Picks and Pans Main: Tube

updated 02/04/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 01:00AM

Even before the bombs started dropping, it was apparent that the confrontation over Kuwait was an international crisis that was, to an unprecedented degree, a television event. The last-ditch meeting in Geneva between Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was largely pro forma, both sides having already transmitted their positions via satellite uplink over CNN. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's eloquent final plea for peace came in a televised address. Who needs diplomatic channels when you have international cable TV?

Once the military campaign began, the networks' role became even more prominent. Advances in broadcast technology made this the first time that a war had been carried live on television. Again and again, principals on both sides stated that they were getting their most up-to-date information by watching the tube.

Yet, for all its immediacy, the coverage was extremely limited. The flow of information was restricted not only by Iraqi and Israeli censors, but by a Pentagon grown excessively camera shy in the post-Vietnam era and an administration grown photo-op-wise during the Reagan years. (Rarely has the medium seemed so vulnerable to exploitation; even Saddam Hussein got footage of himself praying and greeting adoring Iraqi citizens onto the evening news in America.)

Deprived of the kinetic images that are television's lifeblood, the networks resorted to maps, charts, talking heads and stock footage. Bound but not gagged, many usually judicious reporters passed along unconfirmed rumors. During a live transmission, Tom Fenton, a CBS correspondent in Tel Aviv, announced that he had been told by a cameraman that seven Iraqi missiles had just fallen on Jerusalem. Later he acknowledged that there was no validity to his report.

The instant reactions demanded by live television frequently led to misleading speculation. Every time the air-raid sirens went off in Israel or Saudi Arabia—a regular occurrence that was never less than nerve-wracking—the specter of chemical warheads was raised by on-the-scene reporters. The network anchors tended to be more circumspect, conceding that there was not much they could tell us with any real certainty. This caution eventually filtered down to their staffs overseas.

Still, the desperate enterprise of trying to cover the war without adequate access imbued the entire exercise with a grasping-at-straws air (for print as well as video journalists), and the straw most often grasped at was CNN. On the first night of hostilities, NBC's Tom Brokaw even interviewed the cable network's anchor Bernard Shaw, and as ABC's Dean Reynolds reported live from Jerusalem, CNN's feed on a television monitor was visible over his shoulder. Ted Koppel remarked on the "weirdness" of talking to U.S. troops near the Saudi border as they watch TV for news: "They are listening to us, and we are listening to them listening to us. The whole world is listening to each other and trying to analyze what is going on." Marshall McLuhan's global village suddenly seemed more like a hall of mirrors.

Highlights and sidelights of the early stages of the television war:

ABC

The network's Gary Shepard was the first of the big three to report the bombing of Baghdad on Jan. 16, and from then on NBC and CBS were playing catch-up. ABC was also the first to show the extraordinary footage (shot with a nightscope by cameraman Fabrice Moussus) of the aerial assault on Baghdad. The sight of those tracer rounds from the antiaircraft guns drifting up in sheets into the sky was an unforgettable tableau.

While the other networks used their morning-show staffs to kick off the first broadcasts of the day (not bad for NBC but another disaster for CBS), ABC brought on big gun Peter Jennings right away, giving it a considerable advantage. It also had the most informative, if colorless, military analyst in the sepulchral Anthony Cordesman.

Koppel was crisp and in control in his usual late-night role, but when he brought his debate-club style to an afternoon shift, he seemed stuffy and supercilious. It was one of the few times that ABC lost its news edge to CBS. Jennings was, far and away, the class act among the anchors. Cool, assured and composed, he provided excellent summations of new developments and placed them in perspective. He also exhibited (as did the other anchors) sincere concern for his overseas correspondents when the air-raid sirens started going off. His performance during the conflict will probably ensure the ratings dominance of ABC News for some time to come.

CBS

The whole news division showed obvious signs of wear and tear—quite often CBS appeared unsure where the action was. Many of the network's so-called experts didn't display much expertise. The CBS This Morning crew (Paula Zahn and Harry Smith) often looked ill at ease; instead of reporting from their cozy normal digs, they were sent to a larger, more forbidding set constructed specially for Showdown in the Gulf broadcasts. With his articulate air of sangfroid, Smith has always suggested a hard-news guy sitting politely but uncomfortably through a fluffy breakfast party. But presented with a big story, he became inexplicably tongue-tied. The usually unflappable Zahn got flustered at one point when, after referring to a woman as a man, she admitted she couldn't see the guest she was interviewing. And after a couple of on-air miscues, Zahn said with a weary sigh, "We've been on a long time this morning."

Early on, CBS looked too concerned with graphics and a sometimes-too-dramatic reading of simple headlines by Dan Rather, who later (thankfully) tuned down the theatrics a notch or two. He did get a little carried away again on Sunday, breaking into the Giants-49ers football game. But it may have just been the pressure of following flamboyant sportscaster John "Boom-Boom" Madden onto the air.

We could have also done without Rather alternately pledging "steady, reliable and dependable coverage" and admitting "we really know very little that is going on...we know a smidgeon."

Later in the conflict, CBS was aggressively playing catch-up with CNN (you can almost picture the meeting in which someone must have rallied the news troops). But the network had to retract its biggest scoop—a premature report that Israel had retaliated against Iraqi missile strikes.

CNN

Early on, Ted Turner's cable outlet had the most dramatic, celebrated coverage as Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett (see page 42) stayed on the phone to Atlanta for 16 hours from their vantage point at Baghdad's Al Rasheed hotel, describing the scene as the Allied attack began. Courageous and coherent (except for Shaw's lapse into muddled free-associating early Thursday morning), CNN's coverage combined cool professionalism with an obvious enthusiasm for the story. But CNN also underscored how self-reflective this war had become. Its trio of reporters and their peril appeared at times to have become the story, not what was transpiring outside their hotel window. Who wants to bet that by next season the ordeal of the three CNN newsmen won't get turned into a TV movie?

Yes, the network had the perfectly named military affairs reporter: Wolf Blitzer. But it also made the best use of the pool footage provided by the military, giving a superb sense of the sights and sounds of war. For the most part, CNN also had the best film editing and better-paced broadcasts. Over on the Big Three, everything had to be funneled through an anchor-monster, resulting in more segmented and plodding programming. CNN's unimposing teams of coanchors spread the coverage around to their legions of competent correspondents. CNN maintained its war coverage as the days went by, and the majors reverted more and more to conventional commercial programming. (They all returned to their regular programming less than two days into the conflict.)

The only problem was the undigested nature of the news the network fed us, including the clearly coerced statements of the battered coalition airmen captured by Iraq. CNN presented this horror show in its entirety; the other networks exercised more discretion, editing out the more degrading moments.

Flipping around the dial for war news, you may have noticed that CNN broadcast a few decibels lower than its older rivals, as if it didn't need mere volume. In its quiet fashion, the channel has become a major player, the first place to turn for news.

NBC

If all the networks occasionally treated the war as a combination miniseries and sporting event, NBC was the worst offender. Tom Brokaw got embarrassingly effusive in the early hours over the capabilities of American air power, referring on more than one occasion to, gee whiz, the fact that he had actually ridden in the back seat of a fighter plane once. "This guy talks tough and swings back very slowly indeed," he said cryptically in one of a number of gratuitous sneers at Saddam Hussein.

The network's female correspondents and commentators often seemed wildly overdressed—Middle East analyst Joyce Starr, for instance, showed up in a glamorous ensemble topped off with a multicolored scarf, while Deborah Norville appeared during Today show coverage wearing a garish tiger-striped blouse. And NBC even stooped to playing the theme from Born on the Fourth of July behind one montage sequence that showed Persian Gulf footage.

Things did get better, with such more-to-the-point coverage as Bryant Gumbel's to-day interview with correspondent Rick Davis and New York Times science writer Malcolm Browne about Pentagon manipulation of news during the war's early days.

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