TV Coverage Of Persian War Wouldn’t Be Magic Carpet Ride

As war clouds gather in the Persian Gulf, network news divisions and CNN are facing a host of obstacles beyond the usual dangers and logistical nightmares of battle coverage.

“If there is a war, it’ll probably be the most difficult war for television, and probably for print as well, to cover,” said NBC News prexy Michael Gartner. “Already, when you feed out of Baghdad, there’s a censor at your elbow.”

Aside from safety, reporters’ greatest worry is getting access to the desert locations where much of the fighting would be likely to occur. News execs last week expressed concern about the freedom their staffs will be permitted by the Pentagon and by the Saudi and Iraqi governments.

On Jan. 4, Defense Dept. officials presented tv and print news execs with a six-page list of “what we won’t be allowed to do,”

according to one participant in the Pentagon meeting. The proposed guidelines included a ban on interviews with soldiers without a military escort present, and a prohibition on photographing the wounded.

Last week, media representatives had negotiated the list of restrictions down to three pages. However, all battle coverage will still be allowed only with military escorts present, and will be subject to “security review” by military public affairs officers.

The presidents of all three network news divisions and CNN jointly protested the revised guidelines in a Jan. 9 letter addressed to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. “We object in the strongest possible terms,” they wrote, “to the so-called ‘security review’ provisions that set up cumbersome barriers to timely and responsible reporting and raise the specter of government censorship of a free press.”

Pentagon officials reportedly have warned news execs that, should war come, tv crews will not have the graphic freedom they had in Vietnam to tape actual combat: “We were told in no uncertain terms that we’re not going to be allowed to lose this war for them the way we did Vietnam,” said one network news spokesperson.

NBC execs were especially uncertain about Saudi cooperation last week after broadcasting a graphic report on torture in Saudi prisons on the primetime investigative show “Expose” on Jan. 6. “The timing of that piece wasn’t great,” admitted NBC deputy news director Robert McFarland. “But you can’t hold back on the news.”

McFarland added that one potential dilemma will be figuring out who is responsible for impeding tv coverage if they have difficulties. “The Pentagon will be able to blame it on the Saudis, and we may not know whether they’re telling the truth,” he said.

Other news execs expressed general satisfaction with Pentagon cooperation to date. “It’s been as good as it can possibly be,” said ABC News v.p. Jeff Gralnick. If combat starts, Gralnick added, “we’ve been given assurances that they will set up a series of pools and endeavor to get the press as far forward as they possibly can.”

Adding to the crisis atmosphere, news budgets remain at their highest levels in years. The amount spent each week on Persian Gulf coverage alone has been hovering at about $500,000 for each net during the past two months of stalemate. But as the U.N.’s Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawl from Kuwait approaches, weekly expenses in the Gulf have leaped to about $1 million per network – close to a 20% increase over their average overall news expenditures.

CNN is looking at the same high numbers. Says CNN executive v.p. Ed Turner, “Based on what we anticipate doing, the cost of covering a Gulf war will be about $1 million a week.” Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, CNN has spent an average of $1 million per month on Gulf coverage.

Strains on tv news resources will grow even more onerous in the event of war. All three nets claim to be prepared to provide “continuous, around-the-clock” coverage of hostilities.

While all of the news divisions quickly expanded their presence in the region last week – by some estimates, almost tripling their Mideast staffs by Jan. 14 – a few high-risk locations are being assigned on a volunteer basis. “At CBS News, we have a long tradition of not sending anyone to a war zone without their being pure volunteers,” says CBS News v.p. Don DeCesare. “But we don’t have to get into those kinds of conversations, because we’ve had no end of volunteers.”

In this era of anchor mobility, all the nets also find themselves wrestling with whether to send their top men near harm’s way. CBS’ Dan Rather flew to Baghdad last weekend and was back in New York at week’s end, NBC’s Tom Brokaw went from the Baker-Aziz meeting in Geneva to the Mideast (also returning by the weekend), while ABC’s Peter Jennings remained in New York. “Nightline’s” Ted Koppel flew to Geneva and on to the Gulf region.

“Our present thinking is that if a war starts we will keep Peter [Jennings] at a New York anchor desk where he can coherently collate information,” said Gralnick. “We think it’s better to be at the hub of a wheel than out at the end of one of the spokes.”

NBC foreign editor David Miller visited Baghdad in late December to assess the safety of keeping employees in the city in the event of battle. Having concluded that adequate shelter exists beneath the hotel where reporters are staying (only three blocks from the presidential palace), NBC plans to leave its Baghdad staff in place beyond Jan. 15. News execs at ABC, CBS and CNN said they will continue to review staff safety as events develop.

Some newsmen anticipate that transmissions from Saudi Arabia and Iraq will be blacked out in the first days of a military engagement. Backup facilities in Israel, Jordan and Dubai are being readied in anticipation.

“We have been assured by the Saudis that they have no intention of blacking us out,” says DeCesare. “But we’ve also been very careful to go over all of the technical details of what we’re doing with them, so that they can’t say later, ‘Well, we would have let you transmit, but you were on the wrong frequency.'”

Ultimately, news execs concede that much of their planning may fall by the wayside if combat erupts. “This is war, not a game, not Nintendo,” said Gralnick. “I’ve been in combat and covered combat before. You make a lot of plans, but what happens, happens.”

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