TV News Operations Modify Battle Plans
As war action shifts, some reporters head to Baghdad, while others take flights home
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/13/2003 8:00:00 PM
Just a few miles outside Baghdad last week, CNN's veteran correspondent Walter Rodgers decided it was time to leave his posting in the Army's 7th Cavalry. The big story was in Baghdad now. He bartered with soldiers for food, trading calls on his satellite phone for a stash of Army grub. And, at first light last Thursday, Rodgers and his crew dashed for the Palestine Hotel, where most of the foreign media has been holed up.
"We saw Baghdad disintegrating into looting and some chaos, and Saddam Hussein's regime disintegrating. I decided to try and get in," Rodgers said. Other CNN embeds Jason Bellini and Martin Savidge followed.
As action shifted to Baghdad last week, television news organizations modified their own battle plans. Having reached Baghdad, some embedded journalists, like Rodgers, left their units, opting to go on their own. Networks were shuttling in reinforcements from elsewhere in the Middle East. And some exhausted, weathered embeds began the trip home.
Amid the maneuverings, though, the safety of journalists weighs heavily. The day after U.S. TV networks constantly played images of Marines hauling down a statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad, a suicide bomber struck at a nearby checkpoint. Both events occurred near the Palestine Hotel, which itself was a target of fire last week, from a U.S. tank.
"The pictures not withstanding, the city is not totally secure," said Fox News Foreign Editor Brian Knoblock. "We don't want our people to become targets." For the time being, Fox's embeds were told to stay with their units.
Eleven journalists have died in Iraq, nine in combat-related situations, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Among the dead was NBC News correspondent David Bloom, one of the most recognizable faces of the conflict coverage, who died April 5 of a pulmonary embolism after complaining of leg pains.
NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley called Bloom a role model for his generation. "He was a person who just wanted to do a good job and went all out to do it."
That was evident as the boyish 39-year-old sped across the desert in his "Bloomobile," an M88 tank-recovery vehicle outfitted to transmit live broadcast-quality pictures on the move. Viewers and the news media alike marveled at both the technology and Bloom's chutzpah in utilizing it. He left the competition in the dust.
"This is where I want to be as a journalist," a jubilant Bloom told BROADCASTING & CABLE by satellite phone in an interview from the Iraqi desert.
His Weekend Today co-host Soledad O'Brien remembered Bloom as an "absolutely dogged interviewer and an intrepid reporter who did everything well." They had been partnered since 2000, when Bloom gave up his White House job for the anchor desk, ironically so he would not be forced to travel so much.
Bloom's cameraman, Craig White, marched on to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry division, continuing to film and even phoning in reports. NBC is trying to join White with another correspondent. Bloom's producer, Paul Nassar, accompanied his body back to the U.S.
With nearly 600 news staffers embedded with the military, media organizations were braced for the possibility that journalists might come in harm's way. But Bloom's untimely death and other fallen journalists underscored the risks in this conflict.
Where those who remain should be positioned is another debate. Under the Pentagon's rules, an embed who leaves his or her unit is not guaranteed re-entry.
Correspondents say they have better security travelling with the military. They also have better access to the troops and military planning, although it's often limited to their particular units.
Angling to get into Baghdad, Fox News reporter Rick Leventhal and his cameraman, embedded with the Marine's 1st division, switched to another unit. Facing the possibilities of snipers and angry crowds in Baghdad, Leventhal said he feels safer traveling with Marines. But parting from his 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance outfit after four weeks, though, proved as tough as the travel had been. "We were a team, and it was very difficult to break up," Leventhal said.
To safeguard staffers, CBS News planned to withdraw some embeds last week. "Once the story shifts, there is no point in keeping extra people out. It just raises the risks," said Marcy McGinnis, CBS News senior vice president of hard news. The network already had a presence in Baghdad with correspondent Lara Logan, who returned to the Iraqi capital on April 4.
McGinnis said embeds Jim Axelrod and Mark Straussmann will soon be heading home. Both of their wives are expecting a baby.
American troops may be in Baghdad, but Iraq remains a very big story. Along with military action, there will be humanitarian angles and rebuilding efforts to cover.
That prompted most news outlets to move quickly last week to beef up their Baghdad ranks. NBC, which plans to open a Baghdad bureau, brought in Brian Williams, Jim Macenda and Ron Allen. MSNBC's Dr. Bob Arnot and NBC's Chip Reid left their Marine units to report from Baghdad. NBC crews are operating from the Palestine hotel, a former presidential palace and an undisclosed location.
"It is difficult to predict the course of the war from here on out," said NBC's Wheatley. "In a few days, we will have to redeploy some people."
NBC has reduced staffing in Israel and will likely reduce its presence in Kuwait, too.
CNN is moving nearly 30 staffers in, notably Nic Robertson and Rym Brahimi, who were expelled early on in the war, and senior foreign reporter Christiane Amanpour, who had been banned by the Iraqi regime.
CBS's Dan Rather was also heading for Baghdad, while ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Tom Brokaw remained stateside. Joining Rather are CBS correspondents Lee Cowan and Randall Pinkston and 11 other CBS and WCBS-TV staffers, who made their way from Amman last Thursday.
Fox News was preparing to send in Steve Harrigan and Jennifer Eccleston. ABC is sending Dan Harris to Baghdad and bringing Ted Koppel home.
Especially after Bloom's death, producers and news executives say they're taking extra care to inquire about the physical and mental well-being of their embedded and non-embedded (called "unilaterals") crews. Exhaustion and sunburn are some of the most common ailments.
"Everyone knows this is not forever. They are running on adrenaline," said Kathryn Kross, CNN vice president and Washington bureau chief, who has been one of the network's point people on embedding.
Still, regular contact is soothing for both sides. ABC News President David Westin has "made it his job to check in on physical and emotional needs of each staffer regularly," said World News Tonight executive producer Paul Slavin. ABC has already rotated out four embedded correspondents, including Bob Woodruff, a close friend of NBC's Bloom, who left his position with the Marines to return home and assist Bloom's family. (Bloom's friends have established a trust for his three daughters; donations may be sent to David Bloom Children's Fund, c/o Latham & Watkins law firm, New York.)
Returning staffers will have access to counseling services, standard practice after every major news event. NBC has been in regular contact with its crews and their families throughout the war, Wheatley said.
What CBS correspondent John Roberts wants when he returns home is sleep and a hot shower. Roberts, positioned on the outskirts of Baghdad with the Marines, was preparing to return home last week and resume his duties as White House reporter.
The Pentagon has promised to help embedded journalists get out of Iraq, but Roberts is improvising. He planned to hop a flight to Kuwait on one of the many military transport planes that arrive daily full and head back empty, and then fly commercially from there.
Sizing up his experience, Roberts quipped, "This is the worst camping trip I've ever been on."
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