In dusty work boots and a khaki camping jacket, CBS News' Mark Strassman was still outfitted for the desert. But, after more than a month in Kuwait and Iraq with the Army's 101st Airborne Division, the tanned correspondent was back at CBS News headquarters in Manhattan last week.
"It was a long exercise in deprivation," he said. "[The military] has stories worth telling, and we had stories we want to tell."
As the military action has cooled off in Iraq over the past 10 days, the media's "embeds" have been parting ways with the military units to which they were assigned. Some began moving freely through the war zone, going where they could find the best stories. Others, including Strassman and fellow CBS reporters Jim Axelrod and Byron Pitts, were among the first to return stateside.
Like other embeds, they provided extraordinary frontline coverage and slice-of-life features. Strassman was at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait when a U.S. soldier allegedly lobbed grenades into officers' tents. During a firefight, a Marine hovered over Pitts, trying to shield him from incoming rounds. "It was dangerous to think too much about the future," said Pitts.
Last week, the trio hailed the embedding experiment as arduous but rewarding. "To get this back-stage pass, I felt like I walked into a John Clancy novel," Strassman said.
They said thoughts of their families weighed heavily, particularly after the death of their colleague, NBC News correspondent David Bloom on April 5. When Pitts and his Marine unit were in the middle of a Baghdad firefight, his wife Lynn, a CBS producer, was in the control room. Strassman's wife, Linda Stouffer, a CNN Headline News anchor, heard about the fragging incident at Camp Pennsylvania—and that her husband was there—on the set. Both women are pregnant.
Yet these CBS reporters relished being so close to the action. They sat in on military planning meetings. They slept and ate alongside the soldiers. When the story moved, they were with it.
Although CBS broadcast less war coverage than the other major TV news organizations, it had a full complement of reporters, including 10 embeds, in the Persian Gulf. Correspondent Lara Logan, pulled from Baghdad just before the shooting, returned there ahead of other U.S. TV reporters. 60 Minutes II
correspondent Scott Pelley traveled as a so-called unilateral, unattached to any military unit, adding another dimension to coverage.
Yet it was not enough to push up CBS's ratings. The CBS Evening News still trails the evening newscasts of its NBC and ABC competition. For the week of April 7 (the most recent ratings at press time), Evening News drew 8 million viewers, up 1% from a year ago. NBC, though, grabbed 10.8 million viewers, up 16%, and ABC was up 5% with 9.7 million.
CBS's The Early Show
was actually beat in viewership for the first week in April by Fox News Channel's campy morning show Fox & Friends. Red-hot cable news nets, led by Fox News, have certainly drained away some broadcast viewers. CBS may have been hit particularly hard, contends news analyst Andrew Tyndall: "CBS has historically been strongest in small markets. And [its ratings weakness] could be because Fox News' strength is greatest in the heartland."
Even when Fox draws 4 million viewers in prime, its audience is still half that of Evening News.
Axelrod, who traveled with the 1st brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry, said the limits on war coverage at CBS were an advantage. CBS journalists, he said, had more time to put together their stories each day, rather than constantly feeding a 24-hour cable news machine with live reporting and updates. "It's like being at a hurricane," he said. "If you're always talking about the storm, you don't get to talk to the people who have been affected."