Peace, it was wonderful. Unfortunately it only lasted about two hours. That's how long it took for the networks to sober up and admit that their early reports of an imminent end to the Persian Gulf War were naught but a crock.
"I'm Bryant Gumbel here with Deborah Norville, and on this Friday, we greet you with some stunning news, some very hopeful news. Baghdad radio is reporting this morning that Iraq is prepared to withdraw from Kuwait."
So began NBC's "Today" show, but the "very hopeful news" had a big catch. Only the beginning of the lengthy statement from Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council had been translated. That was the part in which, for the first time, the prospect of withdrawing from occupied Kuwait was officially mentioned.
But this wee twig of an olive branch was soon followed by a long list of conditions that anyone familiar with the conflict could see would be unacceptable to the United States and its allies.
Harry Smith, co-anchor of "CBS This Morning," went the farthest out on a limb in the initial flush of misleading hoopla. "This war, for a lot of intents and purposes, is over," declared Smith from Saudi Arabia, adding indelicately that the Iraqis "have had the royal snot beaten out of them."
CNN anchor Molly McCoy read one of the first dispatches about the alleged peace proposal at 6:41 a.m. "The report is that Iraq is ready to cooperate with U.N. Security Council Resolution 660 for an honorable political solution in the gulf including a withdrawal from Kuwait," McCoy reported, quoting Agence France-Presse.
"That would be extremely, extremely important and significant," McCoy told viewers. Yes, it would have been. But, apparently, it wasn't.
Once more, TV viewers were hearing the news develop at the same time that government officials and journalists were, and once more, balloons were being floated, only to be burst. The problem isn't just that news reaches the air unedited; it's that it sometimes reaches the air unverified.
The manic-depressive morning caused by the reports recalled a similar occurrence on Jan. 9, when a long meeting between Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Secretary of State James Baker led the networks to believe, and report, that war in the gulf might very well be avoided.
It broke out a week later.
If only the TV anchors and correspondents would exercise more restraint when dealing with inherently tentative material. But they and we were all hungry for some news about the war, especially some good news, and so the bandwagon was jumped upon with more alacrity than was justified.
And when one news source reports something, it snowballs, as everyone else scrambles to push the story along.
In the course of this, the networks may have helped Saddam Hussein to his second propaganda victory of the week, the first being the bombing of a bunker in Baghdad in which hundreds of civilians had taken shelter.
Whatever his primitivism, Saddam knows television, and he knows that the power is in the pictures. All the apologies and explanations and military briefings in the world can't compete with the impact of seeing the bodies of women and children being carted out of rubble.
At 3 p.m. yesterday, CNN anchor Catherine Crier said hopes for peace that arose in the morning had by then been "dampened" by the allies. Had they been? Or had they been dampened by the list of conditions the Iraqis attached to the proposal in the first place, and which the networks were tardy in reporting?
Earlier in the day, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings called the first report from Baghdad radio a "quite stunning announcement" but also allowed as how this had been "a very confusing morning." Jennings was indeed confused, referring to correspondent Bill Blakemore in Baghdad as Bill Seamens, who was in Tel Aviv.
Jennings took over from "Good Morning, America" at 8 a.m. as ABC went into its special report mode in honor of the Iraqi development. "GMA" is co-produced by ABC Entertainment, whereas when Jennings takes over, that means ABC News is in charge.
Viewers kept hearing from Blakemore in Baghdad that there was "real jubilation" in the streets of the city over the radio report. "There's some kind of new mood here," Blakemore said. He amended his jubilation count, however, by saying citizens ran into the streets waving arms, and shooting off celebratory guns, before they heard the government's statement in its entirety.
To Blakemore's credit, he also told viewers in his first report on "GMA," just after 7 a.m., that the Iraqis were linking their promise to withdraw from Kuwait to such conditions as Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank.
Viewers didn't really hear all of the conditions enumerated until around 10 a.m., when CNN correspondent Steve Hurst very helpfully read them point by point from Moscow, where he'd gotten hold of a complete English translation. It was about this time that President Bush went on the air to take some of the wind out of the billowing sails by stating flatly, "There is nothing new. It is a hoax."
Had the networks been unintentional co-hoaxers? So it appeared.
Blakemore, meanwhile, exhibited a trace of what might be called Arnett's Syndrome, after CNN correspondent Peter Arnett and his seemingly inexhaustible concern for the welfare of the Iraqis. "The people here have been suffering under siege for a long time," Blakemore lamented from Baghdad, "and in other cities as well. We've heard of even in some cases hospitals hit... ."
Does "we've heard" now qualify as a reliable source, especially when what's heard is coming from the Iraqi government? If the networks are going to start putting every "we've heard" on the air, the disinformation level is going to rise to dizzying heights, if indeed it hasn't already.
Joanna Bistany, ABC News vice president, was asked yesterday if her network had handled the story cautiously and responsibly.
"Absolutely," Bistany said. "This entire conflict has been difficult for everyone -- television, print, everyone. Regarding today's situation, we've been very cautious and reflected whatever was out there in the news at the time."
Even as Jennings and correspondent Ann Compton waited for Bush to appear and shoot down the inordinately high hopes, however, ABC was trying to salvage a morsel of positivism. "It may not be a complete rejection" by the White House, Jennings said. "When the president speaks out about it, I don't think you'll hear the word 'reject,' " Compton chimed in.
Maybe you didn't hear the word "reject." But you did hear the words "cruel hoax."
Asked if the network newsies had jumped to conclusions that unreasonably raised hopes, Ed Turner, CNN executive vice president, said from Atlanta, "Your question is not altogether off the mark." But, he said, "that people get excited is an inevitable consequence" of such breaking news coverage.
The White House, after all, was as initially enthusiastic as the broadcasters, network spokesmen said. Of course it may have been as initially enthusiastic because it was hearing the news from the networks with the rest of us.
Is Turner happy with the way CNN handled the story? "Yes, I am," he said. "I wouldn't redo it. If nothing else, we were in aggressive pursuit of 'what does it all mean?' And it's better that the bad news, if that's what it is, comes quickly, than have it drag out for hours."
By the end of the day, the networks were fairly unanimously reporting that hopes for peace had been raised and then dashed. That's true. And they are the ones who raised and then dashed them.