While President Bush is paving the way to a possible war on Iraq, television news organizations are already preparing to cover it.
“We are starting to mobilize,” said ABC News President David Westin, echoing his counterparts at other network news organizations, where visas, contingencies, scouting of locations and personnel rotations are the topics of an increasing number of memos and meetings.
“We have somebody on the way. We are trying to keep a coterie of combat-ready reporters, producers, cameramen, editors in positions where they can get to wherever we want them as quickly as is reasonable,” said John Moody, senior VP for news and editorial at Fox News. “We’re trying to get as many pieces of the equipment as doable as we can.”
“We’re there,” said Eason Jordan, president of news gathering for the CNN News Group, which has had a bureau in Baghdad for 12 years.
He said that starting this week, “You will see senior CNN correspondents in both Baghdad and Northern Iraq basically on a full-time basis going forward. We have laid a foundation to start a rotation of senior correspondents in and out of both Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq, meaning Baghdad, specifically, and Northern Iraq-in fact both sides of Northern Iraq.
“We will be there to stay. We’re not parachuting in-that’s not even possible, but just talking theoretically-we’re not parachuting into Northern Iraq for five days and then leaving. We are going there and staying for the duration,” said Mr. Jordan, just back from his second trip this year to Iraq to meet with top government and revolutionary command council people to “groom these relationships to help ensure our access.”
Getting into Northern Iraq is an adventure unto itself, Mr. Jordan said. “We have to get into Northern Iraq by taking a canoe across from Syria on a somewhat perilous journey, and it’s not authorized by the Iraqi government. It’s all on the sly, basically. The border of Turkey is supposed to be entirely closed. Now there may be some openings where you could sneak through there. And then the other border is Iran, which is very difficult in its own right.”
Before he traveled to Iraq he met for several hours in Washington with Kurdish leaders-who were in the capital for talks with Vice President Cheney-on “what CNN could do to gain special access there.”
“It’s very tricky, sensitive stuff and you have to lay the groundwork for this type of thing well in advance,” Mr. Jordan said. “We have very well thought out, elaborate contingency plans. And we plan to pull some rabbits out of the hat and surprise the folks with some things. But we’re not going to share the details of that with you or with anybody else.”
No news executives are sharing details of their Iraq plans, most of them citing security of their personnel before acknowledging reasons of competition.
MSNBC President Erik Sorenson’s memo to his staff in August promised that Ashleigh Banfield will be returning to the region in which her “On Location” show was born last year at the dawn of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
CBS said, “We do have somebody close by [Iraq] who lives nearby and can get right in, so that person can get there and he can get in with a camera,” according to Marcy McGinnis, senior VP for news coverage at CBS News.
“Our [next] line of attack would be to get a five-person team in, so that we can get stories and then just keep supplementing as that happens. But the most important thing is always to get at least a reporter and a cameraperson.”
For that, visas are necessary. For many news organizations, obtaining those visas from Iraq is “just hard and cumbersome,” Ms. McGinnis said. “They take a long time on their end to approve it. It’s pretty routine what you have to do, fill out these forms and all that jazz, but because it’s a bureaucracy, and because they’re not really inclined to be overly helpful to us, it takes a few months to get them.
“So we get them and then we sort of hang on to them like they’re gold. … This is [the] dilemma: Do we use those visas up for the anniversary, where you think, `Well, it’s the anniversary coverage, it might be kind of good to have [correspondent] Alan Pizzey in Baghdad. Should we do it?’ And then you say, `Ah man, should we just hold on to them in case?’
For CNN, visas represent “a never-ending struggle,” Mr. Jordan said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of paperwork, but the paperwork is a very convenient way for Iraqi bureaucrats to say `No.”’
One of Mr. Jordan’s globe-trotting adventures started two months ago in Osaka, Japan, where he was when he received a call from CNN bureau people who were being tossed out of Iraq because the government was upset about something.
“I ended up flying from Osaka to Bangkok to Aman, my luggage being lost on the way, and then making the 600-mile drive in the same clothes I had flown in in coach class on Royal Jordanian in the smoking cabin next to the toilet. I wore those clothes all the way to Baghdad. It was not a pretty picture. Not a pretty picture.
“This was in July. It was just hot as hell. The Iraqi officials I met said that if CNN wanted to try to demonstrate its good faith and get back into the country, I would have to go down to the marshes of Iraq near Basra and spend several days with the marsh people, which I ended up doing. It was 157 degrees Fahrenheit in Southern Iraq in July. I think they were just trying to get my head right. My head’s already right.
“In the end, they ended up letting us back in,” said Mr. Jordan. “I have had to make more than one of those kinds of trips to try to get us back in after we had been thrown out altogether. There’s never been a period longer than about two weeks, but it’s a constant struggle.”
So far, say the news executives, there have been no conversations with the Bush administration or Defense Department about possible pool coverage arrangements or restrictions.
Nor do either of the networks report Iraq-specific discussions about possible ad-hoc partnerships between themselves. Such a partnership would likely be similar to the one CBS and ABC managed when they shared some editing and uplink facilities while covering the war on Afghanistan.
Lessons learned-or reminders received-last year are much on the minds of network news executives, who had begun paring down overseas operations in the cutbacks of the ’90s.
“I don’t think we have redefined our philosophies on foreign news,” said Mr. Moody at Fox. “We’ve only accepted the necessity that you have to be able to cover the whole world.”
Added NBC News president Neal Shapiro, “I think what Sept. 11 has taught us all too graphically is that this is a very interdependent world, so that even stories like Israel, which would be a story we would cover but I think now gets covered with renewed attention, because it’s, obviously, Israel. It’s a part of the Iraq story. It’s part of the Afghanistan story, which is part of Sept. 11.”
“I think we cover more international news. Sometimes we cover it from overseas, we do more international news from overseas, and sometimes it may get folded back into Washington coverage. The Pentagon is one of the most important beats we have, and it’s gotten more important since Sept. 11,” said Mr. Shapiro.
Furthermore , NBC is always moving people around. “We’ve added correspondents overseas,” Mr. Shapiro said. “We’re in places we weren’t a year ago. We’re always in some measure in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, countries we would not have been in a year ago.”
Ms. McGinnis said one of the biggest changes is in perception. “Our magazines shows in particular, they do so much foreign stuff. `60 Minutes’ and `60 Minutes II’ have full staffs overseas, and they do a lot of international news. The `Evening News’ does a lot of international news as well. So our commitment to it is strong but always has been, even though the perception by other people is that it isn’t. When you actually go by the numbers and see how much foreign news we did even prior to Sept. 11, it’s quite high.
“What’s changed since Sept. 11 is t
hat now we’re staffing Afghanistan full-time. Obviously, nobody had a bureau in Afghanistan before this. So now for a year, we’ve been never without people there. And that will continue for the foreseeable future-either Afghanistan or Pakistan or both, depending on how volatile the situation is.”
The major difference, Ms. McGinnis said, “Is that we’re staffing that part of the world full-time. We’re doing it with rotations, though. We didn’t open a bureau with brand-new people. It’s all being done with the people we have being rotated in.”
Mr. Jordan, whose CNN now has some 50 correspondents stationed outside the United States, said, “For a long time, we’ve had a lot of people in a lot of places. We now have more people in more places.”
But are their contracts all in order to prevent another raid, such as the one Fox staged at the height of the conflict in Afghanistan when it hired longtime CNN producer-reporter Steve Harrigan?
“I think we’ve got our people signed up as best we can,” Mr. Jordan said.