The face of war may never change, but the faces of those covering war do. And increasingly on television, in the ever-rising turbulence of the Persian Gulf, those faces are female.
Although the United States military still withholds women from direct combat, TV news executives are wisely now looking beyond gender when it comes to making potential combat assignments.
Female print reporters have covered combat in limited numbers at least as far back as World War II. Nevertheless, war reporting has traditionally been an overwhelmingly male bastion, and only one woman--Liz Trotta, then of NBC News--covered the Vietnam War on a regular, day-to-day basis for a network.
What a difference a few years and a war zone make, the irony being that in an area of the globe where women generally enjoy few of the rights that their Western counterparts do, female TV journalists are increasingly gaining the right to cover large-scale war and die in the desert with their male colleagues.
Just how much combat any reporters see in a gulf conflict, male or female, depends on press access granted by the Pentagon. Regardless of restrictions, however, even routine reporting on the gulf crisis is somewhat hazardous, for almost the entire Middle East now seems to be a potential war zone.
Each of the TV networks has included women in their rotations of personnel in the Persian Gulf since Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, and many female reporters and producers are also perilously situated in Persian Gulf states outside Saudi Arabia.
On the scene in Saudi Arabia now for ABC--and thus a part of any potential combat situation--are correspondent Linda Pattillo and field producer Robin Weiner, and the network’s managing producer in the country is Los Angeles bureau chief Kathy O’Hearn.
NBC has its Miami bureau chief Susan Lasalla in Saudi Arabia as a producer. Among the CBS contingent in Saudi Arabia are Martha Teichner and producer Lucy Spiegel, and the network says correspondent Betsy Aaron may soon return there as well.
The network where the narrowing gulf-reporting gender gap is most visible, though, is CNN. Not only does CNN have a an all-female camera crew in Saudi Arabia (Maria Fleet and Jane Evans), it has in London-born, Frankfurt-based Christiane Amanpour a rare TV reporter who has been assigned to the Persian Gulf crisis almost since its inception. Plus, she is a member of one of the media combat pools organized by the Pentagon.
Amanpour was sent to Saudi Arabia in early August on the strength of her coverage of the dramatic and volatile political changes that had erupted throughout Eastern Europe. “She showed she could cope with fast-breaking events in a deft fashion, and she displayed a strength at extemporaneous live reporting,” said CNN executive vice president Ed Turner from Atlanta.
Nevertheless, Turner acknowledged that because of the Saudi attitude toward women, he had reservations about sending in Amanpour. “In the past, when we had women correspondents or crew people in Saudi Arabia or Iran or Iraq, they had some difficulties,” Turner said.
In the early days of the crisis, because of Saudi restrictions on travel by women, Amanpour could get through Saudi checkpoints only by identifying a man she was with as her husband, Turner said.
“So she had 12 husbands,” he said. “But the problems have not been an impediment for Christiane, and she has more than made up for them with her competence.”
Meanwhile, NBC executive news director Don Browne doesn’t see the heightened visibility of female TV journalists in war zones as revolutionary. “A great many women have been covering the conflict in Central America, which became an opportunity for women to volunteer for tough situations,” he noted. “And during the height of Beirut, we had women managers like Bonnie Anderson running the place.” Moreover, CBS’ Teichner herself was one of the network reporters who intermittently covered the 1980s violence in the besieged Lebanese capital.
In terms of the potential for covering full-blown combat, however, the TV women in Saudi Arabia are direct spinoffs from Trotta, who did several Vietnam tours of varying lengths for NBC. She won an Overseas Press Club award in 1968 for her reporting there.
“No one would let me go, so I started begging for the assignment in 1965,” Trotta said from New York. “A couple of women went over (to Vietnam) and did features, but our bureau chief there just did not want to let a woman go to war.”
Only when he was transferred out, Trotta said, was she allowed to go in.
“Everyone was very worried and told me I was going to get very bad treatment from the American military and from the Vietnamese,” she said. “The basic feeling was that if I was going there, it must be a stunt for television. But when you take your risks like everyone else, a lot of respect builds up. And the military was so happy to have an American woman around that I had as much access as the rest of the press did.”
The most resistance she got in Vietnam, Trotta said, “was from some of my male colleagues.”
Despite her own reputation as a tough, aggressive reporter, ironically, Trotta is opposed to women serving in combat. “They simply don’t belong in combat,” she said. “A lot of things like the feminist movement have clouded the basic differences between men and women--physical strength and basic psychological instincts regarding aggression and non-aggression.”
But aren’t female war correspondents also women in combat?
“You don’t have to fight the war when you cover the war,” Trotta said.
That makes war reporting sound almost glamorous and romantic. But not true. “War is wonderful,” Trotta said, “before it begins.”