Network news countdown to deployment

Feb 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When it comes to organizations and preparedness for war, the easy stuff is largely done.
After months in hurry-up-and-wait mode, the networks have booked satellite time and purchased myriad satellite phones. Hotel suites in Kuwait and other staging points in the Persian Gulf region have been rented and outfitted with newsgathering, editing, transmission and communications and safety equipment. Back home, schedules have been drawn up to ensure that ad hoc war-news rooms are staffed around the clock.
As the countdown to war ticks on, the time is coming when the news executives and crews on dangerous ground have to face perhaps the toughest question confronting all news organizations whose wartime deployment includes people in the heart of the war zone: whether (or when) to remove or relocate their people in the Iraqi capital when President Bush gives the signal to bomb Baghdad.
“It will be a fluid decision,” said ABC News foreign editor Chuck Lustig.
“We will make the decision when the time is right,” said NBC News VP Bill Wheatley. “We have already been discussing it with the people who are there.”
In 1991, recalled one television veteran of the Persian Gulf War, journalists in Baghdad were given a heads-up on when the air war was scheduled to start. “We knew our phones were being tapped,” the veteran remembered. So the warning was passed in “your aunt has a cold” code. When the warning came, “There was some confusion about what it meant and where we were supposed to be.”
For a number of reasons, including possession of a secure phone line, a band of CNN staffers stayed in the Iraqi capital and put CNN on the map with their running account of the bombing of Baghdad.

“It’s a whole different stack of cards now,” said Tom Fenton, VP of international newsgathering for CNN. “This is a war that’s a lot more dangerous. The stakes are a hell of a lot higher for Saddam.” And higher for journalists, who may run the risk of being taken hostage by Saddam Hussein or becoming friendly-fire casualties in their assigned work quarters at Iraq’s Ministry of Information.
“In ’91, Saddam wanted the Western press there,” said the veteran. “This time he’s not so happy about having the press around.”
Indeed, last week’s reports that nearly 70 journalists were being booted from Iraq for reasons that were not clear caused some to wonder whether Saddam Hussein might be paring down the press corps to more manageable, herdable numbers.
The American press, however, is expected to be there in dramatic numbers, most having been trained in hostile-environment survival skills and issued nuclear-biological-chemical protective garb and gas masks.
Correspondent Byron Pitts gave reporters in New York a satellite tour of CBS News’ work space in a suite of rooms in the Kuwait City Sheraton last week. Reporters saw a bathroom stuffed with helmets and Kevlar vests and watched a staffer pull on the gas mask at his side in less than the prescribed nine seconds.
Aside from the heavy safety equipment crews will lug with them when they venture out, nearly everything they will need is smaller, lighter and more portable than it was in 1991.
“This war is all digital,” said Frank Governale, VP of CBS News operations.
“The satellite phones then were about the size of a VW Beetle, and now they are pocket-sized,” Mr. Fenton said. He added that while CNN-which has earmarked some $30 million for war coverage-still has some preparations left, “The whole infrastructure is there” to accommodate and support the 100 or so CNN employees in the region, and double that number when war becomes real.
“Most of the big decisions have been made and most of the mobilizations have taken place,” said Mr. Lustig, who, like other news executives, wants to keep the what, where and when of his gadgetry a secret from the competition.