News Nets Jockey for Iraq Slots


With the U.S. military preparing for a war in Iraq news networks are already fighting a war of logistics, as they continue to deploy personnel and equipment to Iraq and the surrounding region.

Although a war — if one occurs — could be days, weeks or months away, some network executives said one of the biggest challenges is to remain prepared to cover the conflict as if it were to break out tomorrow.

For reporters hoping to deliver battlefield images to news viewers in the United States, obtaining entry visas for countries like Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan is crucial, along with completing the survival-training courses that are required in order to travel with the troops.

"Sometimes you get a two-week visa for a country, so you send a crew in, and two weeks later you have to pull them out," said NBC News executive director David Verdi, whose responsibilities include supplying content to MSNBC and CNBC. "So having trained people who are rotating in and out, and hoping that you get the right team in at the right time has been a real challenge for us."

CNN head count

Some of the best war footage is expected to come from teams of reporters and producers who will be embedded with various military units. The Defense Department is allotting eight to 10 such slots per network.

Cable News Network, which built its reputation on coverage of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, is hustling to get the most reporters in the region and embedded with the troops. While Verdi said NBC has more than 100 staffers in the region, CNN spokesman Matt Furman said the network currently has about 150 Mideast personnel, and will have 200 to 300 staffers in the region if war breaks out.

In addition to the embedding slots assigned to CNN, the network cut a deal with The Atlanta Journal Constitution
parent company Cox Newspapers Inc. for five of Cox's slots. In exchange, CNN reporters and producers will file war coverage stories for Cox Newspapers, Furman said.

CNN reporters who will be embedded with the troops include Mike Boettcher, Martin Savidge, Allessio Vinci, Kyra Phillips, Gary Tuchman and Frank Buckley.

Verdi said NBC reporter Dana Lewis would be embedded with the Army's 101st Airborne Division, while David Bloom has been assigned to the Third Armored Division. He declined to name other reporters who will be embedded.

Fox News Channel is also keeping its cards close to its vest, as vice president of news operations Sharri Berg declined to name any talent that will be assigned to Fox's nine embedded teams.

But Berg said some of FNC's embedded staff would be producers or off-air talent, rather than its familiar on-air reporters.

"For a number of the assignments we're not putting on-air reporters, but rather producers or off-air reporters. It takes a lot of people out of the daily mix for us, so we've tried hard to juggle things around and make it happen," Berg said.

Berg described the whole embedment process as an opportunity to gain unique access to the war.

"It's close to unprecedented and it's still in process," she said. "It's designed such that we were all assigned to the different units arbitrarily.

"You will not know on any one given day if the team you've been assigned, the one your reporter is embedded with, is going to be in the midst of the action or if another unit is."

Two- way linkups

Live and taped coverage of this war will also be unique because of the way that state-of-the-art technology will speed the reporting process, according to Berg.

"The two biggest parts of the embedments [first] will obviously be access, which is why we are all doing it," she said. "We're hoping to capture what we wouldn't be able to on our own. And the second part of that is … we'll hopefully be able to bring those pictures to air faster than when we had to wait for hand carries or tape shipments."

Video phones will be a major reporting tool. Fox News's teams will be equipped with satellite phones for "back-up and redundancy, as well as store-and-forward technology where we can feed tape through the satellite phone," according to Berg.

Stories will be edited and condensed via laptop from the field, then fed back to Fox News in New York by phone, where they will be downloaded and put on the air, Berg said.

"It should be a lot quicker than it used to be," she said.

Fox News will also employ satellite technology.

"We do have a couple of dishes, and I think a number of other networks are doing it, in our Humvees as well as our four-wheel-drive vehicles."

The all-news networks haven't been the only basic cable channels sending staff to the Iraq region. After attending boot camp in Quantico, Va., 24-year-old MTV News reporter Gideon Yago returned last weekend from a week in Kuwait, where he interviewed soldiers and Kuwaiti youths about the potential war.

MTV: Music Television vice president of news Jane Sangster said the network doesn't have any plans to embed reporters with the troops, or to send Yago or other reporters back to the region.

"That's not to say we won't do anything else, but right now we're kind of done traveling to the Middle East for the moment," Sangster said.

Waiting game

MTV recently conducted a survey of its young viewers that found that a war in Iraq ranked as their No. 1 concern, which prompted an MTV News special about the conflict. But for now, Sangster said, MTV will create more reports based on Yago's experiences in Kuwait, and will also rely on CBS News, a fellow Viacom Inc. unit, to supply content for MTV's hourly three-minute news updates.

As U.S. soldiers continue to wait for their marching orders in Iraq, so are the all-news networks.

"We suffer the same problem the military suffers in that it's hard for us to keep our troops readied in the field for an extended period of time," said NBC's Verdi. "We're used to an event that either happens or is going to happen, and we get there as fast as we can, and we cover the event, and we go home.

"In this case, we have to had to be ready from the start of hostilities for months now. News divisions are not good at waiting, and we've been waiting for a long time."