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Preparing for danger

Oct 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Along with their pens, notebooks, laptops and satellite phones, the correspondents, producers, editors and camera crews who are deployed to potential war zones are packing gas masks, flak jackets, helmets, biological and chemical suits and extreme first-aid supplies. They’re also receiving crash-course training in how to use them.
News organizations have been sending hot-spot journalists through hostile-region training for several years. Now there is more of a focus on what is called NBC training: nuclear, biological and chemical awareness. And on being able to get out of an increasing variety of situations journalists might get into as a result of working in a distant capital under fire by the journalists’ country.
“That’s our goal: to get people out of situations they may find themselves in,” said Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news coverage for ABC News.
The AKE Group, which has become perhaps the best-known source of survival training since it was founded 11 years ago in Britain, launched a CNN-only course last summer in Georgia at the urging of CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, and CNN International President Chris Kramer, who was among the 26 people held hostage when the Iranian embassy in London was besieged by terrorists in 1980.
Knowing the enemy
The four days of classroom training in Atlanta by former members of Britain’s legendary SAS (the military unit that retook the Iranian embassy while Brits watched the drama live in 1980) and one day of field training in rural north Georgia are, like courses elsewhere, designed to prepare CNN personnel for everything from first-aid and hostage and kidnapping issues to identification of weapons and what to do in the event of a chemical or biological threat.
“This is potentially the most dangerous war we’ve ever covered, should it come to pass,” Mr. Jordan said.
He’s not just talking about the fear of weapons of mass destruction in friendly and hostile hands in a time when, as one network news executive put it, “People in charge don’t seem to be as ready to wait and see what’s going to happen.”
“We’re taking all possible precautions,” said John Stack, VP of news gathering for Fox News. “It’s what we don’t know that fills books.”
Journalists admitted to Iraq must set up shop in the facility that houses Saddam Hussein’s ministry of information, a likely early target of any attack because it is the uplink of Iraqi state television and has two very large anti-aircraft guns on the roof of the building.
The Bush administration’s goal of a regime change also raises the stakes for foreign journalists, who might be ripe for the hostage taking by order of Saddam (as happened in 1990) or by other factions. More than one news executive mentioned the growing air of inevitability hanging over Baghdad, where observers increasingly feel it is end-game time for Saddam. With the prospect of regime change also comes the likelihood of anarchy, with journalists potentially getting caught in the crossfire of civil war waged on the streets.
“In a lawless environment, everybody becomes an enemy and a combatant,” said David Verdi, executive director of news for NBC.
Gaining access
Whatever the situation, it will be closely monitored from back home. “If we are at all concerned, we have to get our people out of there,” said NBC News VP Bill Wheatley.
It isn’t easy getting journalists into Iraq these days. Whether because the bureaucracy is overwhelmed by requests for journalist visas or because Iraq is being particularly picky about who gets in and who doesn’t, the process has posed problems for all the TV news organizations and has produced mainly short-term visas that would allow for coverage of the Oct. 15 “referendum” on Saddam’s rule.
Ashleigh Banfield, who took her just-canceled MSNBC show to Baghdad last July, was refused a visa recently.
Christiane Amanpour’s requests for visas were vetoed by Iran and Iraq last week. Her CNN colleagues Richard Roth and Wolf Blitzer also have been “declared persona non grata,” Mr. Jordan said.
Each network could tell similar stories.
After it aired Claire Shipman’s interview with a former mistress of Saddam Hussein, ABC News ran into snags with visa applications. But ABC, like every other U.S. network, now has a crew in Iraq.