News biz dons full-metal jacket

War will have lasting effect on U.S. media

The battle-strewn road to Baghdad has been as much a test for the media as for the U.S. military.

For the first time ever, journalists — a stunning 600 plus — accepted the Pentagon’s invite to “embed” with invading forces.

Also for the first time, CNN didn’t “own” the war and had to fight off stiff competiton from American and even foreign news providers.

Meanwhile, networks had to fork out big bucks to cover the opening weeks of the Iraqi war; magazines and newspapers had to figure out how to get ahead of the story; talent agents and book editors had to pinpoint and corral potential stars; moviemakers and TV producers had to reassess the public appetite for heavy fare, and for light entertainment.

And just as the military campaign has changed the role of the U.S. in world affairs, the war has forever altered a number of things for the American media:

  • The economics of television have been disrupted, raising questions about their willingness to continue withsaturation coverage of the next war phase;

  • The practice of embedding reporters has altered the relationship between journalists and their sources, raising expectations and concerns about access in the future;

  • The non-stop coverage has produced rising stars among reporters, anchors, even armchair generals. Some stars fell as quickly as they rose. On the plus side, all the TV cable nets enjoyed a sharp spike in audience ratings during the three-week-old war. Broadcast newscasts made gains the first week, but only NBC News was able to maintain an increase.

The Peacock’s performance rubbed off on its sister cable operation, MSNBC, helping to lift that newsie’s profile and energy level. NBC and MSNBC worked more closely than ever before, with NBC able to feed unused footage and live reports to the 24/7 cabler.

While still No. 3 on the cable side, MSNBC has seen a noteable surge in viewership since the war commenced March 19. NBC News’ and MSNBC’s performance may spark renewed debate about the advantage of merging a cable newsie and a broadcast news net, as CNN and ABC News had previously discussed.

As for other cablers, Fox News Channel has led the fray, further piercing the armor of rival CNN, which made its name reporting from Baghdad in the first Persian Gulf War 12 years ago.

In the days leading up to the war, broadcast nets had predicted that they would provide round-the-clock, commercial-free coverage for two or three days.

But when the White House’s “shock and awe” war opener fizzled, broadcast execs quickly decided to carry a combo of special news reports and regular programming.

That’s why broadcasters have generally weathered the war in good shape, with losses less than $100 million across all nets in the war’s first week. By contrast, news weeklies sustained a eyebrow-raising 60% drop in ad pages in the first three weeks of the conflict.However, geopolitical uncertainty — even as the combat phase of the war nears completion — is clouding the overall recovery in advertising, noted Bill Drewry, an analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston.

For their part, cable newsies spent tens of millions on the war and have no immediate plans to cut back on their coverage.

NBC and MSNBC are planning to open a Baghdad bureau. Fox News plans on having a substantial presence in Iraq. CNN already boasted a Baghdad bureau.

CNN late last week dispatched 40 staffers to its reopened bureau, including CNN Intl. anchor Jim Clancy, correspondents Christiane Amanpour and Nic Robertson., and bureau chief Jane Araff.

With the first phase of the war apparently over, there’s sure to be a debate over the Pentagon’s embedding program, one of Washington’s biggest public relations gambles ever.

“It’s been a pleasant surprise. When you have been in the news biz 25 years as I have, you have some cynicism embedded in your brain. But it turned out to be a total success,” Fox News veep for news programming John Stack says.

Despite a few naysayers who suggest that “embedding” is tantamount to being “in bed with,” newsies on the whole have embraced the opportunity, saying the access is worth any risk of being spun by the military.

“It will take some time to sort it all out, but I don’t think we can ever go back to no coverage, no access,” says Robin Sproul, Washington bureau chief for ABC News.

CNN correspondent Walter Rodgers, who was embedded with the Army’s 7th Cavalry, said he never felt he was under the thumb of a military minder. There was only one other journalist embedded with that front-line unit.

“It was a like being a kid in a toy store and having anything you want,” Rodgers told Variety in a phone interview from Baghdad.

“I would sometimes self-censor, but only when it regarded a military operation that hadn’t happended yet,” Rodgers said.

On a personal level, the cost of covering the war has been high. As of late last week, 11 journalists had died in Iraq, including two Americans — a large number when one considers that the toll among U.S. soldiers is about 100.

NBC’s David Bloom, one of the more impressive interpreters of the military action, died of an embolism on April 6 somewhere just south of Baghdad.

Several days before, Atlantic Monthly at-large editor and Washington Post syndicated columnist Michael Kelly died April 3 in a Humvee accident. Like Bloom, he was embedded with the 3rd Infantry.

“I don’t think any of us grasped how difficult it would be physically and emotionally,” CBS senior VP Marcie McGinnis adds. “But I feel strongly that the embedding process was good on the whole.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, those correspondents getting the most accolades are those embedded with the forward-most military unit, which has come to be called “the tip of the spear.”

ABC “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, embedded with the 3rd Infantry, is one of those frontline reporters. His dispassionate dispatches added much-needed context to some of the more urgent reports from his juniors and helped fuel his flagging “Nightline.”

True to his generation perhaps, Koppel also tended to be more well groomed than his sand-dusted, tousle-haired juniors.

Among the younger set, Fox News correspondent and former U.S. Marine Greg Kelly impressed with the immediacy and specificity of his reporting. Fox News reporter Rick Leventhal, likewise embedded on the fronlines, also drew attention

Correspondents trying to report independently on the war had much more trouble and created mini-crises for their nets back home.

In the days leading up to the onset of U.S. bombing, the Iraqi government banished Robertson, delivering a bitter blow to the cable newsie. The net had hoped to regain the ratings crown from Fox News with its war coverage.

NBC News had to vamp as well when Peter Arnett, who was technically on assignment with National Geographic Explorer (which airs on MSNBC) in Baghdad made a gaffe.

Arnett stunned Peacock honchos by going on state-controlled Iraqi TV and pronouncing the Pentagon’s war plan a failure. NBC cut Arnett loose, and has been without a Baghdad reporter ever since.

So it came to be that ABC was the only net to have a correspondent on the ground in Baghdad. Coming on board as a freelancer, Richard Engel has provided riveting exclusive reports, and has been picked up by top agent Richard Leibner.

CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, who made a daring drive across the desert for Baghdad last week, is also catching the eye of talent agents. She was what the Pentagon called “a unilateral,” a reporter who isn’t embedded.

Meanwhile back home, a veritable battalion of armchair generals and colonels have proliferated on all the newsies offering up their own instant analyses of the battle so far.

CNN has former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark and NBC boasts retired general Barry McCaffrey.

Most are on retainer and have exclusive arrangements with one network. Compensation starts at $5,000 a month, but the more stars on their shoulders, the more dough they can command.

Clark, who has boosted his profile through his TV gig, won’t discuss compensation, although he said he used New York agent Don Epstein to negotiate his contract with CNN. (Clarke is toying with the notion of running for the Democratic presidential nomination.)

Clark defends his, and every other American’s right, to critique the war. In fact, he believes it is an obligation of retired military officers to speak out to avoid the mistakes of conflicts like Vietnam.

“No one has a privileged claim or monopoly on wisdom,” Clark told Variety. “In a democratic society every government activity is subject to public review and comment and war is no different.”

Clark, who has so far turned down several book offers, estimates that about half of the generals appearing on air have agents representing them.

But Fox News exec producer Marty Ryan said their bookers simply approached the retired officers directly after seeing their quotes in print or their appearances on other shows.

The war coverage has also boosted the profile of three-star retired Air Force General Thomas McInerney, the highest-ranking military analyst working for Fox.

Straight-shooting and affable, McInerney says other networks are now courting him but he plans to stay with Fox.

“Other networks call for me, but I like Fox,” he told Variety. “Clearly the military analysis and the way that Fox covered this has propelled it to no. 1.”

Not everyone, however, appreciates the efforts of these musty military mavens.

“Is there some retirement home out there where they go down and blow a bugle when the war starts?” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Navy pilot and Vietnam POW, asked half-jokingly.

“What happens to all these guys when the war stops?”

(Susan Crabtree in Washington contributed to this report.)

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