'Baghdad': When CNN was the news

Call it the gap in the Gulf.

On Jan. 16, 1991, CNN earned a stunning scoop by broadcasting from Baghdad in the early hours of the U.S.-led air strike on the Iraqi capital that began that year's brief Persian Gulf War.

The messengers -- anchor Bernard Shaw and reporters Peter Arnett and John Holliman -- were hunkered down perilously in their suite in the Al Rashid Hotel, at one point hiding under furniture to escape detection from Iraqi security officials. Even under duress, they delivered vivid first-person telephone accounts of the bombardment after ABC, CBS and NBC had lost contact with their own reporters at this hotel quartering Western media in Baghdad.

From their vantage point overlooking the city they saw red tracers from anti-aircraft guns streak the night sky. They heard the booms, and a microphone Holliman placed in a window beamed sounds of war to an eavesdropping U.S. much as Edward R. Murrow used his CBS radio microphone as an electronic megaphone during the London blitz at the onset of World War II.

As Allied bombers continued to clobber Baghdad, CNN's journalistic victory was no less decisive. At one point in the evening, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was on the phone quizzing the CNN trio about the pounding the Iraqis were taking. And Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney noted in a press briefing that he, too, was getting his information about the attack's accuracy from CNN in Baghdad.

How were these CNN scrappers able to score such a beat against more established, higher-profile competitors?

The answer rolls out pulsatingly in "Live From Baghdad," an HBO movie spun from a book by Robert Wiener, the former CNN senior executive producer who was in that city coordinating the cable news network's coverage in the months leading to the first air bombardment.

Morocco's Casablanca stands in for Baghdad as director Mick Jackson mingles fresh reenactments with 1991 news footage in a story as snappy as a CNN sound bite. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton has Wiener launching wisecracks like Patriot missiles, Helena Bonham Carter is fashionably disarrayed as veteran CNN producer Ingrid Formanek, and David Suchet is a stony obstructionist as Ministry of Information official Naji Al-Hadithi (now Iraq's foreign minister; he's also called Naji Sabri). The performances work when the actors aren't filling dramatic pauses by searching each other's eyes to distraction.

Is this how things really evolved behind the scenes, with Wiener the swaggering, tenacious impresario, and CNN and Saddam Hussein locked in a classic news media-newsmaker symbiosis that had each trying to manipulate the other as a drum roll for war grew louder?

HBO asks you to trust this TV account credited to Wiener, Richard Chapman, John Patrick Shanley and Timothy J. Sexton. And much of it is well documented.

As the movie recalls, Wiener and his crew were continuously censored, shadowed and spied on by the Iraqis. CNN clearly got jobbed at times, most notably when unwittingly used by Iraq to rebut unsubstantiated reports that its troops were plucking babies from incubators in Kuwait City. But just as clearly, CNN was hardly the Iraqi dupe alleged by such fatuous demagogues as Charlton Heston and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, who publicly questioned the patriotism of Arnett when Iraq let him report from Baghdad through much of the 40-day war.

Given today's headlines, and the looming prospect of another U.S. invasion of Iraq, the timeliness of "Live From Baghdad" speaks for itself, as media everywhere gear up for new war with the old one still resonating in their minds.

Would things be different for the media in a new war? The Pentagon is now running boot camps for reporters while promising to have them "embedded" in combat units, compared with the limited access granted them in the earlier Iraq conflict, and more recently Afghanistan. What's more, today's TV reporters can use video phones to deliver sound and pictures from anywhere, a big upgrade from the four-way phone lines used by CNN and others in 1991. And with the Arab network Al Jazeera up and running, Iraq may no longer need a U.S. media pipeline.

Yet none of that addresses war reporting tainted by speed-induced miscalls arising from pressure to be on the air first with the most.

Although it tells its narrow story well, in a sense "Live From Baghdad" buries the lead. HBO's movie about the heady 1991 success of its AOL Time Warner sister company ends at a point -- just after the initial bombing -- when the war's bigger media story was just beginning.

It was true, as Brokaw generously noted on the air that night, that CNN no longer would be known as "the little network that could." But coming days affirmed that a more significant threshold had been crossed.

With its skittish coverage of this air war, television became its own Scud, wildly hurtling through space after bursting through all journalistic restraints into some hazardous, uncharted technological realm from which there would be no return.

This was the gate that Bob Wiener and his CNN commandos flung open that evening in Baghdad after arriving six months prior to a United Nations deadline for Iraqi forces to withdraw from Kuwait.

If Vietnam was the first living-room war, this was the first to play out as a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants media spectacular, a regular, honest-to-goodness show on TV starring TV.

Along with incredible benefits, the medium's hair-trigger live reporting on the war soon also yielded incredible confusion and misinformation. Everything learned -- whether information or rumor -- was automatically sped on to viewers, as if bypassing the brain when moving from ear to mouth. At any point, you could have heard something that conflicted with something reported a half-hour earlier.

It meant that war coverage, like other epic stories, no longer would evolve in the traditional way, for the process of reporting the story had become the story. If correspondents of yesteryear were measured by how well they shaped their stories, TV's Gulf War correspondents got famous fast for being their stories. In fact, never before had a war produced less real news than news stars, with Baghdad boys Shaw and Holliman, for example, coming home to a tickertape tribute on CNN prior to taking questions from the nation's press in a conference call.

Would a looser Pentagon war-reporting policy alter that mind-set?

When returning to Baghdad after their incubator-babies adventure long before the bombing began, CNN's crew was met by media swarms wanting to hear the latest from Kuwait. Formanek is prophetic in the movie regarding this blurry relationship of messenger to message.

"You know what has happened?" she tells her colleagues. "We've just become the story."

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Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.

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