TV coverage echoes 1991 ABC excels


LOS ANGELES -- The TV images and words were eerily familiar yesterday: pictures of the night sky over Baghdad, the voices of John Holliman, Bob Simon, Jim Laurie and Tom Aspell (( telling us what they saw or didn't see as they watched from the ground.

Allied planes struck at missile sites in southern Iraq yesterday. And network television seemed to be everywhere -- many of the old, familiar faces back almost exactly two years after the Persian Gulf war started on TV screens with a bombing raid on Iraq.

Yesterday, some viewers might have been amazed at how quickly the networks were on top of the story, whipping around from anchor desks in New York to the Pentagon, the United Nations, the State Department, Baghdad, Kuwait City, Tel Aviv -- all the old gulf war stops.

The military experts -- ABC's Anthony Cordesman, CBS' prickly George Crist and Tom Kelly, now working for NBC instead of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- were on camera before the raid was confirmed.

CNN was the first to go full throttle with continuous coverage on the story, which started at 12:31 p.m. (EST). But no one was more impressive in the early afternoon than ABC News.

The unflappable Peter Jennings presided at the anchor desk. John McWethy at the Pentagon offered perspective on the limited nature of the strike, which was lacking at first on CNN.

But there was nothing amazing about the way the networks swoopeddown on the story, they said, simply a matter of being prepared.

"We've been on the ready for a while," said Arnot Walker, a spokesman for ABC News. "It's been generally recognized here since last week that something might happen, and we've been ready."

Mr. Walker said that readiness included getting correspondent Mike Lee on the USS Kitty Hawk four days ago and tracking down military expert Anthony Cordesman "somewhere in Europe" last week.

Mr. Cordesman was in the studio yesterday, and shortly after 1 p.m. he was on camera standing in front of a tabletop map of the Mideast explaining the strategy of the strike.

Two of the most familiar faces involved in yesterday's TV coverage were CNN's Mr. Holliman and CBS News' Mr. Simon, both in Baghdad. Mr. Holliman was one of the CNN reporters who delivered the dramatic audio coverage of the bombing of Baghdad two years ago. Mr. Simon was captured and imprisoned by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's soldiers during the gulf war.

Though not much was happening militarily in Baghdad, the command center of Iraq, CNN and CBS went to Mr. Holliman and Mr. Simon often in the early going yesterday. The pair's history in Iraq made for a certain excitement in seeing them. If nothing else, hearing them talk about what they were seeing on Iraqi television was useful. Each of the correspondents, including ABC's Mr. Laurie and NBC's Mr. Aspell, had essentially the same information.

CNN has "maintained a presence in Baghdad" since the gulf war, saidLisa Dallos, a spokeswoman for the network. She said Mr. Holliman returned a week ago in anticipation of yesterday's military strike and that CNN has 10 people in Baghdad.

All four networks had pictures out of Iraq yesterday, but CBS anchorman Dan Rather said the technical arrangements in Baghdad made the future uncertain.

"We take every prudent step we can take to see that our technical equipment stays up and that we're able to broadcast out of Baghdad," Mr. Rather said this week. "But we may not always be able to get a picture out of there."

The networks "are now all operating on one satellite dish. . . . The Iraqis have allowed one Western transmission television dish in there -- we're all operating out of a pool -- and that could be taken away at any time."

All four networks said they have backup plans for getting audio reports out of Baghdad.

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