but calm.
Saddam rambled on to Arnett about God and war and the countries allied against him, not making a great deal of sense. After the excerpt was shown, a CNN anchor trumpeted that this had been "the first video transmission by a Western news agency since the war began." It was soon interrupted, however, by what CNN said was an air raid in Baghdad.
There were additional dribs and drabs from the interview at 5 and 6 p.m.
"It's been a nightmare," said Ed Turner, CNN executive vice president, later. "We've been trying to feed the interview out of Baghdad all day and we keep getting shot down by air raids."
The sporadic glimpses of Saddam amounted to a fizzle after repeated announcements in preceding hours that the full-length video was forthcoming, any minute now. On Monday evening, anchor Bernard Shaw told viewers the interview would probably air near "daybreak" on Tuesday. At midnight, viewers were advised to watch for it about 8 a.m.
But at 9 a.m. yesterday, there was still no video. CNN anchor Lou Waters promised it "within the hour."
At least by this time CNN had a phone conversation with Arnett, which aired live at 6:28 a.m. and was replayed during the day. Arnett, the only Western reporter in Baghdad, talked about his meeting with Saddam and repeated what seemed the biggest news in the interview, the dictator's claim that he could and perhaps would affix chemical, biological or nuclear warheads to his infamous Scud missiles.
In the 5 p.m. segment of the interview, Saddam praised as "noble souls" those who were demonstrating against the war in the United States and in other countries currently allied against Iraq. CNN anchor Donna Kelley said it was hoped the full interview would finally be broadcast later in the evening.
Then, just before 7 p.m. yesterday, CNN announced that the entire interview was scheduled to air at 11 p.m., after coverage of President Bush's State of the Union address.
Lisa Dallos, CNN's Washington spokeswoman, said technical problems were to blame for the long delay in televising the interview. A portable satellite uplink device known as a "flyaway" had to be taken to Baghdad from Amman, Jordan, on a flatbed truck, with five more CNN crew members joining Arnett to rig the device for transmission.
Then it became a matter of aiming the portable satellite dish 23,000 miles out into space to the correct transponder of the correct satellite that would beam the image back to Atlanta for broadcast on CNN. This is, apparently, what took hours and hours to accomplish.
The good news for CNN, which has managed to maintain a competitive edge over the broadcast networks since the war began, was that once established, the "flyaway" link would be able to provide live pictures as well as audio reports out of Baghdad for the first time in the war. Any such reports, of course, would have to be sent with the blessings and at the discretion of the Iraqi government.
One day before war erupted, former NBC News president Reuven Frank predicted that Saddam Hussein would use satellite technology to beam himself back to TV viewers in the United States, over the heads of military and government leaders. "He'll punch himself up ... any time he wants to get on the air," Frank said.
Apprised yesterday that this prediction was virtually coming true, Frank said he was not surprised. It would be "silly," Frank said, for CNN to boast that Arnett "got" the interview with Saddam, since Saddam had to think it was to his own benefit to talk. "Arnett handled himself perfectly," Frank said, "but he should remember he's there because he is a channel, Saddam's channel to the United States and to everywhere else."
In one of the interview segments, Arnett could be heard telling Saddam, "You have invited me and CNN here to talk to you tonight." Then he asked Saddam what "impact" he hoped to have with the appearance. Saddam said through his interpreter that he wanted to "tell the Americans that we wish them well and desire that none of their sons will die... ."
Thus is the channel established: Saddamovision, a video beam to the hearts and minds of the American people.
"I don't think it is necessarily bad, but that is why CNN is allowed to stay there," Frank said. "It is neither virtuous nor despicable; it just is. CNN is there because Saddam Hussein wants them there. He is serving his own interest."
Some of CNN's competitors are not so charitable, however. They label CNN "Iraq's house network" and say Arnett and CNN are being used by the Iraqis -- that, indeed, if they were not considered to be of use, they wouldn't be allowed to transmit. But of course, even the critics at the other networks say they wish the man in Baghdad were theirs and not CNN's.
CNN's Turner defended using the material out of Baghdad, even if the Iraqis were controlling it. "Some video, properly couched, is better than none," Turner said. "Had we not been present, it seems unlikely we would have gotten the interview. It's always interesting and important to see what the adversary has to say."
Turner said Arnett has mentioned on the air that the Iraqis seem to be "taking a very light-handed approach" to the censoring. "The Iraqis have been surprisingly lenient," Turner said. "Hell, yes, we can be used, but Peter is there to report on their side."
CNN does label material out of Baghdad with the on-screen disclaimer "Cleared by Iraqi censors," but it also labels material out of Saudi Arabia "Cleared by the U.S. military" and reports out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem "Cleared by Israeli censors." It makes it look as though all these sources are somehow equal -- that Iraq is allowing as much freedom to the press as the allies are.
It also implies that reports from all these sources are of equal credibility, when there is in fact no way of knowing if there is any truth to the reports from Baghdad.
Arnett's report last week that U.S. bombs hit a baby formula factory were denounced by U.S. officials including White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. That was no baby formula factory, they said, that was a biological weapons plant.
Disclaimers are waved so often in the viewer's face that they become meaningless anyway. CNN even puts disclaimers on random "bumper" shots that precede commercial breaks. The tactic became ludicrous Monday and yesterday when CNN was labeling innocuous shots of an oil-covered bird from Saddam's oil spill as having been "cleared by U.S. military."
Other than the interview excerpts it showed yesterday, CNN's coverage was largely a matter of filling, and killing, time: more military briefings, even an ecological briefing from Saudi Arabia, and repeated reports on the giant human flag formed by pro-war demonstrators in San Diego.
Frank said that CNN is gaining ad revenue from the war coverage while the other networks are losing it, because sponsors are bailing out of even entertainment shows, and preemptions for news specials have been common and costly.
Paul Schulman, who buys commercial time for advertising agencies in New York, said the war has been a "bonanza" for CNN only to the extent that the network is delivering much higher ratings than it guaranteed advertisers when they originally committed to buying time, before the war began.
There has been no mad rush to buy time on CNN, Schulman said, but sponsors who had already booked commercials are getting a great deal for their money, since it was sold on the basis of ratings projections that were way too low.
"What keeps it from being a bonanza for anybody is that there's no one out there with heavy money right now," Schulman said. "People are very cautious. Advertisers are just not committing money."
Will the high profile attained by CNN during the war translate into more viewers and more advertisers afterward? "People knew what CNN was all about previously," Schulman said. "When the war ends, and let's hope it's soon, people will go back to normal viewing habits. I don't see a big change. But all the attention CNN has gotten certainly cannot hurt them."