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Iraq

Statue upended; networks tremble

Deggans
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By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003


In a media-drenched war where TV images have sometimes seemed as important as the real thing, Wednesday brought us a picture that seemed to say it all.

Beamed live to TV screens across the world, the image of a crowd of Iraqis, with an assist from Marines and a tank, pulling down a 40-foot statue of Saddam Hussein at the center of Baghdad emerged as a potent symbol of U.S. success in dismantling the regime.

As the moment of the statue's collapse approached (it fell about 10:50 a.m. Eastern time), most networks shifted to continuous coverage, shunting their usual morning talk shows to present images as historic as the toppling of the Berlin Wall. (Local Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13, which stayed in regular programming until noon, was an exception.)

Many anchors compared the statue's fall to the wall's destruction in 1989. And NBC's Tom Brokaw said: "This really is, as Winston Churchill once said . . . 'The end of the beginning.' This has been a brilliant military campaign."

At times, it felt less like the toppling of a regime and more like waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square, as a Marine spent long minutes attaching a crane to the statue. Before the figure hit the ground, TV anchors were speculating on what comes next: from fighting in northern Iraq to the way Arab TV might spin the moment.

Ironically, CBS anchor Dan Rather -- who had traveled to the region Sunday, anchoring live from Kuwait City -- was the only major network face to miss Wednesday morning's coverage, with his network's reports led by The Early Show anchors. (Another oddity: seeing CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer blindsided by a crank caller suggesting radio shock jock Howard Stern should replace Iraq's information minister.)

As might be expected from a news outlet that has made little secret of its prowar stance, Fox News Channel celebrated the statue's destruction and its attendant symbolism nearly as much as the Shiite Muslims who swarmed the fallen monument.

Anchor Brit Hume said the scene was "extraordinarily effective in conveying what the administration's goals were," adding that the outstretched hand of Hussein's statue "has a goodbye feel to it."

"I hope they're watching this all over the Arab street," added Fox anchor David Asman, who joined Hume in poking fun at French President Jacques Chirac for opposing the war. "Jubilant seems too mild a word for this."

CNN struck a less pugnacious tone, noting that Arab TV reports were emphasizing the fact that Americans had to help topple the statue and that U.S. Marines' initial action to wrap the statue's head with an American flag was not appreciated by the Pentagon.

"There was an almost audible gasp in the Pentagon offices here," said Barbara Starr, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, of the moment a U.S. soldier placed Old Glory on the statue (it was quickly replaced with an Iraqi flag). "That was not the picture the Pentagon wanted to see. The Pentagon has made it very clear: This is not about U.S. victory over Iraq ... but U.S. liberation of Iraq."

Others were quick to note that toppling a statue in downtown Baghdad did not mean the war was over, with embedded reporters and military experts agreeing that images of some in Baghdad looting government offices and destroying pictures of Hussein did not equal control of the city or the country.

"We're only looking at a small portion of a city of 6-million," said David Martin, CBS's Pentagon correspondent. "There are vast pockets of the city we haven't seen. You can say Saddam Hussein no longer controls Iraq. You cannot say the U.S. has liberated Baghdad. Tough fighting remains."

But the starkest reminder of the job remaining for U.S. troops came from embedded CBS reporter Byron Pitts, traveling with a Marine unit less than two miles from the statue scene in Baghdad, taking fire from combatants.

Reporting live minutes after Hussein's statue was toppled, Pitts described huddling with troops near Iraq's Ministry of Oil.

"This is the most intense fire we've heard in this battle," said a breathless Pitts by telephone, warning his cameraman to duck down while sounds of gunfire echoed in the background. It was a potent, immediate reminder that this conflict has been among the most deadly ever for journalists; 12 reporters have died while covering the war's first three weeks.

On Wednesday, the real value of having correspondents in Baghdad surfaced, as the networks juggled reports from journalists inside and outside the city to develop a picture of Iraq's liberation. Though the major TV networks ended continuous coverage just after 2 p.m., the reports continued on cable news channels, which gorged on the flood of breaking news.

Journalists in Baghdad seemed giddy at the prospect of covering the city without official "minders" from the Iraqi government -- who vanished along with other military officials that morning, including Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf.

"We kept expecting him to come out and say, this is not true," Brokaw cracked about al-Sahhaf, who has drawn derision for pointedly denying obvious U.S. progress in the war. "I hear he's being fitted for a dress, somewhere."

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