Originally created 01/25/03

TV networks plan for a war that may - or may not - come



NEW YORK -- There are times when Eason Jordan, CNN's chief of newsgathering logistics, can relate to the generals preparing for a possible war in Iraq.

He's already sent hundreds of "troops" to combat school, he commands the movements of eight armored vehicles and controls enough electronic equipment to suck up a power plant's worth of energy.

For months, the broadcast and cable news networks have been readying themselves for a conflict that may, or may not, take place.

CNN, expected to send more journalists into the region than any other American network, has budgeted a reported $35 million for war coverage.

On executives' minds: slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; the experiences of Sept. 11; a new generation of technology; and a potential thawing of television news' relationship with the Pentagon.

Combat school is a new wrinkle for many news organizations. Training programs are run by former military personnel to teach journalists how to avoid dangerous situations and protect against chemical attack.

"It's important because of the unknowns in this particular war," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage at CBS. "One is the Daniel Pearl issue - one of the training bits they address is the issue of being kidnapped and how you deal with being a hostage."

Pearl was abducted and killed a year ago in Pakistan while researching a story on Islamic militancy.

CBS has sent about 70 people through the training; CNN about 450. ABC and NBC staff members have also gone through these programs.

Viewers can expect wall-to-wall news coverage on CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC when war breaks out. The cable networks already air regular programs in anticipation of a conflict.

McGinnis said she expected CBS to air nonstop coverage for 24 to 72 hours if war breaks out. The network's plans - a lot of live reports during the day from the war zone and lengthier ones to offer perspective in prime time - recall the pattern used in the four days of commercial-free coverage after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"How the war is conducted will define the extent of coverage, but I think it's fair to say that at the outbreak of hostilities, the commercial networks will go on the air and stay on the air for quite some time," said Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News.

Since the Gulf War, broadcast satellite uplinks have become smaller and easier to move. The videophone is now a common television tool; a reporter can go on the air from virtually anywhere.

"Broadcast equipment is lighter and more mobile and that allows you to move around and broadcast more from the region," said Chuck Lustig, in charge of war planning at ABC News. "It takes less people to operate them, which allows you to use less people to cover things."

And unlike the Gulf War or the war on terrorism, news organizations are expecting a chance to see more of the action.

Several of the news executives say they sense more cooperation from the Pentagon than in recent conflicts. They expect journalists to accompany military personnel on missions, with the understanding that nothing will be revealed that could put people in danger.

That would be historic; relations between the press and the military have been frayed since the Vietnam War. Jordan said he's talked to many field commanders who were frustrated that many of the good things they did during the Gulf War didn't get covered because journalists weren't there to independently verify.

"I think they realize that perhaps they made a mistake in keeping us away from everything," McGinnis said.

Former CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw said that he was troubled by the idea of journalists allowing themselves to be taken under the wing of the U.S. military.

"I think journalists that agree to go with combat units effectively become hostages of the military, which can control the movements of the journalists but, more importantly, control their ability, when they file their stories," Shaw said in a return appearance on CNN last week.

The military should also not be concerned about the journalists' safety, he said. "That's not their mission."

Safety is a worry for the executives. The very things that may make a war in Iraq compelling to viewers - television's need to deliver live reports whenever possible, the advanced technology that makes reporters more mobile - may also make it a riskier assignment.

Jordan has tried, without success, to persuade the Iraqis not to force foreign journalists to work from Baghdad's ministry of information building. The site is vulnerable to attack, since it also houses Iraqi state television and has anti-aircraft guns, he said.

"This will be, potentially, the most dangerous conflict in decades for journalists," Jordan said. "My number one concern is the safety of our people in the field. You could see things get very ugly in Iraq."