The last war was CNNs; this one will be different
- Pete Schulberg
- Portland Tribune - Features
War in Iraq will be no CNN exclusive, unlike the way the Persian Gulf War was in January 1991.
Don't expect NBC's Tom Brokaw to congratulate the all-news channel, which he did that first night 12 years ago after Bernard Shaw and his CNN cronies holed up in their room at Baghdad's Al-Rashid Hotel to provide play-by-play over the telephone.
This time, CNN will have plenty of company.
The competition's TV troops are poised and ready. They've been trained, briefed and backed to the tune of millions of dollars from their networks. Industry experts estimate war coverage will require an average investment of $40 million per network.
CNN still leads the media parade with more than a hundred of its minions already in the region and committed to nonstop coverage. Much has been made of CNN's ratings sliding over to the Fox News Channel, which didn't exist during the Gulf War. But when big news breaks, viewers still gravitate to CNN. During the space shuttle disaster, for example, CNN's ratings spiked.
If and when war breaks out in Iraq, the big difference this time will be that the U.S. military has opened up media access to levels not seen in the post-Vietnam War era.
Back then, it should be noted, reporters and photographers were allowed to roam the combat zone relatively freely, and many think that the unencumbered reports of Dan Rather, among others, were a key factor in swaying public sentiment against the war. It was a story that played out on TV screens in living rooms every night, and America didn't like what it saw.
But the Pentagon seems to feel that up-close-and-personal coverage can more effectively tell the story of how the U.S. military is liberating the people of Iraq. And the media, surely, agrees with the part about close-up coverage.
'We got pretty much shut out during the war in the gulf,' ABC 'World News Tonight' anchor Peter Jennings told me before heading out on a road show that brought him to Portland on Monday.
'I think that was probably to the administration's regret later on, when it came time for President Bush to campaign that fall. There was not a lot of visual record of the U.S. success. This time, the Pentagon has rethought it.
'But we always try to cover the story in an independent way, as well as going along with the military,' Jennings added.
For the past few months, journalists have been taking combat training courses, with a curriculum covering everything from biological weapons to dealing with hostile civilians. There's no question that this war has the potential to be the most dangerous one yet to cover.
Of course, news-gathering technology has come a long way since 1991. Satellite video phones, as choppy as they are, proved their effectiveness in Afghanistan. Reporters can go live from almost anywhere at any time. And the next generation of video phones is due to be rolled out in March, when they could well be battle-tested.
For the worldwide audience, it will all be as close as your TV. And there is sure to be more to see.