TV News a Mix of Illumination and Speculation

Times Staff Writer

Television's foray into the Iraqi war has begun with a mix of drama, confusion and surreal images: a resolute president captured by a wobbly camera, correspondents reporting through gas masks, and daytime viewers seeing nighttime images in eerie green.

Satellite technology offered unprecedented imagery while uninterrupted live coverage produced awkward moments and rampant speculation as networks endeavored to fill time. When the first U.S. cruise missiles struck Baghdad, it triggered wall-to-wall coverage at the cable news channels and extended commercial-free stretches by the major broadcast networks. But with the main U.S.-led assault on Saddam Hussein still on hold, the broadcasters returned to regular programming Thursday night.

With concrete information in short supply, the early hours of war also produced admitted mistakes and plenty of guesses. "It is all speculation at the moment," ABC News anchor Peter Jennings warned viewers at one point.

Yet despite network efforts to prepare for the conflict, the coverage has also exposed the high-wire act of live television and the difficulty in achieving clarity in a medium whose immediacy -- its most compelling attribute -- can also be fraught with peril.

The TV audience saw a determined President Bush speaking to the nation from the White House on Thursday, while the camera shooting him shook. On Wednesday, all that CBS viewers saw for a time was anchor Dan Rather's hand as he used a pencil to point out key locations on a map of the Middle East.

After the first attack on a location that might have housed top Iraqi leadership, Fox News Channel anchor Laurie Dhue said, "We sent a bunker-buster in there and presumably got all these guys."

Videophones and other satellite-driven devices allowed "embedded" reporters to file dramatic reports from dangerous locations, often accompanied by grainy or blurred pictures. CNN's Walter Rodgers, with the Army's 7th Cavalry, ducked while taping a segment as an Iraqi shell zoomed overhead. It was a shot CNN repeated several times during the day.

CNN correspondent Nic Robertson, meanwhile, one of the few U.S. reporters in Baghdad, at one point said he had been "advised by Iraqi officials ... to stay away from reporting precise locations and particular buildings" after he detailed where bombs were landing.

ABC's afternoon anchor Charlie Gibson seemed particularly concerned at one point about correspondent Mike vonFrend when air sirens went off as he stood on the roof of a Kuwait City hotel.

"Mike, do you need to leave?" Gibson asked. "I'm worried about you."

Responded vonFrend, holding his gas mask: "This is the seventh time this has happened. We're OK."

Fox News' Greg Kelly, another embedded correspondent, emitted grunts of pain at the booming sound of explosions in the background. "It's almost a surreal experience watching these things as close as we are," he said.

Although the technology offers a wider view of the action than the Gulf War in 1991, when CNN had no cable competition, networks have still found themselves scrambling to fill time, using animation, file footage, military experts and night-vision photography to illustrate the story.

At one point, CBS News said that John Roberts may have been the first embedded journalist to file a report from within Iraq. It corrected itself a few hours later, saying his military escort had misjudged their position.

At another point, Jennings took issue with one of the network's military advisors, who suggested that the Iraqi forces had taken the strategic "initiative" in the war's early hours. Overall, however, most of the paid military advisors featured by the networks -- who occupied considerable time during the initial hours -- painted an overwhelmingly optimistic picture, excitedly discussing the boldness of the "decapitation" gambit and analyzing what the "target of opportunity" might entail.

Even satellite pictures and reports from advanced positions can be misleading, capturing glimpses of action that don't necessarily represent the bigger picture, media observers say.

"People can have a very vivid sense of what's going on in their immediate area and not know what's going on over the next hill," said Adam Clayton Powell III, a visiting professor of journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. As for some of the pictures, he said, the frequent shots of Baghdad used as a backdrop are "almost never very illuminating, except to show that Baghdad is still there. It could be Burbank Airport."

Without the anticipated full-scale assault by U.S. forces, several of the broadcast networks returned to regular prime-time programming Thursday. CBS, which shifted NCAA basketball tournament coverage to ESPN during the day, began airing the games by the late afternoon, while NBC reverted to its popular sitcoms "Friends" and "Will & Grace," though news specials were scheduled to replace "ER" and the network's late-night programs.

"Obviously, this is an hour-by-hour decision," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, who has roots in news as the former producer of the "Today" show. "If events warrant, we will be back on .... [But] it wasn't clear we would continue to advance the story with around-the-clock coverage."

Any early snafus notwithstanding, the cable news networks found plenty of reason to stay with their all-war, all-the-time coverage. Fox News, the current ratings leader, was the most-watched Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. PST, after the first strike occurred, to midnight. Fox, CNN and MSNBC each saw their ratings quintuple compared with their average audience during the current quarter.


Times staff writers Greg Braxton in Los Angeles and Elizabeth Jensen in New York contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday March 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction Peter Jennings photo -- In Friday's Section A, the caption for a photograph of ABC anchor Peter Jennings in Baghdad should have noted that it was taken before the war with Iraq had begun.
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