From ABC News to Al Jazeera America, A Bigger Spotlight For Syria

TV-news outlets working as if bombs in Syria are a foregone conclusion, but try to tell stories their rivals don't have

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To the wizened political observer, President Obama’s recent remarks about a possible strike against Syria may sound like preliminary saber-rattling.  But some TV-news outlets are already hearing explosions.

Days before a potential U.S. strike against  Syria seems likely to take place, news outlets ranging from ABC News to Al Jazeera America appear to have decided the attack will in fact happen and have moved personnel and planned special programming to accommodate.

One has rejiggered its programming: CNN will air a second hour of “The Lead with Jake Tapper” at 11 p.m. this evening to present more information about a conflict that seems to be moving from looming to inevitable. The Time Warner-owned outlet also said Monday it would launch two new programs – a revived edition of “Crossfire” and a new prime-time hour featuring Anderson Coopera week earlier than expected in order to capitalize on what it believes will be heightened interest in a strike on Syria.

Others are preparing reports that offer context in advance of a military action. On tonight’s broadcast of “The CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley,” correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, touted for several days by CBS as the only U.S. broadcast-network correspondent holding forth from Damascus, will look at what life is like for residents of the country with the not-too-distant threat of a military strike in the background.  Meanwhile, ABC News is likely to launch later this week a special series of reports, “Crisis in Syria: Caught in the Crossfire,” on “World News with Diane Sawyer” as well as via digital outlets and radio. The segments, weeks in the making, will show viewers what the recent summer has been like for ordinary Syrians.

“Everybody felt that it was quite likely the President was going to launch a military strike over this past weekend,” said Christopher Isham, CBS News Washington Bureau Chief, in an interview. Now, he said, the networks need to “strike the balance,” because “it’s expensive. You don’t want to have assets committed in far-flung countries without being able to get on the air.”

TV-news outlets have reason to get people in place for an event that is likely to have seismic repercussions and has been so widely telegraphed. In the early days of coverage, news executives said,  the networks must reckon with a huge tangle of logistics. They will work on procuring visas for correspondents from a country that is likely to be wary of having U.S. personnel reporting on the ground (but who can be valuable for propaganda purposes like showing the damage a U.S. strike might have on citizens); determining where big-name correspondents ought to be situated; procuring “fixers” to help news reporters set up interviews and move around the country; devising graphics packages to keep viewers from changing the channel when video can’t be provided from a place under attack; refreshing a network’s handful of Pentagon and military experts; and even coming up with a title for Syria coverage.

Not only is competition to cover the Syria story likely to be fierce, but there is increased pressure to stand apart from the pack, said Jon Williams, managing editor for international news for ABC News.

“The truth is if we’re not careful, we end up telling the same story over and over again, and that does a disservice to the audience,” said Williams, speaking from Beirut, where he was conferring with other ABC News personnel. “It ends up boring them, and if the audience is bored, that’s not their fault. It’s our fault.”

Covering the Syria conflict takes place as a new player with the ability to feature coverage of the Arab world is launching in the U.S. Al Jazeera America does not have the broadest distribution on cable and satellite systems, but tapping original reporting from Syria and the Middle East from other Al Jazeera assets owned by its parent could have some TV viewers asking for it.

A spokeswoman for the network, which launched in the U.S. late last month, said it would “ supplement its coverage with reports from Al Jazeera English correspondents deployed throughout the region and around the world” while trying to get its own person into Syria. The spokeswoman did not respond to a query about where Al Jazeera English personnel might be stationed.

Fox News Channel, which will live-stream coverage online, will feature Leland Vittert and Conor Powell reporting from Jerusalem and Greg Palkot from Beirut.  NBC News will feature the reporting of veteran chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who is reporting from the Turkish-Syrian border. He ventured into Syria early last week, an NBC News spokeswoman said. NBC has been relying on Bill Neely from ITN for reporting from Damascus and has other correspondents in Beirut, Tel Aviv and Moscow.

With prominent members of Congress, including U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and Republican Senator John McCain, issuing statements of support for President Obama’s proposed Syrian strike, and a Congressional debate likely to take place in advance of an attack, the networks would seem to have plenty of opportunity to shine a light on trouble in the region.