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Reporters suiting up for danger

Sep 24, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Many assignments being discussed at the networks and all-news channels last week had an asterisk.
They could be refused without fear that careers would be hurt because many correspondents, producers and crews were being asked to ship out to tense and possibly dangerous locations overseas to cover the United States’ response to the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans in New York and Washington.
“I preface every conversation with: A `no’ is as good as a `yes’ in this conversation,” said David Verdi, executive director of news at NBC News. He was getting a lot of “no’s”-a phenomenon he attributed to limited knowledge of Afghanistan and similar staging and reporting locales and to the feeling that splinter terrorist groups seem more threatening than “a standing army.”
“On the flip side,” he said, “the computer keeps buzzing and the phone keeps ringing” as some NBC News staffers checked in to say they wanted to go.
Not that there was a flip side to the mobilization of TV journalists and equipment that often included flak jackets and helmets and sometimes even full-body, respirator-equipped suits designed to protect against chemical and biological threats.
“The ones we’re buying now are good for six exposures,” Mr. Verdi said. The suits would have to be washed down between “exposures” and they’re “kind of pricey”-NBC ordered 150 suits, total price about $75,000, in “the first go-round”-but they can be rolled up in a gym-size duffel bag.
“We’re doing the best we can to get our folks outfitted,” said John Stack, vice president of news gathering for Fox News, where gas masks, flak jackets and helmets were suddenly ascendant in logistical planning.
Survival training for journalists is also coming out of the closet.
TV journalists have routinely and quietly been taking courses designed to prepare them for everything from being ambushed and kidnapped to being injured or just plain scared.
“We’re in the news business, and we have to be in dangerous places,” said Eason Jordan, the news-gathering president at CNN, which lost five people in Somalia.
In Sarajevo in the early ’90s, a CNN camerawoman was shot in the face and ABC News producer David Kaplan was killed.
“The reality is there is no guarantee of safety,” Mr. Jordan said.
“Safety is just a critically important thing,” said Brad Kalbfeld, deputy director and managing editor for television and radio at the Associated Press, which has lost three people “in war zones in shooting situations” in the last three years. The AP has sent more than 300 people through “hostile environment training.”
Over the last decade, ABC News has sent as many of its people as possible to a five-day course dispensing what Executive VP and Managing Editor Paul Friedman described as information on “what you do in a war.” That includes training in “live-fire situations” and basic medical lessons that go beyond first aid.
Mr. Verdi said the NBC News overseas staffers who have been through training outside London over the last three years have gotten instruction on everything from surviving on a diet of bugs and plants to how to stop bleeding by tying off an artery and how to treat “a sucking chest wound.” Each graduate takes with him or her a field medical kit that includes tracheotomy tubes and painkillers.
In addition to experiencing live simulated ambushes, the trainees learn how to “deal with armed roadblocks at which the four yahoos with bandannas come to the car and they’ve got alcohol on their breath. Not only do they hate Americans, but they’re drunk,” Mr. Verdi said.
Not every American journalist headed to the Mideast will be identically equipped. They’ll carry as much cash as they can from ATMs and banks at home to tide them over until the news organizations get their finance and supply infrastructures in place.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, they don’t take American Express, MasterCard or Visa.
The networks also will have to scrounge up suitable transportation (the hot armored vehicle is reported to be a Jeep Cherokee) at reasonable cost (sometimes it’s smart to buy vehicles used at the last hot spot, such as Kosovo). They’ll have to set up workspace and staging locations in areas that offer reasonable safety and supplies of fuel, a reliable banking system and a minimum of price gouging.
“Home away from home” is what Fox’s Mr. Stack wants to set up for his crews.
All the network executives stress that the most essential safeguards are awareness, experience and common sense. For example, when choosing lodging, a rented house might be safer than a hotel with large windows.
“We trust their judgments and instincts,” said a CBS News spokeswoman relaying information from London bureau chief John Paxson.
Ashleigh Banfield, the only correspondent headed for the Middle East over the weekend, has been to the West Bank and covered “skirmishes,” but on Friday she was preparing to cover a war for the first time.
She said she volunteered because “this is why I got into this business to begin with” and she hasn’t spent much time dwelling on the dangers.
She said she hasn’t had survival training, but she stressed that she didn’t think she’d be doing anything more dangerous than the relief workers who were clearing rubble in search of victims at the World Trade Center.
The woman who has over the past year become known for her distinctive dark-rimmed glasses and blond highlights has, however, chopped off her hair and dyed it dark so she can “fly under the radar.”