NEW YORK - With Sunday's election in Iraq, the anchor desks at American TV networks were empty again.
Brian Williams, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather were all on the road, anchoring their evening newscasts from the war zone last week and wearing flak jackets to give viewers a sense of life in Iraq at this pivotal moment in history.
Taking the broadcasts to where news is happening is getting cheaper and easier with new technology, and is an important part of a producer's playbook. Experts say it's happening more frequently than at any time since the fall of communism in the late 1980s.
"At the very core of what we do every night is convey stories of importance to the audience and nothing conveys importance more than when Peter shows up on a story," said Jon Banner, executive producer of Jennings' "World News Tonight" on ABC.
Since taking over from Tom Brokaw in December, NBC's Williams has been on the road more than he's been in the network's New York studio, said "Nightly News" executive producer Steve Capus.
Besides Iraq, Williams went to Indonesia in the aftermath of the tsunami and took trips to Dallas, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh in advance of President Bush's second inauguration.
The mobile anchor is also key to new chief executive Jonathan Klein's remake of CNN. Anderson Cooper was in Iraq last week. In the tsunami aftermath, Cooper, Aaron Brown and Soledad O'Brien all originated their programs from hard-hit areas. Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith also went to Iraq.
"It's a way to personify the network's commitment to being on the scene of a major story," Klein said. "It's very important, especially in a fragmented media environment, that your network is present in a big way."
Rather, who has been in Iraq more than a dozen times for the "CBS Evening News," is in large part responsible for the expectation that an anchor should also report, said Klein, a former executive at CBS News.
When he was the new anchor competing against the likes of John Chancellor, Rather saw reporting as a way to distinguish himself, Klein said. He's still antsy behind the desk, and left for Iraq shortly after being in Washington for the inauguration - even though he's a month away from stepping down as top anchor.
"He redefined the way the anchor is deployed in a much more energetic way," Klein said.
Simply because of who they are, and the platform they offer, the anchors often get access to stories and officials that others can't, said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News."
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, made time for Jennings, Williams and Smith in the past week. Former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer was another popular stop for anchors when he was still in power.
Jennings scored two important coups while on past trips to Iraq: He was one of the few TV reporters on hand when control of the country was handed over early from the United States, and also saw Saddam Hussein's first appearance since his capture.
"It brings attention to the story and concentrates the minds of the news division," said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who monitors the content of news programs. "It makes them go the extra mile because they want to make the anchor look good."
Some producers will admit it, and some won't, but competition sometimes helps decide the itineraries. Network executives have been known to quietly call journalists who cover the industry to ask if a rival anchor is going on location before making a decision on whether their own will go.
It is noticed when someone stays behind, like when Jennings didn't travel after the tsunami. ABC said he was under doctor's orders not to.
"Peter has a lot going on and we need to choose the times in which we travel wisely," Banner said. "We don't do it at the drop of a hat. We think long and hard about these situations."
The trips cost money, even though the pricetag is lower because fewer personnel are needed to run the show from a remote location than a decade ago. Tyndall believes budget factors kept Rather at his desk more than he wished.
As CBS learned last fall, there's a danger in riding anchors too hard. The independent panel that looked into the network's poor handling of a story on President Bush's military service found that Rather, overtired from traveling to a hurricane and covering the Republican convention, didn't ask important questions. It appeared Rather never even saw the story he narrated until it went on the air.
Murphy said that incident shouldn't be an excuse for keeping anchors close to home.
"We all work very hard," he said. "We try to make sure we cover all the bases."
It isn't only news that drives anchors to the airport. The industry has made note of campaign-style trips across the country by Jennings in the years before his chief rival, Brokaw, left NBC's "Nightly News." Bringing the broadcast to a city focuses attention there, and may make more local viewers tune in.
While Banner said promotional activities are part of what Jennings does on these trips, more time is spent reporting. The most recent swing, to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri, was timed to hit expected battleground states in the month before November's election.
"It is a way for us to get out of the bubble of New York and Washington and find out what people view as the priorities," he said.
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