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Dan and Saddam Show: CBS’ Prime-Time Coup

H errrrrres Saddam!

With hostages.

With French TV.

And Wednesday night on CBS with Dan Rather, in what was said to be the Iraqi President’s first interview with a U.S. journalist since the start of the Persian Gulf crisis.

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The news was not what Hussein said in the interview.

What he said was essentially what he had said previously. That was affirmed when participants in Wednesday’s late-night CBS follow-up were reduced to giving their “impressions” of Hussein’s state of mind (some thought he appeared defeated, others confident) during the interview. Meanwhile, “CBS This Morning” appeared foolish Thursday by dissecting and searching for clues and hidden meanings in the words of a despot whose words in the past have proved to be misleading if not outright deceitful.

No, the only news was that there was an interview--and that by getting it Rather and CBS may have torpedoed Jesse Jackson’s own highly publicized campaign to obtain the first U.S. TV interview with Hussein since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

As Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami said on CBS about the Hussein interview: “His willingness to do it--that is the message.”

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Well, sure. But what did Hussein hope to convey with his “willingness.” That he’s fair? That he’s reasonable? That he prefers Rather to Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw? We’re all guessing here.

The broader question: Has CBS--and CNN by showing those Hussein’s hostage videos--acted properly in helping Hussein deliver his message?

Yes.

In the case of CBS, the network’s version of “traveling anchors” apparently paid off, for it said the Hussein interview had been in the making since Rather’s stint in Baghdad earlier in the gulf crisis. According to a CBS News spokesman, it materialized this way:

About 10 hours before Wednesday’s interview, Rather was alerted by Iraqi authorities to stand by at his hotel. After a lengthy wait, two Iraqi military men arrived and drove Rather--alone--to the presidential palace for the interview. It was taped by Iraqi TV.

Have CNN and now Rather and CBS been used by Hussein for propaganda?

Of course. It’s obvious that little happens inside Iraq that Hussein doesn’t personally approve and that Western media there are a yo-yo that he is reeling up and down at his own pleasure.

However, being used is fundamental to journalism. Those who supply reporters interviews and information--whether in Baghdad or Washington or Peoria--do it not out of benevolence but out of self-interest. Just like Hussein, they feel they have something to gain.

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The reporter must decide if the story is worth the price of being used.

Getting Hussein on camera for more than an hour in a one-on-one interview was worth that price, if only because it gave Rather at least a shot at penetrating Hussein’s defenses. That he failed--Hussein is a shrewd interviewee who has mastered the art of answering questions that aren’t asked--does not diminish the effort.

The hostage videos were worth the price too, at once providing insight into Hussein the crude propagandist and showing us the physical and mental condition of some of the hostages that he is using as pawns.

Have Rather and CNN used Hussein? Again, yes.

The hostage videos fill a huge chunk of CNN air time.

And CBS--seeking to end its late-night programming woes--is eyeing momentum from the Hussein interview as a way to build a series of 11:30 p.m. news specials along the lines of its Wednesday-night program that awkwardly paired Charles Kuralt and Lesley Stahl as anchors. Kuralt and Stahl vs. Koppel and “Nightline” on a permanent basis? Although a long shot, it’s a possibility CBS is said to be considering.

More immediate is the promotional worth of the Hussein interview for Rather and “CBS Evening News.”

That his interview with Hussein was taped by Iraqi TV and not by CBS was evident when the cameras lingered mostly on Hussein instead of Rather, who at times was obscured by one of two Iraqi interpreters. Such shoddy treatment of a network anchor.

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CBS News remedied that in its on-air promotions and bumpers that showed Hussein and Rather--who appeared to be about five feet apart during the interview--as almost face to face, as if this were a meeting of two heads of state.

In a loose sense it was, considering the way TV anchors have been thrusting themselves into the political and diplomatic arena. Was Hussein speaking to the United States through Rather because he has been unable to speak to President Bush?

Is the goal of his hostage videos, meanwhile, to soften his own image or to stave off U.S. attack by personalizing the Westerners under his control?

Some of these head-patting video events have been a sort of Mr. Hussein’s Neighborhood, with the Iraqi president doing just about everything but putting on a cardigan and worn sneakers in playing the role of benign host and patriarch.

The fact that there are hostages is a form of manipulation. However, these are not the videos where the vacant-eyed prisoner reads a prepared propaganda statement in front of the camera while a gun is pointed at his head from off camera. These are not grisly pictures of a murdered hostage dangling at the end of a rope.

These pictures are a window.

Each morning, the Iraqis send a telex to CNN’s international desk listing that day’s offerings on Iraqi TV, including the now-famous “Guest’s News” with hostages. The Iraqi feed goes by microwave to Amman, Jordan, where CNN and the other networks have the option of beaming it to the United States for airing nationally. In doing so, CNN runs disclaimers and explains exactly what viewers are watching.

“So far the advance information Iraq provides has been accurate, albeit sketchy,” said CNN executive vice president Ed Turner.

CNN has been attacked by ABC News President Roone Arledge and others for airing these staged TV events live as they arrive via satellite. “I don’t see how it’s dangerous,” Turner said. “If you are looking for the first view of hostages, and you are anxious to see what Hussein looks like and is up to, then that’s what you get. I don’t believe that even a few bits of extemporaneous speech, not previously billed, is going to undermine the public. If a naked woman shows up on the screen, we dump out.”

But seriously now, CNN could tape the Iraqi propaganda material and show it later instead of airing it sight unseen. “There’s a certain amount of excitement in playing it as it’s just come in,” Turner acknowledged. “It’s a show business quality.”

Speaking of that, finally, it remains to be seen how much damage the Rather interview has done to Jackson’s own planned interview with Hussein, scheduled to run soon on the syndicated King World series “Inside Edition” that airs at 7 p.m. weekdays on KABC-TV Channel 7.

Jackson was reportedly paid $125,000 for the yet-to-be-taped interview by King World, which then unsuccessfully tried to sell the interview to ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. The sales price was in the $300,000-$600,000 range, Turner said.

Saddam Hussein, show business and big business.


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