Webs send top talent to Somalia

As the U.S. military prepares to mobilize troops to help famine-ravaged Somalia, this nation’s broadcast networks are mobilizing their correspondents. Each of the Big Three has top talent on the way and CNN is beefing up its staffing in the eastern Africa nation.

CBS anchorman Dan Rather beat his network counterparts out of the country, leaving last night for the Somali capital of Mogadishu with the intention of being back on the air for tonight’s telecast of “The CBS Evening News.”

At NBC, Tom Brokaw left for Mogadishu after last night’s “NightlyNews” and plans to anchor the news from Somalia on Monday night. According to an NBC News spokeswoman, Brokaw could file reports as early as this weekend.

NBC also has correspondents Martin Fletcher and Keith Miller headed for the African country.

ABC plans call for Ted Koppel and “Nightline” executive producer Tom Bettag to fly this weekend to Somalia, where they intend to do the show live for at least a week, according to a spokeswoman. In addition to Koppel, the network will have five correspondents, five crews and other support staff there. “World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings will stay put.

CNN, meanwhile, is beefing up its talent in the region, including the addition of Mideast correspondent Brent Sadler, Mideast bureau chief Gary Streiker and correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who is leaving Sarajevo for Africa.

The networks are responding to the U.S.-led humanitarian mission to put a stop to Somalian bandits and get food to hundreds of thousands of starving Somalis. Some 28,000 American troops, as well as troops from other United Nations members, are expected to aid in the mission.

Covering the Somali situation is going to be a demanding task. Each will be required to ship in everything from the technical aspects to the basic necessities needed to sustain life. There are no fancy hotels to use as headquarters, and many of the houses the webs will use along the way are without power and water.

More important, the networks will need armed security to protect them from the same roaming bandits that will be the target of the military effort.

Many news insiders consider the Somali situation much more treacherous than was the case with the Persian Gulf because there is no government in charge.

“We’re shipping in more than a ton of equipment and supplies said Eason Jordan, VP of international newsgathering for CNN. “It’s not an easy story to cover … it’s going to be a tough go.” Jordan said the available housing and supplies in Somalia are primitive at best.

Dr. Bob Arnot, who appears on “CBS This Morning” and filed reports from Somalia last summer, already knows firsthand the potential for violence. While in the country, Arnot and his crew were approached by gunmen as they packed up their equipment. The bandits made off with the generator and left when Arnot and the crew started singing Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.”

In addition to Arnot, CBS is sending war veterans Bob McKeown who will report for “Street Stories,” and Bob Simon, who will report for CBS News. Simon, an experienced correspondent, was captured by Iraqi soldiers during the Persian Gulf War. Rome-based correspondent Allen Pizzy will also enter Somalia.

It won’t be clear what any of the networks can do until all of the equipment has been set up. Earlier this week, the three networks and CNN discussed creating some sort of pool to cover Somalia, but those talks ended without an agreement. Now each is planning on going alone. Currently there are no plans for military-supervised and organized pools such as those used in the Persian Gulf, although the situation could change.

The time difference–eight hours–will not work in the networks’ favor either. To do live shots for the morning news programs, the anchors and reporters will have to stand outside in the dark. Not a wise idea, say those planning the coverage. Snipers are more likely to fire on a brightly lit set in an area without electricity.

However, the costs of covering Somalia are not expected to reach the heights of the Persian Gulf War. During the Gulf War, the networks were each spending upwards of $ 1 million a day. According to CNN’s Jordan, CNN will spend somewhere between $ 200,000 and $ 300,000 for the first week’s coverage out of Africa.

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