Journalists Dig In

Mar 31, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As the war with Iraq moved toward the end of week two, bombs-away had become business-as-usual.
The war was still the biggest news story in the world, and each day brought fresh drama and controversy. But for American TV journalists and news organizations absorbed in the coverage, there was a sense of a routine to the daily job of telling the story both from the Middle East and at home.
In Iraq, some reporters said there was a sense of a lull before the coalition storms Baghdad. There was some hope for a brief respite that would allow embedded journalists to catch their breath, tend to their sandblasted equipment and take a few extra catnaps and perhaps even a shower for the first time in some very long days.
CNN’s Walter Rodgers, who is “at the tip of the spear” with the 7th Cavalry, had been under continual fire for 72 hours. He used the short lull late last week to crawl into a haystack in a farmer’s field rather than contort himself to fit with his crew inside CNN’s sandbag-lined humvee, or spread his sleeping bag on the hood of the humvee. “It wasn’t goose down, but it wasn’t bad,” Mr. Rodgers said of the haystack that kept him warm on a night when temperatures dipped to freezing.
In Northern Iraq and Doha, Qatar, respectively, CBS News correspondents Allen Pizzey and Tom Fenton were getting back on their feet after bouts with presumably mundane bugs.
Advertisers Return
Stateside, commercial inventory had been normalized in most news programming and sales executives were no longer overly fearful of economic jolts that might lie just ahead as advertisers decided whether to stick with their third-quarter commitments. Seeing how quickly advertisers felt comfortable bouncing back onto the air put a number of sales executives in the mood to be flexible if significant spenders asked for an extension of their option window.
At Nielsen Media Research, the good news was that two days after a power outage at its processing center in Florida had zapped backup system after backup system, a “gargantuan effort” had restored function to all equipment by Friday.
The bad news was that the annual challenge of verifying coverage during the March Madness of NCAA basketball tournament play was compounded by the many disruptions of schedules for war coverage.
Nielsen’s Scott Springer said Nielsen had learned much in conversations with clients after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that helped “make our process move much more smoothly.” Still, broadcast ratings were a jigsaw puzzle that took two, three and four or more days to put together.
On the cable side, where reliable information is spit out more regularly, the day-to-day snapshots showed that while Fox News continued to attract the bigger cable news audiences, its lead over CNN was shrinking and CNN was doing better among younger viewers and the core 25-54 news audience.
Two surveys showed CNN to be the first choice for war coverage. A Universal/McCann/ Insight Express survey conducted on the third day of the war showed 45 percent of respondents opting for CNN, 31 percent for Fox, 26 percent for NBC, 22 percent for ABC, 21 percent for MSNBC and 17 percent for CBS.
A Zogby poll conducted three days later showed CNN the top choice in all age groups and the first choice of 25 percent of respondents overall, followed by Fox (22 percent), ABC and NBC (14 percent each) and CBS and MSNBC (10 percent each).
Most regularly scheduled newscasts were returning to their normal lengths-and to somewhat lighter mixes-by week’s end. Nightline was still scheduled to run for 45 minutes Friday. Hour-long special editions of ABC’s Good Morning America were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
CBS’s Face the Nation was still scheduled for an expanded hour. A special edition of 48 Hours Investigates was scheduled to follow NCAA men’s basketball championship coverage Saturday night. The Early Show’s Julie Chen was headed home from Kuwait.
A Pentagon spokesman would not elucidate on buzz that a handful of journalists had been ejected except to say: “There have been a small number of the embeds removed from the program. I am not in a position to characterize any of these other than to say they were removed for ground rule violations.”
There is a waiting list of journalists who want to be embedded, but no word on how long it is or when additional personnel will be tapped to participate.
TV news executives practically pinch themselves when they say that they have not had the first complaint about how the program is working, either from the Pentagon or from the correspondents.
CBS News executive Marcy McGinnis, who is sending in two more embeds, said that even in such a dicey situation as the fragging incident in Kuwait reported within an hour by correspondent Mark Strassmann, the only thing the 101st Cavalry asked was that the soldier-suspect who was pictured not be named right away. “I have not gotten a single call from the Pentagon saying, `You’re saying too much,”’ said Kathryn Kross, CNN’s Washington Bureau chief and point person for the network on embedding. “It’s a fascinating time.”