Here in St. Louis, the first bulletins of attacks on Iraq coincided with a major thunderstorm. It was eerie seeing reports of cruise missiles falling on Baghdad while hearing the very loud rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning outside our own windows. I knew we weren’t being attacked, but I’ll admit I did go take a peek through the blinds just to make sure.
With stories like this, I go into total news junkie mode. Watching several networks at once is standard procedure now, but while doing so, I thought about how different it is from previous crises.
There I was last night, sitting in my home office, constantly changing channels on my Dish Network receiver, pulling in five different all-news networks along with the four broadcast networks, plus two live feeds from the BBC. I also had the radio tuned into my station, to see what they had, and simultaneously clicking around the internet to find even more information — and to see who had what and when — from newspapers’ sites and the bloggers.
That’s markedly different from the first Gulf War, when the internet was in its nascent stages and useless for real-time info, so we had to rely on the three main TV networks and CNN, which was the only cable news outlet.
But even that was light years beyond the experience of a decade earlier. I vividly remember driving home early one afternoon in March, 1981, and hearing that President Reagan had been shot. As soon as I got to my living room, I pulled a chair up to the TV — and I mean right next to the TV — and, with no cable and no remote (!) clicked and clunked the tuner back and forth between ABC, CBS, and NBC.
The advances in technology aren’t just at home, of course. In ’91 we got reports from stationary correspondents, wired to phone lines at their hotels. This time, we’re seeing reporters going live from the battlefield with the troops, and what’s so remarkable is how much most viewers take it in stride, as if they expect nothing less.
This morning, I heard several reports from Rick Leventhal of FNC, who is embedded with the Marines of the 3rd Light Armored Recon Battalion (they call themselves the “tip of the spear”). He was live from the Kuwait-Iraq border, and was broadcasting via satellite phone while the troops around him engaged in a live firefight! Rick is the one who broke the news that the Iraqis were lighting up the southern Rumaylah oil fields. Even without live video, it made for compelling TV to hear him describe the Marines engaging the enemy with lots of heavy weaponry on the ground and Cobra helicopters flying close overhead as they aimed at targets on the horizon.
I used to work with Rick’s sister, Leigh, and he’s been on my show a few times, so I know that this is exactly where he wants to be — as close to the action as possible. He’s that kind of reporter, and I could hear the adrenalin in his reports.
There were other correspondents whose coverage stood out, including some elder statesmen. Ted Koppel, of all people, was live with some Marines in the Kuwaiti desert, painting pictures with his words, as usual. And you can always count on Peter Arnett to stick his head out the window and describe a missile attack half a block away.
Richard Engel of ABC may be gutsier that Arnett in his live reporting. CNN’s Nic Robertson was first to debunk the story about the US taking over the state-run radio to announce to Iraqis, “This is the day you’ve waited for.” He knew that was wrong because he was actually listening to the radio in his room.
Kyra Phillips of CNN was on the air live from the USS Abe Lincoln, showing F-18 Super Hornets taking off. There’s always been something unbelievably cool about the notion of planes landing and taking off from the deck of a ship at sea, even before “Top Gun.”
It was stunning to see video of Tomahawk missiles launching from the USS Constellation and headed towards those “targets of opportunity” in Baghdad. What made it more stunning is that the video (looking just like a scene in “Under Siege”) had been sent back to US broadcasters from the ship by e-mail!
David Martin, CBS Pentagon correspondent, may have had the line of the night when he explained how expensive each Tomahawk missile is. He said, “we just spent $50 million trying to get whoever was in that bunker.”
Walter Rodgers of CNN was with the 7th Cavalry, who hadn’t even heard that the war had started until he lent them his shortwave radio. They were surprised to hear the news, but said they were glad it had started, because they were ready to fight. The desert must be a very boring place.
Who didn’t distinguish themselves? Peter Jennings, for one. While Brokaw and Rather were on the air as soon as their networks broke in with bulletins, Jennings was nowhere to be seen. Maybe that’s why ABC was more than 10 minutes behind the others in even getting on the air, but even then, it was with Chris Wallace for the next 15 minutes until Peter finally slid into the anchor chair.
Also on the “ought to be ashamed” list is KDNL-30, the ABC affiliate here in St. Louis, which dumped its entire local news department over a year ago. That meant that, at 10pm, when the networks broke for their stations to insert their own local newscasts, KDNL went to an episode of the lame syndicated game show, “The Weakest Link.” That should be their official station slogan.
As I write this on Thursday afternoon, the Pentagon still hasn’t launched the “shock and awe” phase of the war. That seems to be disappointing to most TV anchors, because there isn’t nearly as much rich video for them to exploit. In the opening hours, the only shot of Baghdad was from the single stable camera, which provided video to all the nets, focused on that mosque with the phallic-looking steeple on top.
I couldn’t help but thinking that, with the number of bombs and missiles that will land in Baghdad over the next few days, that steeple may end up needing some Viagra.
If I were a top Iraqi official, and knew that the US was going to bomb the hell out of the city while trying to protect innocent civilians by only attacking military posts and command and control centers, I would have spent all my time in someone’s nice private home somewhere. My colleague, Frank, said he’d go one further, and make camp at a KinderCare facility. Maybe that’s what Saddam was doing, and still is.
If that wasn’t Saddam on Iraqi TV, it was the best lookalike I’ve ever seen. He may not have the world’s number one military, but there’s no doubt that Saddam Hussein does have the world’s largest eyeglasses. Each of those lenses looked bigger than the monitor on most laptops — at one point, I swear I saw his left eye re-boot.
Aren’t you glad we don’t live in a country where our leader wears a military uniform? There’s something comforting about the top guy in a suit, but dictators like the uniform look, for some reason. It’s not like Saddam is going out into the desert to fight the invaders, after all.
What was odd was that on Thursday afternoon, President Bush did a photo op with his cabinet, which wasn’t carried live, but replayed for the press a few minutes later on tape delay. With the questions about Saddam’s TV appearance the night before, why didn’t we see our own President live?
One last question, for now: when did we start pronouncing “Qatar” like it follows “Welcome Back…”?