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In TV war news, the hits and misses

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2003


Make no mistake: When it comes to media coverage of the war with Iraq, one issue looms larger than others, from reporters embedded with American troops to the tone with which cable news outlets deliver their information.

Status.

Big events offer TV news departments and individual reporters the opportunity to dazzle the world with their brilliance or embarrass themselves with incompetence. And there's no bigger news stage these days than the Iraq War, which has drawn the focused attention of the world's media for longer than three weeks.

Why else would we have this nettling obsession over who reported what first when news breaks? An NBC press release the day after war started March 19 touted anchor Tom Brokaw as reporting first the initial missile strike against Saddam Hussein, beating CBS by a few minutes. An ABC release Wednesday highlighted the fact that its reporting on the taking of Baghdad ended 13 minutes after NBC and CBS (doesn't quite make up for the network being 30 minutes late getting anchor Peter Jennings into the studio on March 19; more on that later).

Or consider the back-and-forth sniping between MSNBC and Fox News in the wake of Peter Arnett's disastrous interview on Iraqi TV (and resulting dismissal by NBC News) and Geraldo Rivera's "voluntary withdrawal" from Iraq after revealing U.S. troop movements.

First, Fox News implied Arnett was a traitor and gloated as he was fired by NBC News. Then, MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough scolded Fox News for not firing Rivera, saying "they're worried about protecting his big ego, we're worried about protecting the American troops."

By the time the feud cooled down, the two channels had briefly aired competing promotional ads, with MSNBC noting, "We will not compromise military security or jeopardize a single American life." Fox News showed an excerpt from Arnett's interview, saying, "He even vilified America's leadership. And he worked for MSNBC."

It smelled like the worst kind of pandering, with both cable outlets jockeying for viewers' sympathies like baby-kissing politicians.

And the effort by TV outlets to shape viewers' perception of their efforts even extends to those of us who cover media.

Most TV news outlets have developed aggressive publicity efforts to handle the deluge of media stories on their work. CNN, for example, has created a Web site for journalists covering war coverage, featuring video clips and downloadable pictures to help scribes spruce up war TV stories.

So how is all this effort paying off? Let's look at whose stock has risen and whose has fallen during the first three weeks of war coverage, picking out the gurus from the goats in TV news' mad scramble for ratings and respect.

The trends

(UP) FOX NEWS CHANNEL: Roger Ailes' right-leaning cable news network has excelled by capitalizing on an essential truth about American TV viewers: Often we say we want one thing, when we really want another. We may say we want objective coverage, but we really want news that fits our own cultural world view. So, even as it claims to be "fair and balanced," Fox News can make fun of anti-war protesters in its Manhattan studio's headline ticker and anchor Neil Cavuto can exclaim "there is nothing wrong with taking sides" in covering a war. Their reward: an average of more than 4-million viewers, proving U.S. cable news viewers won't automatically turn to CNN when big news breaks.

(DOWN) ABC NEWS: Despite fine coverage -- including a more Arab-sensitive touch, thanks to former Beirut bureau chief and main anchor Peter Jennings -- the network is still wiping egg off its face for being 30 minutes late getting Jennings on air the night hostilities started, then forgetting to tell affiliates its coverage would end at 11 p.m. (local affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 went to CNN for a time that night, as it did when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in February). Expect that flub to sting for a while.

(MIDDLING) CNN: Sure, its mountain of resources and international reach has produced a pile of authoritative, informative reporting. But with personalities like the irritatingly intellectual Aaron Brown leading their coverage, the channel too often comes off like the too-smart teacher's pet you always wanted to smack around after class. And the channel's international feel -- which I've enjoyed, including an "Arab Voices" segment featuring clips from Arab TV -- may have alienated a cable news viewership that seems to want its coverage patriotic and pro-military to a fault.

(UP) WAR CORRESPONDENTS: For journalists, this has been one of the deadliest conflicts -- 12 journalists have died covering the war as of press time, including theWashington Post's Michael Kelly and NBC's David Bloom. Still, an army of more than 5,000 journalists has remained at work, providing the closest view of an ongoing war in human history. There are standouts at every channel: NBC's Bloom and Dr. Bob Arnot, CBS's Byron Pitts and John Roberts, ABC freelancer Richard Engel, Fox's Greg Kelly and Rick Leventhal and CNN's Walter Rodgers and Ryan Chilcote. Yes, the coverage of some listed here has identified too closely with the military at times, and celebrated the thrills of war a bit much. But the true value of their sacrifices probably won't be known until long after the last shot is fired.

(DOWN) ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: On the verge of stardom as the face of MSNBC's 9/11 coverage, Banfield (and her too-fashionable boxy glasses) has been largely MIA from the cable channel's Iraq war reports, stuck at a military base in Kentucky.

(UP) MSNBC: With regular contributions from noted conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage and Joe Scarborough, they've aimed themselves at the right-wing heart of Fox viewers. But it's their stronger ties to NBC News that have distinguished this cable outlet's war coverage, allowing the late Bloom, anchor Lester Holt, reporter Kelly O'Donnell and many other NBC journalists more room to shine.

(DOWN) CONNIE CHUNG: The best journalistic move of this war was CNN's decision to kick Chung off its prime time lineup after one night's halting performance during the network's early war coverage. Her subsequent decision to resign from TV's largest cable news network in the middle of the world's biggest news story spoke volumes about her journalistic instincts.

(UP) TED KOPPEL: The Nightline host sometimes spends a little too much time hanging out with the military brass. But watching this energetic man with the 3rd Infantry Division, keeping pace with soldiers one-third his age while recalling times hunting stories in Vietnam, remains an inspiring demonstration of quality journalism.

(UP) LESTER HOLT: Described by one critic as the steely Energizer bunny of MSNBC's coverage, Holt has shifted from sometimes-uneasy work subbing on the Today show (he often seems a little too stiff for a format that loose), to a role that fits him like a glove: navigating streams of information with authority and gravitas.

(UP) DR. SANJAY GUPTA: Forget about reporting; CNN's medical correspondent tried to save a life as a doctor, operating on an injured boy between stories for the cable newschannel. Traveling with a team of U.S. Navy doctors known as the "Devil Docs," Gupta -- a neurosurgeon -- attempted to save a child with a serious head wound. Though the patient didn't survive, Gupta's attempt to help made worldwide headlines.

(DOWN) CBS NEWS: First, the third-place network newscast sees its evening news ratings dip by about 34 percent (from March 19 to April 4, according to Nielsen Media Research); and telecasts of the NCAA men's basketball tournament prevented some continuous coverage. Then anchor Dan Rather got caught out-of-pocket (and off-camera) in Kuwait City during the war's most symbolic moment -- the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in central Baghdad Wednesday morning. Sometimes, there's a good reason for staying put in New York.

(UP) ANNE GARRELS: Yeah, she's a radio reporter. But Garrels, an experienced journalist on National Public Radio's foreign desk, has consistently offered revealing slices of the war as one of the few Western journalists in Baghdad during the first few weeks of war. Her riveting accounts have included descriptions of how Iraqi parents were feeding their children Valium and the story of an Iraqi press minder, an escort of sorts, begging for a ride home from a journalist (whose car he had tried to steal) as Baghdad fell. And her upfront attitude about the risks of reporting in a war zone serve as a refreshing, real alternative.

(DOWN) GERALDO RIVERA: The only wartime reporter who might have benefitted from an Iraqi minder.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com.

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