Networks Get Ready for War

A six-week Gulf skirmish could cost each news operation $40 million or more

Network executives closely watched two televised speeches last week: one by chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, the other by President George W. Bush. These men have their differences, to be sure, but both speak as if war is more an inevitability than a possibility, even as the starting date appears to be moving back.

TV networks and Associated Press have committed millions of dollars and hundreds of people toward coverage of a likely second war in the Persian Gulf and will undoubtedly spend millions more. Knowledgeable sources estimate that a four- to six-week campaign could easily cost tens of millions, possibly more than $30 million to $40 million per network.

Network executives say their infrastructures are in place in and around the Gulf region and are likely to expand when a conflict begins. That includes the "embedding" of U.S. journalists for travel with combat forces.

Some gear is being sent out from the States, but "nobody has enough equipment to cover a war like this, set up in five or six different countries," says NBC News Executive Director David Verdi. Equipment has also been purchased or leased out of Europe, with added costs coming from work-space rentals and local translation, security and other aid. In addition to some pooling, networks are expected to share some equipment in less competitive areas of the conflict. "We are a business where people are always looking for ways to explore efficiencies," noted John Stack, Fox's vice president of newsgathering.

The networks' major anchors have already reported from the region. Some networks say that they've already set up 40 to 50 people or, as in the case of CNN, more than 100 (including several there for the Israeli elections) in the Middle East and Gulf regions. "The number is fluid," says Stack. Fox and other networks have staffers stationed in Baghdad, Iraq; Amman, Jordan; Qatar; and Kuwait City, Kuwait, as well as at established bureaus in Israel. The networks say they'll be rotating reporters during a conflict based on fatigue as well as visa expiration.

Fox currently has correspondents Steve Harrigan, Greg Palkot, Mike Tobin, Steve Centanni and Adam Housley reporting from the region. ABC's coverage will be handled by Dan Harris and Bob Woodruff among others. CBS will have Mark Phillips, Byron Pitts, John Roberts, Elizabeth Palmer and Lara Logan in place. NBC's Ron Allen and David Bloom are currently in the Gulf region.

Some of CNN's best-known journalists have been banned from Baghdad, including Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour and Baghdad bureau chief Jane Arraf. The network still has correspondents Nic Robertson, Bill Hemmer and Martin Savidge in the region.

Network executives aren't just talking platitudes when they say they worry about their human capital. They remember the Afghan war and the murder of journalists, especially Wall Street Journal
reporter Daniel Pearl. "The memories are fresh," notes CBS News Senior Vice President Marcy McGinnis. "These were not the normal risks foreign correspondents take. They weren't caught in the crossfire. They were killed for no reason."

Virtually all the hundreds of reporters have been through some form of training, either from private contractors like AKE Ltd. or Centaurian or the Pentagon's own war-survival courses. The various courses have covered nuclear and biological weapons, first aid for accidents, mines, gunshots, artillery, and dealing with hostile civilians or soldiers.

Even "the most cynical, hard-nosed war correspondents," says McGinnis, "told us that the training was the best thing we've ever done for them."

This war could be more dangerous than past conflicts, some news executives believe. Wars without traditional "frontlines" have proved dangerous for journalists who roam without the military.

"We're concerned about whether Saddam will use chemical and biological weapons, worried about whether reporters will be used as human shields, worried about the lawlessness that could follow the outbreak of war, and worried about friendly fire, as well as hostile fire," says Verdi. "I tell our cameramen that a camera on a shoulder can easily look like a shoulder-held rocket launcher."

Yet, despite the risks, ABC's Director of Foreign News Coverage Chuck Lustig says, "it's been interesting to see how many volunteers we've had to cover this war. Journalists know it's going to be a big story, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime for many."