TV news' grim vigil

Networks are paying a half million dollars a day to keep reporters in Central Asia in anticipation of U.S. attack

The Western TV reporters and producers in northern Afghanistan are learning that it can be costly and uncomfortable to wait for a war.

In the rugged countryside, there's no clean water, phone service, electricity or other comforts, although a CNN crew managed one luxury: It paid a local carpenter to build them beds.

"The local economy has gotten a boost from all the journalists," said CNN reporter Chris Burns, who shares a house with other reporters and producers.

Most reporters in northern Afghanistan are sleeping in tents and on tables and bathing in troughs. CBS News Senior Vice President of News Coverage Marcy McGinnis says her crews describe conditions as a "M*A*S*H
kind of setup," living in tents and coping with extreme hot and cold.

A small army of some 250 reporters, producers and technicians from the U.S.'s five major TV news organizations—CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—is now in northern Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Central Asian outposts, grimly waiting for U.S. retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes in New York and Washington. Most believe the targets will be in Afghanistan, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.

The Taliban controls approximately 90% of the country. A crescent-shaped 10% in the north is held by the Northern Alliance, a loose collection of armed fighters that oppose the Taliban. The Northern Alliance is allowing Western journalists in the territory, whereas the Taliban refuses to grant them access.

All told, keeping the army in the field is costing at least $500,000, according to executives for the news organizations.

"We're keeping ongoing daily accounting of what we're spending, but it's relatively early in the story to make a guess what this will cost us," said ABC News Senior Vice President Bob Murphy.

Fox News Channel has deployed 40 people so far, CBS counts more than 30, and ABC has about 60 in place. Working together, NBC and MSNBC also have 60. CNN has 70 people on the story, including the sole TV reporter for a Western news organization in the Taliban-controlled portion of Afghanistan.

Wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press are also active, feeding video and information to the networks. The Associated Press's TV arm, APTN, has 14 bureaus in the region, including Afghan capital Kabul.

While reporters in northern Afghanistan brave the elements and risk being caught in Taliban attacks, correspondents in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, describe their posting as much more comfortable. Most are ensconced at the Marriott there, converting some rooms into production suites. CNN alone is occupying 30 rooms, at a rate of about $230 a night.

"We're in the lap of luxury in comparison," says CNN's Peter Humi, who is coordinating the network's operations in Islamabad. "There's still room service, and you can still get your laundry done."

The biggest expense so far, executives say, was the hasty deployment of crews and equipment in the days immediately after the terrorist attack when a retaliatory strike seemed imminent. ABC and CBS coughed up about $50,000 each to charter a plane from London to Islamabad. Other American correspondents paid top dollar for last-minute tickets on commercial flights. Networks spent about $50,000 to ship and assemble equipment.

Once deployed, TV crews in northern Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan have found the elements working against them. Sand and dust corrode their satellite, camera and sound equipment. Technicians and reporters say they carefully dismantle and clean the equipment every night to try to preserve it. Windstorms routinely knock out satellite and damage equipment, and maintenance takes away from potential broadcast time.

"One of the big unknown quantities is how long the equipment is going to last," says Fox News' John Stack.

Most news organizations are sharing satellite uplinks to defray some costs. "If it doesn't put you at a competitive disadvantage and allows you to be in many places, fine with me," says CBS's McGinnis.

CNN has one advantage over its rivals: Kamal Hyder. The Pakistani is the lone TV reporter for a Western news organization in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. CNN's Jordan says Hyder's exact whereabouts are closely guarded. "He more easily blends in, and he knows the ropes," Jordan says. "Those two things together make it much more practical for him to be there."

Getting personnel and supplies into northern Afghanistan is a challenge. In the first few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, crews traveled overland from Pakistan. But since Pakistan sealed its borders, Western media and supplies now come down from the north, using Tajikistan or Uzbekistan as a gateway.

Traveling from the former Soviet republics to northern Afghanistan is daunting. By land, it takes three or four days over roads that resemble dried river beds. NBC's Tom Aspell traveled in a convoy that started out with 16 vehicles and ended with only two after a 200-mile trip that took four days.

The other option is traveling via Northern Alliance helicopters. It's quicker but a hair-raising experience. "You fly over the western edge of the Himalayas in an old, rickety helicopter, and then there's an hours-long drive down these washboard roads," CNN's Burns says via satellite phone from his post less than 30 miles from Taliban-controlled lands. Choppers also run the risk of being shot down by the Taliban.

Television crews in northern Afghanistan have to import their supplies from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Food, fuel and water come by the half-ton either by truck convoy or by Northern Alliance helicopters. ABC and CBS are sharing truck convoys from Tajikistan to lower transportation costs.

Reporters and executives say conditions in Pakistan are safe, but worry that that could change. "The danger is not from potential Cruise missiles, bombs or gunfire," says ABC's Bob Woodruff. "If something happens, [the people will] turn on the nearest American they see."

Getting to the Afghan border from points within Pakistan is difficult. To travel to the border, reporters have to apply for permits, travel with armed Pakistani officers and go through numerous checkpoints. Between Afghanistan and Pakistan lies a 30-mile no-man's zone controlled by tribal chiefs and thieves. "They would love nothing more than to capture a Western journalist," says MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield, stationed in Islamabad.

While Banfield and her fellow reporters await a war, they keep busy filing stories on refugee camps, diplomatic negotiations and the region's economic plight. The stories are compelling, Burns says. "I covered a wedding today. It shows you how humanity can be resilient."