TV news networks ramp up their acts for US invasion

MUMBAI / NEW DELHI: Last time round when the first Gulf War was unleashed in 1991 on the world, it was courtesy Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. And CNN was on the frontlines as the US-led Allied forces pounded Saddam Hussein into submission. CNN became a household name in India as it beamed live the war into millions of homes round the world.

This time round, as US-led forces invade Iraq from land, air and sea, the continuous live coverage by the likes of CNN, BBC and others like Fox News (seen partly through Star News here) makes it seem like a war made-for-TV audiences. That would be trivialising the issue. But then who can sound more juvenile and trivial than US President George Bush who wants to bring 'peace' to the whole world by waging a war that is bombarded into millions of TV homes round the world with as much precision as Tomahawk missiles, pausing at regular intervals just enough to give TV stations time to go in for commercial breaks.

And those who would disagree with this line of reasoning would do well to track how the US TV networks approached the first attacks on Iraq that took place in the wee hours of the morning yesterday (Indian time). The networks, which had been primed for weeks for the start of the invasion, went to a mix of footage of Baghdad and reports from correspondents embedded with military units in the field as news first trickled in around 9:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST). Almost immediately, the networks, both broadcast and cable, began jockeying for position in the race to claim first reporting on the news of the war.

It was NBC that laid claim to the fastest off the press title, asserting it was first on air with Tom Brokaw broadcasting news of the first explosions at 9:32 pm EST, followed closely by former CNN Gulf War (the first one) correspondent Peter Arnett on MSNBC at 9:34 pm.

And it was NBC's Tom Brokaw who hit the nail on the head when he made the point early in the coverage that the United States was expected, after the initial stages of the invasion, to take a long-term restructuring role in Iraq.

"One of the things we don't want to do is destroy the infrastructure in Iraq because in a few days we're going to own that country," Brokaw said. "Own that country." That sums it up pretty well.

Admits a senior executive of an Indian television company, "War is a serious issue, but it has its novelty value too (for TV companies and audiences too), what with the latest gizmos and weaponry on display and being utilised." And taking a cue, was a CNN anchor, manning a CNN centre set up in Kuwait City for war coverage, who said today that the technology being used to bring the pictures of the war from the deserts of Iraq and surrounding araes - tanks shown rolling in and the soldiers undertaking some sort of exercise on ground - is itself "absolutely new and untested."

No wonder, Indian news channels too, are leaving few stones unturned to get the war into Indian TV homes.

Leading the pack is good old, but staid, pubcaster Doordarshan that has outsourced its coverage to a private company, Saeed Naqvi's Third Eye, at the rate of Rs 500,000 per day. Reason: it was felt that insuring Prasar Bharati employees to cover the Gulf conflict may turn out to be cumbersome and expensive too, according to director-general of DD, SY Quraishi.

So, Third Eye is producing a daily half-hour show for DD, with one of the teams in Kuwait, and additionally the feeds sent through satellite can be used by DD for its various news bulletins. An example of the coverage: Sasi Kumar for Third Eye saying that the Indians in Kuwait have decided to bear out war fears along with their Kuwaiti friends, while a DD news team immediately afterwards interviewed Indians returning by the planeload from the Gulf.

Third Eye has been on the job for a week now and will continue for at least another 20 days, depending on the situation giving the Indian perspective (if at all there is any!!!!) of the US-led putsch.

The country's "subse tez" news channel, Aaj Tak, has sent its own teams in countries around Iraq for the war coverage, apart from tying up with local TV stations there and international agencies like APTN and Reuters for footage.

"We have three teams covering the war, including one (Deepak Chaurasia) in Kuwait," Uday Shankar, news director, TV Today Network said, adding, "Still, there are some restrictions for the media too." Strange, considering the likes of BBC and CNN seem to be everywhere, including inside tanks and aboard aircraft carriers.

What Shankar did not say, but found out from the industry, is that Aaj Tak has also struck an exclusive deal with Al Jazeera, which shot to global fame by airing video tapes of Osama Bin Laden, for footage of the Gulf War.

And what of the coverage? These were the words that CNN president Chris Cramer used in his video-linked speech on 15 March at the FRAMES 2003 in Mumbai. "Broadcast journalism around the world is at cross-roads but the integrity of the profession has never been in more danger than we find it!"

Wonder what one of America's most celebrated TV presenters Edward R. Murrow (of way, way back in the 50s vintage) would have said about the kind of coverage that the world is "privileged" to enjoy today.

To quote the great man himself: "Just because the microphone in front of you amplifies your voice around the world, is no reason to think we have any more wisdom than we had when our voices could reach only from one end of the bar to the other."

The next few days should reveal whether Cramers' exhortations to the media mean more than well-meant verbiage. Even if it doesn't, in the hunt for the next TV byte, who really cares anyway?

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