In the news divisions of its three rival networks, Cable News Network’s coup in broadcasting live from Baghdad for the first two days of the Persian Gulf War has fostered moods ranging from envy to open contempt for the all-news network.
Executives at NBC, ABC and CBS grumble that CNN courted and received special treatment from the Iraqi government in order to gain a technical advantage over its three rivals and, rather than share the advantage with their competitors, allowed the Iraqi government to cut off the phone line.
The much-touted “four-wire” phone line that allowed CNN reporters Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett to report live and uncensored from Room 906 of Baghdad’s El Rashid Hotel during the opening sorties of the war is a commonly used apparatus by all four networks, particularly in Middle East nations where normal phone lines are notoriously unpredictable.
Furthermore, it is cheap: CNN’s four-wire from Baghdad only cost the network $15,000 per month to lease and operate, according to CNN spokesman Steve Haworth.
“It’s a pretty piddly figure in comparison to the cost of satellite time,” Haworth said.
One-third to one-half of the $15 million that CNN spent covering the gulf situation during the final five months of 1990 was to lease transmission time on communications satellites, Haworth told The Times. By comparison, the invaluable Baghdad four-wire line cost almost nothing, he said.
A four-wire is a private, dedicated, open phone line that does not go through the standard switching systems of a normal phone system. Instead, it consists of two direct pairs of telephone lines--one pair in each direction. The Baghdad four wire ran across the Iraqi desert floor and connected to a microwave transmission dish in Amman, Jordan, which then relayed phone signals by satellite to CNN headquarters in Atlanta.
Because the apparatus itself consists of two open phone lines in both directions, producers at the Atlanta headquarters of CNN could talk with the correspondent in Baghdad while the correspondent was actually on the air, speaking live to CNN’s audience.
“It took us two months to negotiate,” Haworth said. “Obviously, the technology’s not secret: Everybody uses it. No deals were cut. But I’ve never seen the panic like that coming out of New York (where CNN’s three rival networks are headquartered).”
The news divisions of the other three major U.S. TV networks were more than willing to plunk down the $15,000-per-month for the apparatus. The problem, according to spokesmen at ABC, CBS and NBC, is that they were never given the opportunity that CNN was given.
“I went to Baghdad at Christmas and the first thing I saw was that we didn’t have a four-wire in place,” said NBC foreign-news chief David Miller.
Miller said that NBC joined CBS, ABC and CNN in lobbying the Iraqi Foreign and Information ministries for the communications setup, beginning in early November. All four networks succeeded in getting the necessary approval until they reached the last hurdle.
According to an ABC News source who asked not to be named, ABC was told that it, too, could have a four-wire if it would agree to open a bureau in Baghdad--a costly proposition that the network declined to do. When ABC renewed its request for a four-wire, it was ignored.
“All I know was that we made the same request (that CNN did),” said ABC News spokeswoman Sherrie Rollins. “They’ve had an advantage. I don’t know whether I’d call it unfair but they (CNN) certainly have done a good job (of lobbying).”
“We had been after (the Iraqi government) for months,” said CBS News spokeswoman Donna Dees. “I can’t speak for CNN, but we were certainly persistent. And we were denied, clear up to the day that the war started.”
The stumbling block, according to NBC’s Miller, was the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.
“In Iraq, that’s actually the police and you have to get their permission,” Miller said. “They never say ‘no.’ They just never act on your request. We couldn’t get final clearance from the Ministry of the Interior, so we couldn’t get a four-wire.”
But according to CNN correspondents Holliman and Shaw, who drove in a four-car convoy out of Iraq last Friday, CNN’s behind-the-scenes staff--particularly CNN producer Bob Wiener in Baghdad--worked hard for weeks lobbying Iraqi officials for the four-wire. CNN’s Iraq crew simply out-badgered ABC, CBS and NBC in dealing with Iraqi officials, they maintained.
“We started to negotiate back in September: Faxing, calling, pestering the Information Ministry as much as we could,” said one CNN source. “It was their perseverance that finally paid off. The other networks just gave up too early. I think Dennis Miller (of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”) probably put it best last weekend on Weekend Update: ‘What you’re hearing from the other networks is the whining of outgunned competitors.’ ”
But NBC’s David Miller said that CNN had an automatic “in” with Saddam Hussein’s hierarchy because the dictator and his closest advisers are all CNN fans.
“They (CNN) took whatever Iraq put out and broadcast it over and over again,” Miller said. “They have to do it over and over again because they are a 24-hour operation and they do it to fill up the time.”
The message to Hussein, Miller said, was that CNN was a marvelous propaganda tool. Whenever Hussein had a photo opportunity during the five months leading up to the war, he saw it broadcast over and over on CNN. And, because CNN alone is available on satellite in Baghdad, he didn’t know what any of the other networks were broadcasting.
CNN responded that it does indeed broadcast Iraqi government footage, but not without attempting to balance it with anchor commentary, disclaimers and interview material from U.S. or other non-Iraqi sources.