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TV AND THE GULF WAR : Networks Beat a Quick Retreat to Business as Usual : News: There were follow-ups to President Bush’s announcement, then a rush to get back to the end of the February ratings sweeps.

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

At 6 p.m., President Bush made his announcement--you know, the one that said “Iraq’s army is defeated.”

By 7 p.m., KCBS Channel 2 was showing “Wheel of Fortune,” KNBC Channel 4 was airing “Entertainment Tonight” and KABC Channel 7 was presenting “Inside Edition.”

Before you know it, prime-time entertainment was filling the screen--"Unsolved Mysteries,” “The Wonder Years,” “The Flash.”

TV heals quickly. It’s withdrawal was quicker than Iraq’s.

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True, you never know with Saddam Hussein. But this was history and a big story, and Americans have spilled blood in the Gulf War.

But it didn’t seem to matter on TV as it whipped right by the life-and-death TV show half a world away. It was business as usual--tasteless and in an unseemly hurry.

There were, of course, the immediate follow-up network reports to Bush’s speech--and other specials to come later.

But for TV, it was the final night of the February ratings sweeps--which help set ad prices for TV stations. And first things come first.

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CNN, naturally, dug into the human response to the story that had held the world captive for 42 days. A quick visit to the Camp Pendleton Marine base captured the sense of joy and hope.

Earlier in the day, TV’s coverage of the Gulf War looked like a mopping-up operation--a story in search of an ending.

It finally came with Bush’s victory announcement and his statement that the allies were calling a suspension of offensive combat operations.

The end seemed imminent Wednesday as TV suddenly focused on such subjects as how to rebuild Iraq.

It was upbeat TV all the way--with almost nothing negative shown to dilute the celebratory atmosphere of the allied victory and the freeing of Kuwait City.

If the U.S.-led coalition was using TV to humiliate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein worldwide--to assure his total demise--it was succeeding. At every political and military turn, he was belittled on TV.

The ultimate put-down came from Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, in an hourlong briefing Wednesday carried by ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN.

A reporter lobbed one down the middle for Schwarzkopf, asking him to assess Hussein as a military leader, and the general knocked it out of the park.

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“As far as Saddam Hussein being a great military strategist,” said Schwarzkopf, “he is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational arts, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier. Other than that, he’s a great military man.”

The TV impact of the statement was such that it probably will be repeated in retrospectives for years, as Schwarzkopf delivered the line with impeccable, theatrical timing. He was, in fact, in an obvious good mood, summing up the entire military conflict in a TV performance that told how victory was achieved.

“I’ll be very happy to take any questions,” he said at one point. In another sure TV sound bite that immediately was picked up after his session, he used football terminology--the “Hail Mary play"--to describe a military maneuver.

Schwarzkopf’s briefing was so colorful that ABC planned to rerun it in its entirety following Wednesday’s “Nightline.”

But the allies’ put-downs of Hussein on TV had heightened earlier with distrusting rejections of Iraqi offers to pull out of Kuwait.

The way things were going on the TV screen--victory in Kuwait City, Iraqi soldiers surrendering in large numbers--the allies clearly wanted nothing less than a total political wipeout.

CBS correspondent Richard Threlkeld said in Kuwait that six Iraqis surrendered to a CBS News crew, “which is an indication of how desperate they are.”

And in another apparent worldwide TV maneuver to separate Hussein from other Arabs, the allied military briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia--carried by CNN--was conducted by Saudi Col. Ahmed Al-Roboyan of the Joint Arab Forces.

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There seemed to be far fewer censored TV reports Wednesday after the media breakout from pool reporting to cover the freeing of Kuwait City.

Images will remain, however, of the bombed-out barracks in Saudi Arabia, where 28 Americans were killed and 100 were wounded. And images will remain of the bombed-out bunker in Baghdad, where hundreds of Iraqis died.

But TV sensed it might all finally be ending. On Wednesday, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather were in Kuwait City to do their nightly newscasts and Ted Koppel was set to present “Nightline” from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as the networks moved in for the kill.


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