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Television networks line up their own troops

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2003

She won an award for covering America's first war with Iraq, but Parisa Khosravi can't say with certainty how reporting of any new hostilities in the Persian Gulf might unfold on TV.

Khosravi, senior vice president/managing editor for international news gathering at CNN, does know one thing: It won't be like the recent HBO movie on the newschannel's groundbreaking 1991 coverage, Live From Baghdad.

"That movie stopped when things started happening," noted Khosravi of the film, which recounted how CNN journalists relayed audio reports at the start of U.S. bombing 12 years ago, providing the only Western news accounts from Iraq's capital. "Today, we are assessing the situation (in Baghdad) hourly. The Ministry of Information is known as a target. . . . That's where we transmit (stories) live. We have changed our hotel to a less dangerous area. I'm not sure we'll be there when the time comes."

Currently, CNN has about 200 people deployed throughout the Middle East, with four in Baghdad, including producer Ingrid Formanek and reporter Nic Roberts, who were both in Baghdad in 1991. Though ABC and NBC have pulled reporters from the city, CBS correspondent Laura Logan and former CNN correspondent Peter Arnett (now a reporter for MSNBC's National Geographic Explorer who will appear on NBC News and MSNBC) have remained.

Given that two antiaircraft guns are on the roof of the Ministry of Information building, where Iraqi officials now require Western TV journalists to broadcast their stories, concerns about safety and seeing staffers used as shields by Iraqi military remain high.

Already, the largest American TV networks have agreed to share video footage in the first 24 hours of the war, with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN all joining the pact. MSNBC will also feature reporters from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.

The biggest difference from 1991 is the technology. Satellite transmission equipment that used to weigh 1,000 pounds now fits into one or two briefcases -- with laptop-sized videophones allowing correspodents to file jerky video images from multiple points in the region.

CNN has been joined by MSNBC, Fox News Channel and Al-Jazeera. U.S. reporters are now "embedded" with military units, traveling with soldiers.

"It's a totally different world between 1991 and now," said Mark Effron, vice president of live news programming for MSNBC. "The level of computer graphics is higher. And we have military advisers, some of whom served in the first Gulf War."

U.S. viewers may have gotten a taste of the war coverage they will see Monday night, when ABC pre-empted its low-rated drama lineup to offer nearly three hours of primetime news reports after the president's speech.

The network had famous faces such as This Week host George Stephanopoulos in Qatar, Nightline's Ted Koppel embedded with an infantry division in Jordan, Good Morning America newsreader Robin Roberts in Kuwait and many more.

"This is the largest effort ever undertaken by ABC News," said spokeswoman Cathie Levine, who couldn't provide a total number of ABC staffers overseas.

Each network has its stars in place: CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Bill Hemmer and Christiane Amanpour are based in Kuwait City; CBS has Early Show anchor Julie Chen in Kuwait and weekend anchor John Roberts embedded with American troops (network officials wouldn't say specifically what stars such as 60 Minutes' Ed Bradley and Steve Kroft might be up to); Today's Matt Lauer begins anchoring from Qatar for NBC this morning.

Officials at the major networks say they expect to offer wall-to-wall, commercial-free news coverage once open hostilities begin, similar to the continuous reports seen after Sept. 11, 2001.

But no one would speculate on how long such coverage would last, particularly with events such as the Academy Awards and the NCAA men's basketball tournament scheduled this week and Sunday.

Once hostilities begin, other questions remain: How quickly can reports be transmitted to America? Will the new technology work? Will journalists have access to the fighting?

"We could see a lot, we could see nothing," said Khosravi. "So many things can affect the situation . . . nobody knows for sure."

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