When war broke out in the Falkland Islands, a lone kelper happened to be stuck in a Buenos Aires hospital recovering from a broken foot. A CBS television producer discovered him and, within days, the young kelper was on his way home, provided with a Super 8 camera, an armful of film and a new title: war correspondent.
"We know his name, his phone number and his next of kin in England," said CBS bureau chief David Miller, half apologetically. "But we haven't heard from him since he left two months ago."
The extreme restrictions on the media's coverage of the Falkland Islands war allowed governments in Argentina and Britain to manage the news to an extraordinary degree. Each side had its own version of the number of dead, the number of ships sunk and planes down, and even of how the war finally ended.
Even as the battles raged, there was no television footage of the combat. The aircraft carrier Invincible was damaged, Argentina said. Britain denied it. Hospitals in Buenos Aires are full of wounded, but they can't talk to the press.
Originally, ABC television had considered chartering an oil tanker out of Sao Paulo and helicoptering around the South Atlantic to cover the battle. The idea was soon abandoned as too dangerous. Meanwhile, although about 700 journalists rushed to Argentina after the April invasion, none was allowed on the islands after the fighting began. A few British reporters landed with the British troops, but their dispatches have been heavily censored.
"Information is a weapon," says Navy Capt. Jose Maria Cohen, who teaches at the naval defense college here. "We know it and the British know it."
In the mini-newsroom CBS set up on the ninth floor of the Sheraton Hotel here, a note is pasted on the mirror: "Falklands weather: 202-763-8444." It is a Washington number for satellite weather service. The Argentine junta had issued a decree outlawing all weather reports from the islands.
No foreign journalists are allowed in the southern half of the country where military bases are located. To drive home the point, three British newsmen have been jailed in Ushuaia since early April. Argentine newsmen, however, travel south relatively freely.
Last week, when the fighting in the Middle East was broadcast here, the contrast was obvious. "The footage of the war in Lebanon had tanks, missiles, aircraft strafing, explosions, troops marching," said ABC newsman Barry Serafin. "The pictures from the Falklands are mostly men in foxholes giving thumbs up. There is nothing as graphic as that minute or two from the Middle East."
Argentine television is controlled by different branches of the military -- the army runs one channel, the air force another -- and radio is heavily censored. However, Argentines took to listening to Uruguayan radio, which gets BBC dispatches. Buenos Aires newspapers were running both British and Argentine versions of events.
Television had particular logistical problems. A satellite dish was mounted on the aircraft carrier Hermes to send pictures around the world. After setting sail, technicians discovered the ship's entire communications system would have to be shut down to operate the satellite. Dish and technician were unloaded at Ascension Island.
Last week, networks accustomed to frequent daily broadcasts on the Falklands crisis were severely restricted since part of the satellite time they had used was booked three years in advance for the World Cup soccer tournament. Argentine television is showing three games a day from Spain.
Louis Cooper, CBS' senior foreign producer, attributed the lack of access to information on the war to "a belief by both sides that this could become a media war." He added, rolling his eyes heavenward, "Do you know how many foreign media there are in Buenos Aires? Seven hundred. What would have happened if all at once we'd descended on 1,800 kelpers?"
Reporters here complain that stories from London get more space and better play than reports from Buenos Aires. "The lack of access (to information) in Argentina has skewed the coverage in favor of the British," said NBC correspondent George Lewis. "But there has been a good bit of disinformation on both sides. The British in World War II were masters at psychological warfare. This time they were saying there would be no D-Day-style landing and the next thing we know 5,000 men are pouring into San Carlos."
Miller, who was a CBS bureau chief in Vietnam, called the Falklands "the first file footage war" because of the lack of fresh pictures. "Vietnam was the first television war," he said. "Every night, by satellite, the U.S. could see that day's pictures. The vividness disturbed people. It changed people's opinion about the war."
But he added, "I don't think the press ever has access during a war. In Tel Aviv all tapes are shown to a military censor. In Vietnam, the U.S. military command made all newsmen agree not to show bodies of dead American soldiers. And we never did. Think of it! The war went on for years. One time they let us show coffins being off-loaded at Travis Air Force Base. But that was so powerful, it was never repeated."
U.S. media humanized the British side more than the Argentine side, many correspondents here said. One problem is the reluctance of many Argentines to appear on camera. Another is the language. One network correspondent suggested trying to get access to Argentine wounded -- the only people here who might tell what has happened on the islands. A producer rejected the idea, explaining, "I was told they speak Spanish."
Argentine officers have trooped through the Sheraton, at the invitation of network producers, to personally view the difference between television reports from London and Buenos Aires. But the only improvement so far was the last-minute initiation of British- style briefings on field action.
"It's incomprehensible how thick they are when it comes to dealing with the press," said CBS newsman Charles Krause. "When the British sunk the Belgrano, they should have flown us to Ushuaia to meet the survivors. It was in their interest to have the world see those poor boys who'd been tossed around in the freezing water. Then they should have flown us to Comodoro to see them reunited with their families. There's nothing more powerful than a woman crying on television. It would have grabbed people's sympathy."
Last week, just such a vivid story came out of Britain when survivors disembarked from the QE2 at Southampton.
Networks covering the annual independence day celebration three weeks ago asked for last year's footage from Argentine television. It arrived with gaping holes where all shots of government officials had been excised. Last year, a different junta was in power.
The restrictions presented particular problems for the networks, who each have some 40 correspondents, producers, editors, cameramen, sound men and translators holed up in the Sheraton, 1,400 miles from the battlefield, at a cost of up to half a million dollars a week, by some estimates.
Television needs pictures to tell the story. The only pictures officially available from the islands were heavily censored footage from a government television station, of marginal quality and without specific dates or locations.
A mysterious second source, however -- a small film company with a crew on the islands -- was quietly selling occasional video, setting off a fierce bidding war between the networks for exclusive rights, with prices running over $10,000 for what ends up as a clip of a few seconds on the evening news.
"Every so often you get a strange call and you go to an office and get a chance to bid," said NBC bureau chief Arthur Lord.
All three networks refuse to divulge the name of the source or the price paid for their film. One television newman said the company, which has crews in several countries, appears to be a front for Argentine military intelligence. Another described it as merely "a small-time photo agency who happened to get lucky."
So hungry for news was the Falklands press corps here, fed on a diet of sparse communiques and with severely limited access to military officials, that the networks mounted stakeouts at both doors of the foreign ministry for the chance to shoot Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez climbing in and out of his car. Sometimes they staked out his home. For weeks, crews staked out the presidential palace too, but only Argentine cameramen were allowed next to the entrance while U.S. crews had to stand across the street.
"The papal envoy showed up and just then a bus went by," Lord said. "The Soviet ambassador came and another bus passed by. The crews returned weeping. So for morale, I stopped sending them." Lord wears his Periodista No Dispare T-shirt -- for "Journalist -- Don't Shoot" -- a remembrance of livelier days in El Salvador.
The atmosphere of unreality was dubbed the "bozo zone" by weary journalists who have scribbled verses and comments in an "Ode to the Bozo Zone" tacked on the CBS newsroom wall: We have come from around the world
We have traveled far from our home
To a land that's called Argentina
To a story that takes place in the Bozo Zone . . . In the Bozo Zone: Reporters see a conspiracy around every bend. The Hermes has sunk. Reporters are kidnaped by men in suits. They are found later naked standing on street corners. The Canberra has sunk. In the Bozo Zone: One asks an official a question in English, but he answers in Spanish. A communique is issued, but all reporters and producers are out having dinner at the same restaurant . . . In the Bozo Zone: there are no casualties despite reports of heavy fighting. In the Bozo Zone: all days of the week are named tomorrow . . . We all thought it would last for a week
The storm will fade, we intoned
But the pope wants to pray in the Pampas
Stuck . . . in the Bozo Zone.