TV AND THE GULF WAR : TV Resorts to Quickspeak After Hussein's Radio Talk

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Waiting for war, Phase Two. . . .

It began at 7 a.m. Thursday when CNN began airing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's radio address responding to the Soviet plan for ending hostilities in the Persian Gulf.

Nerve-jangling Phase One came less than six weeks ago, an escalation of tensions leading to the Jan. 17 initial Baghdad bombardment, whose sounds were so chillingly captured on CNN.

Phase Two concerns the once-expected, now-uncertain land war. And while waiting for the United States to push that button--and also for Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz to deliver a more formal response to the Kremlin proposal--TV pushed its own buttons, those hasty, shrill overreactions that inflate slender reeds of inconclusive news into swollen generalizations.

If one of the war's traits is a coded gulfspeak , surely another is TV's quickspeak , gushing, empty babble that ultimately proves meaningless if not erroneous.

The immediate aftermath of Hussein's radio speech affirmed ABC's superiority over CBS and ABC in gulf coverage. Peter Jennings' calm, measured, informed anchoring from New York stood out from the crowd, and ABC's military expert, Tony Cordesman, and Middle East pundits Judith Kipper and William Quandt added their usual reasoned assessments.

What irony. NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather had both flown to Saudi Arabia to give the appearance of being closer to the war story. Yet now they were on the outside looking in, for the story was in Moscow and Washington, not Dhahran, where they stood outside in their jackets, bracing themselves against the chill.

Not that a little cold would ever stop Brokaw from heating up.

As Kipper, Quandt and others warned that Hussein's domestic-aimed radio bombast did not necessarily reflect the formal response that Aziz was carrying to Moscow, Brokaw proceeded to carefully couch his words in hysteria.

Just when it was that network anchors first designated themselves the nation's news wizards is unknown, yet self-proclaimed wizards they are.

Early in the war, Brokaw had flat-out predicted several times that Israel would respond militarily to Iraqi Scud attacks. Now, moments after hearing a translation of Hussein's radio speech, he weighed in again.

He predicted: "It's probably going to lead to a ground war." He continued: "You don't have to be an Arabist or a sophisticated analyst to know that this (Hussein) is a man prepared to take himself down and his people down in a distorted sense of martyrdom." He added: "It's hard to see in any of that (the radio speech), a man willing to . . . negotiate."

Brokaw was not alone in prematurely judging. Tritia Toyota launched KCBS Channel 2's noon newscast by concluding about Hussein and the Soviet proposal: "If Saddam's message . . . today is any indication, it appears he has rejected it." But he hadn't.

Meanwhile, the countdown that began with Hussein's radio talk was continuing on CNN.

At 1:35 p.m., a smiling Aziz was shown getting off a plane in Moscow. At 1:59, he was shown being greeted by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. At 2:10, CNN promised a briefing from Moscow. At 2:19, still waiting. At 2:31, still waiting. At 3:10, still waiting. At 3:22, any moment now. At 3:28, still waiting.

Finally, at 3:37, Soviet spokesman Vitaly N. Ignatenko faced the camera and announced Iraq's "positive" response to the peace proposal.

The networks jumped, one by one, going live for analysis. "At least there is something to talk about," said a now calmer Brokaw, his earlier remarks apparently erased from NBC's memory disc.

There was a time when "instant analysis" were the dirty words of TV news, with legions of viewers outraged, for example, by journalists' knee-jerk dissections of televised presidential addresses. Yet now, weighed against the instantaneous TV reporting of today, those excesses seem almost quaint.

At 4:19 p.m., for example, about a half-hour after Ignatenko had concluded his Kremlin briefing, KABC Channel 7's Christine Lund was on the line with Alex Paen, the station's man in Amman, Jordan.

"Is it too soon to ask you if it is gonna be a legitimate offer?" she wondered about Iraq's response to the Soviet plan.

As if on automatic pilot, the Los Angeles-based Paen immediately spoke for all Jordanians: "They feel the ball is in the U.S. court. They feel it is genuine. Everyone is optimistic here." He must have perceived this through the walls of his hotel room, for in Jordan it was still the middle of the night.

Less than an hour later, Channel 7 anchor Paul Moyer got on the phone with Paen himself. "Sorry to put you on the spot at . . . 3 in the morning over there," Moyer apologized, "but that's the way things happen." Unfortunately.

At least Channel 7 commentator Bruce Herschensohn gave a proper context to his own comments on the Iraqi response. "Look," he said, "I could be proven wrong in a matter of minutes. These are some quick thoughts."

Meanwhile, the TV countdown resumed, this time leading to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater's statement on the day's big development. CNN used the minutes preceding Fitzwater's appearance to speculate on what he would say, and then speculate on the reaction to what he might say if he did say it.

What he said, at 5:45 p.m., was that President Bush found "serious flaws" in the Iraqi response, that the air war would continue and that a ground war was "still under consideration."

So the war wait proceeds, only this time with an optimism mirroring the prediction by one network anchorman Thursday night that the chances are now good for peace.

Better not bank on it. The anchorman was Brokaw.

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