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War as Never Before

Mar 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Late last week NBC News unveiled a secret weapon. It put the ah and awe into a war that in its first three days had been shocking mostly for how well the embedding of high-tech journalists was paying off with information about troop movements, peripheral skirmishes and Baghdad under siege.
It was about 4:15 a.m. Friday (ET) when news junkies watching MSNBC became the first civilians to see the marvels possible with The Bloom Mobile, so nicknamed because its amalgam of microwave, uplink and gyroscopic technology was the brainchild of NBC correspondent and weekend Today anchor David Bloom, who was on the move with the 3rd Infantry Division in the Iraqi desert on the way to Baghdad.
Mr. Bloom, looking like a wind-whipped, grime-encrusted, gadget-enabled character from Mad Max, sat cross-legged atop a heavily armed tank recovery vehicle, talking into the microphone attached to a headset. He spoke about everything from the love lives of two soldiers to the 360-degree view from the camera controlled from inside the armored vehicle by NBC’s Craig White.
Off to the left: an Iraqi tank that had been rusting in the sand since the Persian Gulf war 12 years ago. Off to the right: vast desert that could hold unexploded materiel from the Persian Gulf blitz. To the rear: thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles in a convoy so lengthy it could accommodate some 70 embedded journalists, including Fox News’ Greg Kelly and ABC News Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, who also was kicking up dust-and occasionally donning a now-familiar gas mask-during lengthy live reports when the 3rd Infantry stopped to regroup.
After months of discussion and debate, promises and threats, the war and the coverage had begun in earnest after President Bush declared Monday night that Saddam Hussein and his sons had 48 hours to get out of Iraq or else. Using satellites and cell and video phones, American broadcast and cable-news networks had been telling the story around the clock since the first bomb-sent to hit what the U.S. called a “target of opportunity”-exploded in Baghdad Wednesday night.
By then the foreign press contingent in the Iraqi capital was down to about 100 journalists. The first blast sent many in the media scrambling for cover or getting out of town. Most hoped the story would continue to be illustrated by unmanned cameras left running atop the Ministry of Information. At week’s end American networks had an agreement to pool any video that could be got out of Baghdad for the foreseeable future.
The coming of a shooting war sent shock waves across the world. The usual diet of entertainment programming was disrupted on the major networks, replaced by news, analysis, updates from embedded reporters and often bleary pictures from the robot cameras.
On Friday night, just after the most ferocious display yet of the Pentagon’s so-called “shock and awe” game plan lit up the Baghdad sky, came word that the Iraqis had decided that the four-person CNN crew-correspondents Nic Robertson and Rym Brahimi, producer Ingrid Formanek and photographer Brian Puchaty-were an “arm of the American government” and would be kicked out of the country.
That put CNN in the position of the other American TV news organizations: relying on reporting from free-lancers or partners. CNN said Friday it would have access to Ian Glover-James of ITV, a CNN affiliate.
Fox News Channel, which had been kicked out of Baghdad in February, had been using reports from British sister service Sky Television’s David Chater, who also was filing for CBS News, which had pulled correspondent Lara Logan and her crew out of Baghdad in midweek.
ABC, which had ordered its people out of the Iraqi capital earlier in the week, was getting its reports from Richard Engel, a free-lancer who had assigned himself to Baghdad as a correspondent for ABC Radio. ABC News President David Westin told Mr. Engel he’d be paid whether he filed or not. Mr. Engel, a candidate for this Gulf war’s “Scud Stud,” described via phone the pounding he could witness from his hotel room.
“The minute you want to go down to the shelter-I know you’re on the 14th floor-you go,” said anchor Peter Jennings in New York.
MSNBC and NBC also ordered their Baghdad contingent to leave Iraq early in the week. But they already had secured the services of Peter Arnett, who in 1991 became a household name when as a CNN correspondent he described the opening attack on Baghdad.
He had returned to Baghdad as a correspondent for National Geographic Explorer, and Friday was on the phone when things began popping in Baghdad.
It was, Mr. Arnett said from his perch at the Palestine Hotel, more intense than what he witnessed in 1991.