Who’s in First? It’s the War of the Network Anchors : Gulf crisis: The intense competition has gotten personal. Experts wonder whether keeping score adds up to adequate analysis.
The fever-pitch competition among the television networks reached its peak Wednesday night and Thursday, in the aftermath of CBS news anchor Dan Rather’s groundbreaking interview with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Once again, network publicity departments swung into high gear, each trumpeting its own triumphs and denigrating everybody else’s.
“This place is like a new place,” crowed an executive at CBS News. “We’re all hung over, but it’s not from drinking. It’s from exhaustion.”
At NBC and ABC, the atmosphere was not so jubilant.
“So what?” an executive at ABC News reportedly snapped when told of Rather’s coup.
“I think it was a coup, but from a journalistic standpoint I don’t know if (CBS) got anything ultranewsworthy out of it,” said Katherine McQuay, spokeswoman for NBC News. “We had Saddam on our newscast also, because before Dan (Rather), he did an interview with French TV. And he basically said the same things he told Dan--not to take anything away from Dan.”
But it’s one thing to win the who-got-where-first contest--Rather got to the Middle East first and was the first to interview Hussein, ABC’s Ted Koppel slipped into Iraq itself first--and quite another to present clear and comprehensive coverage of a crisis that threatens to drag the world into a war.
And observers both inside and outside the networks say that in terms of actual coverage, the rush to get there first is bringing mixed results.
“The selling of all of this, the keeping score of how many scoops you have, the clockwork journalism--that is what I think we all think is foolish,” said Steve Friedman, executive producer of “NBC Nightly News.”
Clockwork journalism is a good word for it. Tensions are running so high that network executives and anchors have resorted to criticizing each other in the print media. The New York Post ran the headline “Where Was Dan?” after competitors at ABC and NBC claimed that Rather was not at a key news conference in Jordan.
ABC “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, upon learning that Rather would use a desk he had previously used at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, scrawled a note designed to fool the CBS anchor. Left casually on the desk, the note contained the name of Saddam Hussein and a place and time, suggesting that Koppel had landed an interview. (“What I heard was Rather panicked for a second and then he got the joke,” said a source at CBS.)
In the end, the joke was on Koppel. On Wednesday, Rather became the first American journalist to interview the Iraqi president. Their discussion was broadcast that night.
The networks have spent roughly two-thirds of their nightly newscasts on the crisis since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2.
As soon as the news of the invasion broke in the United States, CBS dispatched Rather first to London then to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. By the third day of the crisis, Rather was anchoring the news from Amman, Jordan, and the other networks were making excuses for why they hadn’t gone.
In the four weeks since the conflict began, the veteran reporter and anchor has reported from Dubai, Amman, Cairo, a warship in the Persian Gulf, Baghdad and Saudi Arabia. He is currently in Amman.
In addition to Rather, CBS has sent five news correspondents and three “60 Minutes” correspondents, including Mike Wallace, to Amman, Saudi Arabia, Cairo, Dubai, Tel Aviv, London and Moscow.
ABC, while sticking to its contention that anchor Peter Jennings could do a better job coordinating coverage at home, did blanket the region with reporters and send Koppel in as the first Western reporter allowed into Baghdad.
NBC, whose put-downs of CBS for sending Rather were the loudest and strongest, was not allowed into Iraq until Sunday, when Hussein opened the doors to all media, including Cable News Network. Not to be outdone, however, the network did send “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw and “Today” show host Bryant Gumbel to Saudi Arabia, and fielded 10 correspondents in the region. NBC claims to be the only network with a reporter in Iran.
“To call everybody up and say, ‘Dan Rather is going into Baghdad,’ as (CBS’) publicity department did, does not mean anything,” groused NBC’s Friedman. “We called no one and said Tom Brokaw is going to Saudi Arabia.”
Still, Friedman conceded that Brokaw’s eventual deployment was partly the result of competitive pressure.
Perhaps because his network was feeling the pinch so keenly, Friedman warned that rivalry can supplant news judgment in the race to cover a story like Iraq.
The race to get on first, Friedman said, can have devastating results if it means that an organization reports information that is not solidly pinned down. And it can result in coverage that, while containing information about all of the day’s activities, may not adequately analyze events or present the big picture.
“We end up chasing our tails sometimes because we think the others might be chasing down a story, and it doesn’t pan out,” agreed Bob Murphy, vice president of ABC News. “We spend a lot of time on what we call ‘protective coverage,’ staking out places because everybody else is staking them out. There’s a pack mentality that develops that you have to control.”
And running in a pack means that you don’t stray to explore an interesting situation that might be developing on the sidelines.
“What they’re going for is the jugular,” said Michael Emery, a professor and former chair of the journalism department at California State University at Northridge, who has been monitoring broadcasts about the crisis. “If they’re on the sidelines they’re not going to be deemed very useful in the rush for ratings.”
For example, Emery said, very few stories have been presented that offered serious insights into Arab culture and Arab views on the crisis. Among the exceptions, he said, were reports by Rather from Jordan and Baghdad.
Competition among journalists for the story is nothing new, and indeed is credited with spurring news organizations to break stories that have had lasting impacts.
“We go onto the playing field to win,” said Joe Peyronnin, vice president of CBS News. “To break news, to be the first, to bring the most information and intelligent analysis in the most important story that we’ve had around here in a long time--that is our goal.”
But when the pitch gets heightened, the contest can turn into a brawl.
On Aug. 9, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed source at NBC News who joked that the only action Rather saw in Jordan was a fight between housekeeping and room service at his hotel.
“He’s just watching Jordanian TV,” the Post quoted the executive as saying. “And we can do that from here.”
Rather responded with an interview in USA Today, in which he accused NBC’s Friedman of making the remarks, an accusation that Friedman denies. CBS sources also downplayed Friedman’s news judgment to a reporter at this newspaper.
Then, after Rather’s interview with Hussein, two executives at NBC told The Times that the only way CBS got the interview was by promising Hussein that the discussion would be broadcast in prime time.
“More NBC comments?” groaned CBS spokesman Tom Goodman. “More?”
Goodman said that as a matter of course, Rather tried to persuade Hussein to do the interview by extolling his network’s capabilities and reach, including its desire to broadcast the interview in prime time. Goodman dismissed NBC’s questions about the propriety of such techniques of persuasion as sour grapes.
And digs were not just aimed at NBC and CBS.
A source at one network insisted that ABC’s Koppel, who anchored his “Nightline” program from Baghdad and was the first network correspondent allowed into Iraq, used a longstanding personal relationship with “a major player in the situation” to get into that country. The source was apparently referring to Jordan’s King Hussein.
“When it gets personal, I get annoyed,” said ABC’s Murphy, who blamed newspaper columnists and writers as much as the other networks for the rancorous exchanges. “I don’t want to become part of the battle of whose anchor is in what city, and what they have or don’t have.”
But worrying about what the competition has or doesn’t have is inescapable, particularly when a ratings point or two can translate into millions of dollars for an organization.
The networks have refused to disclose how much money they are spending to cover Iraq. But they are happy to share the results of the ratings game. For the week ending Sunday, ratings for the nightly network news programs were up across the board compared to the weeks prior to Iraq’s attack on Kuwait. ABC was in first place with a 10.4 rating and 22 share, CBS had a 10.2 rating and 21 share, and NBC trailed with an 8.9 rating and 19 share.
Because the episode began with access problems--no one could get into Saudi Arabia or Iraq--and differences among the networks as to whether an anchor should have been sent, the rivalries have focused on those two areas.
“I think the other networks probably spent a pretty bad 24 hours when Koppel was in Baghdad, and we certainly hold our breath wondering where Dan (Rather) is every morning,” said Murphy. “We end up second-guessing ourselves.”
The bigger the story, the stronger the pressure from the pack, said Stephen Hess, who analyzes television for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. And that can be good or bad.
“There’s nothing wrong with competition--journalists, almost by definition, are very competitive people,” Hess said. “You hope that the competition produces something better. The irony is that in journalism it doesn’t always work that way.”