Technology 'changes how we see the war'

Sun Television Writer

Stephanie Gosk carries a satellite phone, a digital camera, a laptop computer and a satellite dish the size of a cutting board. Together, these space-age items weigh just 15 pounds and cost roughly $10,000. She is a team of one, chronicling the efforts of the 32nd Army Air Missile Defense Command in southern Iraq for ABC News. From her location thousands of miles from network headquarters, she is able to transmit shaky but discernible live images and gloriously clear images on tape.

David Bloom and three NBC News colleagues are accompanying the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division. They have satellite phones and digital cameras, too, along with a microwave dish in the tank recovery vehicle where Bloom is a passenger. A small antenna from that truck shoots a signal to a transmitter nestled gently within a gyroscopic mount on a specially configured pickup - the "Bloom-mobile" - driving as far as five miles behind. Thanks to the gyroscope, the transmitter constantly points to a satellite above, stabilizing the path to send images back to his network.

The NBC crew captures perfect-quality shots for live broadcast even as the truck carrying Bloom speeds across the Iraqi desert at 50 mph. This ability to broadcast on the move is an innovation for television news. Bloom's equipment, designed in part by a U.S. military contractor, cost more than $500,000.

Gosk and Bloom, two among hundreds of "embedded" journalists traveling with allied combat units, represent opposite ends of the technological spectrum used by American television outlets to get pictures back from the Persian Gulf region. But both are contributing to the most immediate coverage of any conflict - ever.

"They're enabling you to see these snippets of live war action in real time," says Sharri Berg, vice president of news operations for the Fox News Channel, which has 20 journalists and technical crewmembers within 10 military units.

The technical complications of covering war are significantly magnified for those filing for television, where the ability to record sights and sounds is paramount. Even those who have the most modern equipment, such as Gosk, often must rely on less dependable ways to communicate, such as videophones, or wait for a satellite to hit a certain phase of its orbit to be able to send their images.

Sometimes reporters fall back on the old standby: a satellite telephone call, allowing narration but no pictures. But weeks of frantic planning have ensured that television networks and cable channels can often air footage almost as soon as it's taken.

Some critics say that the flood of images has overwhelmed viewers rather than informed them. As the embedded reporters, in particular, receive a fragmented view of the war, rumors surface on the air, only to dissolve hours later.

But television news executives are generally enamored of the results of their new technology. "It does, in some ways, boggle the mind," says Mark Effron, MSNBC's vice president for live news programming. "It clearly changes how we see the war."

Earlier this week, Kerry Sanders interviewed Lance Cpl. Joshua Menard of the 2nd Battalion 8th Marines, who was strapped to a gurney after being shot in the hand. Menard, a 21-year-old from Houston, described the firefight between his unit and Iraqis trying to hold bridges in southern Iraq.

With their custom-made Raytheon satellite uplink already set up, MSNBC staffers fed the footage back to studios in New Jersey. The tape aired within minutes of the interview itself.

A bit later, MSNBC anchor Lester Holt conducted a three-way exchange between Sanders and Menard's mother back in Texas, who expressed her astonishment. "The embedded reporter has enabled us to know approximately where he is and follow him," said Elizabeth Menard. "You can hardly stand to watch but you can't turn away." This time, Sanders' image arrived by videophone.

These remote shots sometimes seem jittery. That's because too much information is attempting to make the digital leap all at once.

But viewers have become accustomed to blurred images as part of the face of live reporting, says Kim Hume, Washington bureau chief for Fox News. She says cable news channels are particularly adept at taking advantage of the instantaneous nature of reporting from abroad.

"We're better positioned, in a way, because we are so flexible, so nimble," says Hume. The bigger broadcast networks, she says, are more tied to highly produced stories requiring images with perfect resolution.

Gosk, working in the sand-swept desert, has an Iridium satellite phone, a Sony PD-150 digital camera, a fairly standard Compaq laptop, and a Inmarsat Regional BGAN satellite dish - the latter just 12-by-8 inches and 3 1/2 pounds. In the 1991 gulf war, networks deployed satellite dishes that weighed 2 tons and required 18 cases to pack.

Gosk can send images by the satellite phone more quickly, but she says it's proved problematic at times. Instead, she hooks up the digital camera to the laptop; edits her shots with specialized software; compresses the information so it consumes less computer space; and sends it via a cable to the satellite dish, which zaps it back to ABC in Manhattan. It can take 45 minutes to transmit a minute's worth of broadcast-quality video - and that will consume the power of both her computer batteries.

Gosk also has a high-speed link to the Internet, which lets her follow developments on news sites and to e-mail colleagues in the United States. Often, she prints out articles and hands them to soldiers. "These guys are just dying for information," she said during an interview by satellite phone. "They get fed very, very little from above."

It is all quite high-tech. But it doesn't always feel glamorous.

Gosk says she spends about 40 percent of her time reporting, interviewing soldiers and writing and filing stories. "The rest of the day is spent trying to maintain equipment in this environment - it gets covered with dirt - and trying to maintain myself."

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