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In the Wake of Iraq Conflict: Bills, Lessons and Questions

Apr 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As the war in Iraq and its aftermath wind toward conclusion, TelevisionWeek polled TV news executives and other industry veterans in a quest for answers to lingering questions raised by the first war to be televised in real time. What follows are highlights of their answers, some of which were offered anonymously. Some responses have been summed up by the editor.

Participants included Bill Wheatley, NBC News VP; Dick Wald, Fred Friendly Professor of Journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and former ABC News and NBC News executive; Marcy McGinnis, senior VP of news coverage for CBS News; and Matt Furman, senior VP for communications for CNN. Fox News Channel declined to participate.

TelevisionWeek: Will “adjustments” to general spending and staffing levels be necessary to pay for the costs of the war, and if so, when?

Bill Wheatley: We’re looking at all of that, of course, but we hope not. We’d better be very careful how we spend our money, even more careful than usual, but we think we’ll be in decent shape.

Dick Wald: The networks and the 24-hour systems have slightly different problems. [The latter spent] more than they might otherwise spend, but there was no wasted money, because they could put on the air everything they spent. I don’t think [adjustments] will be onerous.

Marcy McGinnis: Not really, because we had a separate war budget. During the war, we did not spend as much on other stuff. We’re closing out the books and won’t know for a few weeks how it comes out, but I think it is going to end up pretty even.

Matt Furman: We budgeted appropriately for the war coverage.

TVWeek: When will the satellite phone and video phone bills come due and how huge are they likely to be?

Mr. Wheatley: They’ll be large. We may be in better shape than others in that we invested in the technology-where our Raytheon small uplinks also provided for telephone and computer traffic, and that will save us money.

Ms. McGinnis: They were big. They were coming due all the time. They were quite, quite big.

TVWeek: What will be the financial fallout of the war be on the TV business?

Mr. Wald: The advertising market was pretty soft, and they could re-express the advertising. The major loss is when you go without the advertising and you can’t re-place it.

TVWeek: For how long are U.S. TV news organizations likely to have a significant presence in Baghdad and Iraq? For how long will Iraq and the broader Mideast have a significant presence in key network newscasts?

Mr. Wheatley: The reconstruction of Iraq and the political reforms are going to require substantial coverage. We have prepared for that. I would think the American public would continue to have interest in the Iraq question even after the war ends.

Ms. McGinnis: I can’t see an end to our presence there.

Mr. Furman: We have bureaus in Israel, Iraq and Egypt, and they will remain. Given our need to produce news gathering for an international audience, we must continue our presence in the Mideast at similar prewar levels. As for our domestic audiences, the stories about rebuilding Iraq, tensions between Syria and the United States and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are almost certain to have a regular presence on our news programs.

Mr. Wald: By the end of this year there will be a great diminution in the number of reporters in the Middle East entirely.

TVWeek: Is it routine or occasionally acceptable for news crews to hire armed security teams, as we learned CNN had done after an exchange of gunfire in Northern Iraq?

Editor’s note: Some news organizations hesitate to comment on their policy for fear that saying anything might compromise security of employees.

Mr. Furman: CNN has had armed guards or security consultants with us in places like Somalia-where several CNN personnel were killed-Afghanistan and Northern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein sent a team of hit men to kill our staff. To do otherwise would be to put our journalists in situations even more dangerous than they frequently find themselves in. For instance, it is entirely possible that the Iraqis who fired on Brent Sadler and his team first would have kept firing and ultimately succeeded in stopping and killing our people had our armed guard not returned fire.

Ms. McGinnis: For CBS it is not routine at all. The only place I can remember hiring armed security people was in Somalia. There was such rampant thievery and people high on khat [the amphetamine-like Somali drug of choice]. You literally had to have these security guys with you. Allen Pizzey was our guy there. He also was assigned to Northern Iraq. If he had suggested something like [armed security guards], we would have taken it under advisement.

Mr. Wheatley: There are rare instances in which situations are so dangerous that journalists need to be protected. Over recent months in Northern Iraq that was certainly the case. We had instances of offices in Northern Iraq being protected by armed guards we had hired. There were death threats against the media. No one is comfortable mixing guns with the media.

Mr. Wald: It is occasionally acceptable if you are in a truly dangerous situation or if you are directly threatened. It keeps you away from the people you are reporting on. You get a skewed report if you are surrounded by guys with guns.

TVWeek: What will happen to the state-of-the-art equipment bought for the war coverage after the bulk of the TV crews come home, for example, safety equipment such as Kevlar vests?

Technical equipment that is in or can be returned to working condition will go back into news-gathering operations. Safety equipment that passes aesthetic/hygienic standards-some of it was worn for weeks on end by people who weren’t able to take showers for weeks on end-will go back on the shelf for use in covering the next hot spot.)

Mr. Wheatley: Some of the [technical equipment]has taken a pounding, and we have learned a number of things about how to protect it. Iraq has been a laboratory. We are endeavoring to improve that equipment, drawing on Iraq.

Mr. Furman: The technological equipment will be distributed throughout the world [including bureaus in the United States], but much of it will quickly become obsolete and be replaced by even more sophisticated means of gathering and filing a story.

Ms. McGinnis: I think the embeds’ stuff is probably pretty disgusting. We’ll write some of that off.

TVWeek: Of the items carried by most journalists, which was the most reliable and handy?

Mr. Wheatley: I think the Thuraya telephones were really terrific and permitted us to almost always be in touch with our people.

Mr. Slavin: Store-and-forward equipment, because it meant that teams unable to travel with satellite dishes were able to transmit broadcast-quality video from almost anywhere. We put more than 125 store-and-forward spots on the air during our coverage-54 alone from Don Dahler, who was with the 101st Airborne and unable to travel with a dish. Going forward you will see this technology, which is significantly less expensive than renting a satellite truck and can be put to use anywhere broadband access is available, used to cover both domestic and overseas stories. It has enhanced the ability to be anywhere. There will not be a massacre in some small nation that television cannot get pictures out. The power of those images is enough to alter the debate and alter the politics.

Mr. Furman: I suspect it was the pencil.

Ms. McGinnis: Baby wipes.

TVWeek: What was learned in covering this war that will most affect TV journalism in the future?

Mr. Wheatley: That the embedding process has made its mark and will continue to in the future if the armed forces will permit it. It certainly permitted the citizens of this country to get a much closer look at war. Permitting close-up coverage is a critical guide to public understanding. We put a great deal of organization and time into planning. It really did pay off. Also, that partnerships can be valuable. No one organization can be everywhere. I think we were the biggest user of partnership material. Some of the best British re
porting was done unilaterally. That was a big bonus.

Mr. Wald: That reporters can go into the field with armies without causing disruption. It’ll be very hard to go back to the Gulf War in 1991 when [then Secretary of Defense] Dick Cheney wanted to have a 48-hour blackout as the war began.

Ms. McGinnis: The technology that we used to bring this war into living rooms live was unique, something that we’ll never go away from. We would be able to use that technology where we couldn’t get a Ku truck. … “Let’s just get the Norsat dish Scott Pelley took to Iraq.”

Mr. Slavin: The state-of-the art technology has revolutionized coverage and shortened the news cycle so the need for analysis and perspective has never been greater. Our ability to be on the scene as something was happening and to report it well before the authorities had even heard of it will have a tremendous impact. When you would watch the cable it was exciting, but essentially meaningless. I think it enhances the need for analysis.

Mr. Furman: This war certainly prompted many discussions about the hazards of reporting live from a battlefield and the ethical issues associated with showing the resulting carnage.

TVWeek: Which was Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera’s most serious offense: sketching movements of the 101st Airborne in the sand or being a ham?

Mr. Wald: Being a ham, because war is serious business and the best reporters didn’t make the war about them, they made the war about others.

TVWeek: Eason Jordan, chief news executive of CNN, made a number of revelations in a New York Times op-ed piece April 11, including physical threats made by Saddam Hussein’s regime. How do you think history will judge these revelations and how they were made?

Editor’s note: One news executive said that with so much “professional sniping” in “such an unprofessional way,” in the cable news wars, it will be a long time before the historical verdict can be rendered with confidence. Another declared Mr. Jordan’s timing “awful,” his tone tinged in braggadocio and said Mr. Jordan’s memo to his staff was much more effective. `It has caused us all to think about our own histories.’

Mr. Wheatley: I respect Eason. He is a very dedicated guy who wants to do a good job.

Mr. Wald: I don’t know what difference it makes whether it comes out now or comes out later. I think the journalistic center will coalesce around the idea that if you can’t report the truth and your presence is a danger … I think the judgment will be that it was an error by CNN to continue under those circumstances. There is always a low-level amount of, “I’ve got to get my camera into the country right away,” where you slip someone some money. You might call that the commercial grittiness of what goes on. Passing money and telling the truth all the time is within the canons. Passing money and not telling the truth is not within the canons.

Mr. Furman: People can accuse CNN of many things, but hiding the truth about dictators and the means they use to keep in power is not one of them (if you’re reasonable). CNN was nearly thrown out of Havana the first week it opened a bureau there for reporting on human rights abuses. CNN has received harsh letters of protest from the Chinese government for our reporting out of our Beijing bureau. Six times we were expelled from Iraq, and reporters like Christiane Amanpour, who was also banned from Iran for reporting on that country’s government, were banned from entering Iraq for many years.

TVWeek: Who will win the TV flag-waving crown? Fox News Channel or MSNBC? And why?

Editor’s note: More than one person expressed sentiments that echoed one veteran’s fervent wish that `when the war ends it all goes away’ and another’s feeling that `it is outrageous that MSNBC might try to outfox Fox-“I’m more patriotic than you. I can play the national anthem.” Everyone is a patriot. Nobody wanted America to lose this war.’

Mr. Wald: Fox & Friends, hands down. They were just astounding.