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Covering War Proves Tricky for TV News

Jan 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Covering the war in Iraq cost American TV news organizations millions of dollars in 2004.

It taught news executives how to balance a budget under circumstances in which an unpredictable contingency situation has evolved into a significant expense that they will continue to pay for as long as U.S. troops are being deployed and killed at the levels they are now.

It also has taught those executives to balance the value of whatever information can be obtained on any given day with the ability to protect their staffs in such hot spots as Baghdad or Fallujah, where, all agree, safety is the top and the most expensive priority of all.

“Safety is priority No. 1,” said John Stack, VP for news gathering at Fox News. He said the continuing violence “aimed inward” has made Iraq “a very difficult place to try to have a staff do their jobs as journalists.”

“There is no textbook or handbook for how to cover this,” said CNN International Managing Director Chris Cramer. “So everything is risk and reward, to use that horrible equation.”

News executives do not publicly reveal specifics of their news budgets, so what their war coverage is costing remains vague. “We have spent, in the last 12 months, several millions of dollars,” said Mr. Cramer, who estimated that during the relatively slow holiday season the population of CNN’s bureau in Baghdad was between 30 and 40 people, including two to three full news crews and security staff.

“Our budget has gone up because this year we know that Iraq is not a contingency. We know that this year we’re going to be there,” said NBC News President Neal Shapiro. “It’s certainly stretched us more as a news division. But I don’t think there’s a news story we’ve missed because of it.”

ABC News President David Westin pegged the overall costs associated with covering the war at “less than $10 million.”

Mr. Westin, who twice has had ABC News security procedures and security personnel audited by an unrelated agency “just because we want to make sure we’re not missing anything,” estimated that “approaching 50 percent of our cost in Iraq is security. Not editorial, but security.”

“The security line in the budget is probably our highest line, followed by T&L [travel and living expenses], because the problem with a place like Baghdad is that psychologically, physically, you can’t stay there for any great length of time. People need to get rotated out,” said CBS News Senior VP Marcy McGinnis.

Despite the increasingly aggressive insurgents, who have taken and killed hostages and made car bombings a fact of almost daily life, it is no harder to find volunteers to rotate in, the news executives agreed. Instead, the networks have raised the bar by, for example, declining to post anyone for whom this would be a first trip to Baghdad since the U.S. attacked Iraq.

“We have not had any difficulty getting our seasoned, trained, experienced international people to be in position,” said Mr. Stack. He said that what can dampen enthusiasm for the assignment is having much of the public’s attention focused on other stories.

“In the end, the people who go [to Iraq] want to see their efforts get on the air. It’s the human condition that the reward for people working hard and sacrificing is seeing their product on the air. We’re dealing in a competitive business, and there are also egos involved.

“That’s a normal condition,” said Mr. Stack, who said that the Iraq election scheduled to take place Jan. 30 and what happens in the weeks immediately after may prove to be a barometer of what lies ahead.

“What we would look toward is whether there is a semblance of normalcy starting to kick in in this overall government, whether it be Sunni, Shiite or whatever. If there are signs of that, I could see-and I don’t want to be too optimistic-I could see a lessening of the numbers of people that we have there,” Mr. Stack said. “It would, at that point, in theory continue to be an important story, but it would take its role and its order in other stories breaking domestically or internationally.”

It also would mean news executives could move some projects, for example, the additional Arab-region bureau Mr. Westin wants to establish, off the back burner.

“When you have something of the magnitude of [the Iraq war]-and that’s not just the money but also the attention and the time and the people-it necessarily draws away from other things one might have done, and that’s one example of many,” said the ABC News president.

Even if the situation is defused unexpectedly in the short term, no news executives expect a return to what was business as usual before the war on terrorism.

As Mr. Cramer put it, the costs of providing security and hostile-environment training for journalists who are outfitted in personalized safety gear “are not one-offs now for any news organization. They are never going to go away now. They are as applicable to news gathering now as computers, cameras, satellites, paper, notebooks and telephones.”