America goes back to its televisions


Some thoughts while waiting for the ground war to begin, wondering if, when America is once again glued to its television sets, its people will be satisfied with one military briefing a day . .

If there were still any questions about why CBS has made such a no-show on the American consciousness meters during this war, they were answered yesterday when that network signed off its coverage of analysis of the crucial radio broadcast by Saddam Hussein a full 20 minutes before anyone else did.

It's almost as if the network has just given up and is regrouping, complete with a new executive producer for Dan's Rather's evening news -- Eric Sorenson, who has been running CBS' "This Morning" program -- to fight again another day.

Speculation continues that Rather's role will be altered soon, perhaps by the presence of a co-anchor. Smart money is currently on Paula Zahn, who worked for Sorenson on "This Morning," but the network has to figure out a way to do it without Rather looking like damaged goods.

Meanwhile, CNN continued to be the network of record yesterday, though NBC and ABC stuck with the story and delivered decent analysis. There was a bit of tug-of-war for the central role on NBC between Bryant Gumble in New York and Tom Brokaw in Saudi Arabia.


It still seems possible to judge the seriousness of the situation in Saudi Arabia by the depth of the wrinkles on the forehead of CNN's Charles Jaco. Some observers think they were reaching an inch deep during those early Scud attacks. There are fan clubs springing up for NBC's heartthrob Arthur Kent, but Jaco has definitely attracted a cult following.


Those who continue to argue that correspondents shouldn't be reporting from Baghdad, perhaps agreeing with the "sympathizers" assessment of Wyoming Sen. Allen "Homer" Simpson, must not have been watching television yesterday. In the wake of Hussein's somewhat confusing speech, it was immensely helpful to hear the reports of CNN's Peter Arnett and NBC's Tom Apsell from the Iraqi capital.

Though certainly subject to censorship, their live broadcasts sounded candid and aided in interpreting the message Hussein was trying to deliver, both to his people and the world. Those who don't want to hear this information, indeed who applaud all the censorship and heavy-handed media control by all sides in this war, must believe in the old adage "ignorance is bliss."


When these faces appear on the set, the endless flipping around the dial in search of the latest information stops: CBS' Pentagon correspondent David Martin, NBC's man at the Pentagon Fred Francis, ABC's State Department reporter John McWethey, Arnett on CNN, and Bill Moyers in one of his infrequent, but always insightful, appearances on CNN. They usually have something of importance to say.


If the British ever make a television series about this war, which would hope to see in this country on Masterpiece Theatre, it should star Group Capt. Niall Irving and Col. Barry Stevens. These two military briefers are a class act, the best Brits on TV since Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons in "Brideshead Revisited."


If there was ever a made-for-CNN story, it is this war. That's because it's a continuing event, not something that happens and is over quickly. In those cases, CNN has the advantage momentarily as being the place to turn to, but once the event concludes, the broadcast networks gain equal footing and can sum it up as well as CNN.

But, with the war an ongoing process, you never know when something of importance will happen, and you always know that CNN will be there to tell you about it. So, aside from the war junkies who can't pull themselves away from the start-to-finish coverage of the daily military briefings CNN provides every morning -- maybe they even catch the nightly reruns on C-SPAN, which also has distinguished itself in the past few weeks -- there are probably millions and millions of cable-equipped Americans who check in with CNN several times every day.

And every time they do that, they are reaffirming their faith in this cable network as a dependable and credible source of news about this most important event. The effect of this war on CNN's place in the American consciousness goes far beyond the spectacular coverage that first night. Television news may never be the same.

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