Networks Lay Claim to Desert Territory

I am writing this from somewhere in my home. For security reasons, I cannot tell you what room I'm in. I can tell you only that I'm sitting in front of a TV set doing my job. It's getting pretty hairy here, and I may have to move to another room and TV set at a moment's notice.

Click.

More television coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis.

On the screen again are pictures from Saudi Arabia, where United States forces and media are continuing their buildup. In front of the camera this time, however, is a man in a gas mask. Now he is speaking from behind the gas mask. Now he is removing the gas mask. Behold . . . .

It's Bryant Gumbel.

The Gulf area has been the scene of more than one invasion in recent weeks, the latest by media who have shaped these sands of turbulence into a stage for themselves. When does "A Current Affair" show up?

News ratings have risen dramatically across the board since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, indicating the public's intense interest in this increasingly volatile story. So, if you want exposure, you take your shot.

That means NBC's "Today" program--still seeking quick fixes for its ratings problems of recent months--has Gumbel in Saudi Arabia this week, hosting the show from a sandy flat area in front of a busy road. Live and in stereo.

"I cannot tell you our exact location, but we are only a few miles from where U.S. forces are based," said a preppy-looking Gumbel, sitting in a chair on a red carpet.

Then he sent it back to Deborah Norville, Joe Garagiola and Al Roker (filling in for The Willard) in New York.

"Bryant," a grinning, joshing Norville said Tuesday, "everybody has been saying hi to the folks back home. Anything you want to say?"

"Just, it's hot here," Gumbel replied.

Back in New York, the "Today" gang convulsed with laughter at Gumbel. He might as well have been talking about the heat in Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, it was on to Norville's interview with Donald Trump, followed by Gumbel's interview with two Army officers in battle gear. Later, Norville would have a cooking segment.

And from Gumbel: "More ahead from Saudi Arabia and New York after these messages."

He is the message. It works this way. Gumbel returns to New York in a week or so (depending on how long the Saudis allow the Western media to remain), and NBC trumpets "Today" as the only morning show that went to Saudi Arabia. Earlier in the gulf crisis, "CBS This Morning" co-host Harry Smith reported from Cairo and Jerusalem.

Even as "Today" was covering what Norville labeled "the doings in Iraq," meanwhile, CBS anchorman Dan Rather was spending the morning in Amman, Jordan, having just returned with eight of his CBS colleagues from Baghdad, after spending almost a week in the Iraqi capital.

Although CBS, too, was using the gulf crisis as a showcase--for Rather--there was no denying the value of his and his colleagues' work in perilous Baghdad, succeeding an ABC crew led by Ted Koppel and Forrest Sawyer. Despite only rarely being allowed to transmit video from Baghdad, CBS for a time was at least a tiny keyhole in Iraq's sand curtain. It was Rather, on the phone, who broke the story about Iraq's "hostage human-shield strategy." And when Rather reported being warned by Western diplomats in Baghdad that Americans should expect "a fight to the finish" with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, his words carried an especially ominous tone because he was there .

Rather, correspondent Allen Pizzey and the rest of the CBS group returned to Amman early Tuesday after being told by Iraqi authorities that they "would be advised" to leave, a CBS spokeswoman said. Rather's plans were undecided, but he may return to New York this week, the spokeswoman said.

It was still unclear why Iraq had let in the ABC and CBS groups in the first place and then, in effect, booted them out.

Speaking by phone from Washington, Koppel repeated Monday that he had been "invited" to leave Baghdad last week. The "invitation" came after he had spoken with Americans then being held in a Baghdad luxury hotel and later interviewed Foreign Minister Tarek Aziz for "Nightline."

Koppel: "After I had done the Aziz interview, I met with one of the officials in the Foreign Ministry and said I still had some things I wanted to do. I wanted to get some of those people (American hostages) on camera, and I also wanted to talk to Saddam Hussein.

"I said, 'What do you think I will be able to do tomorrow?' And the official said, 'Departure?' I said, 'I'm not ready to leave yet.' And he said, 'The time is right.' "

That convinced Koppel the time was right. So he left, ABC having negotiated for Sawyer and a crew to stay another day.

Koppel speculates that he and ABC were allowed into the country at least in part because Iraq wanted to use "Nightline" to convey a "softer line through their Foreign Ministry." That became the Aziz interview. Koppel speculates that ABC was ousted from the country because "one, we had done what they invited me to do. Two, they were upset we had visited the hostages. Three, they had Rather and his group coming in and they didn't want to juggle more than one (U.S. TV network) at a time."

Now, it's other members of the media--whether Gumbel and NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw in Saudi Arabia or reporters from local stations elsewhere in the Middle East--who are being juggled by their host countries. That's because more and more media people have started riding this highly promotable camel.

On Monday, KCAL Channel 9 billed itself on the air as "the only Los Angeles television station with a reporter in the Middle East."

"That's not true," said KTTV Channel 11 news director Dick Tuininga, noting that his station recently dispatched reporter Tom Vacar to Bahrain. A quiet Tom Vacar.

Vacar reported briefly by phone Sunday night, but, curiously, was not heard from Monday during Channel 11's regular 10 p.m. newscast or the first of its half-hour gulf-crisis updates that it plans to run indefinitely at 7 p.m.

"He didn't have anything to report," said Tuininga. "Our goal was for him to cover Southland soldiers and sailors, not the war."

Channel 9 could not be blamed for crowing about its reporter, David Jackson, who, while being in Amman almost since the inception of the crisis, has done yeoman work in helping to fill the station's three-hour nightly news block and its 11 p.m. gulf-crisis specials.

It was Jackson, however, who read on the air Monday night a letter--"a last will and testament," he called it--from a British oil worker trapped in Kuwait. Jackson said the letter, from someone he identified as Rob, was one of many passed to him by refugees flowing into Amman from Kuwait, with the request that he mail them. Although Jackson said the letter was outside the envelope when he received it, it was private, presumably, and not meant for our consumption.

There were other excesses on the air Monday:

On Channel 9, anchorman Jerry Dunphy asked, leading into a commercial break, "Are we trying to provoke an all-out war with Saddam Hussein?" After the break, Dunphy quoted "some military advisers" as suggesting this indeed was the case, but didn't identify them or offer any substantiation.

On Channel 11, Ron Gardner, a reporter in Washington for another Fox station, suggested out of the blue that the 35 Americans who disappeared from their luxury hotel in Baghdad "may have gone into hiding on their own." Maybe there, in the bushes.

Worst of all, finally, KNBC Channel 4's Colleen Williams mentioned on the air a report that she attributed to a French TV anchor, who said he was told by Iraqis in Baghdad that captured U.S. pilots "would be eaten, cannibalized."

Pass the gas mask.

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