No matter which network you watched in the first days of the Gulf war, the show was much the same: CNN and the three broadcast networks all presented war as an endless television spectacle, an event somewhere between a miniseries and the Olympics — complete with play-by-play, instant analysis, background features, martial theme music, computer animation, elaborate maps, and retired generals as expert commentators.
CNN’s first-day coverage of the fighting seized the spotlight from the networks, but that advantage didn’t last: ABC quickly emerged as the most thorough and reliable news organization on the air. During the war’s first three days, ABC News drew more viewers than any other network, solidifying its position as TV’s best and most popular news division. While it lacked the early drama of CNN’s breathless you-are-there reportage, ABC was far stronger in the breadth and depth of its coverage, its array of seasoned correspondents, and its ability to provide measured perspective. With the unflappable duo of Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel spelling each other, ABC was the only network to have round-the-clock anchors who seemed in complete control of the mass of information pouring in from the Gulf, Washington, and points in between. By the war’s second night, ABC even had a CNN-like scoop: the first footage of the bombing of Baghdad, obtained by a British cameraman who proudly informed Koppel that he had smuggled it out in his underwear. ”We’ll watch it with all the more relish,” Koppel responded dryly.
ABC’s levelheaded approach proved important on that second night, when rumors flew concerning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons and Israeli retaliation. CNN came close to asserting both as fact, while ABC patiently sorted truth, unsourced reports, and speculation. By night’s end, when both reports proved false, ABC’s cautious treatment had paid off. ABC also knew when to step back; it was the only network that refused to air much of the audio from Iraqi TV’s ”interviews” with allied POWs. ABC got strong work from Mideast reporters Gary Shepard and Dean Reynolds, Bob Zelnick at the Pentagon, and national security correspondent John McWethy. Even those who had less to do early on — Chris Wallace in Israel, congressional reporter Cokie Roberts — did it extremely well. That bench strength helped give ABC a ratings advantage that may affect the news race for a long time to come.
NBC’s coverage, which placed second in the ratings for the war’s first five days, was generally efficient, with consistent work from Tom Brokaw, Pentagon correspondent Fred Francis, and Mideast reporter Arthur Kent. The network was hurt, however, by its comparatively small first string; in the war’s first few days, Brokaw was worked to exhaustion.
CBS, meanwhile, was reeling from the kind of public embarrassment that can take a news division years to live down. From the first moments of the war, the network was hampered by technical disasters — notably the loss of contact with Allen Pizzey in Baghdad — that caused it to lag badly in the war’s early days; half a dozen affiliates even dropped CBS temporarily in favor of CNN. The lump-in-the-throat, seemingly improvisational approach of anchorman Dan Rather wasn’t a hit, either; in some cities, his audience was less than half of ABC’s. One night Rather even had to apologize when the start of his broadcast was disrupted by demonstrators in the studio. In a medium where public perceptions quickly harden into fact, CBS lost early and thus lost big; when it declined to follow ABC and NBC and expand its nightly newscast to an hour, CBS virtually took itself out of the race. By January 19, NBC’s Saturday Night Live turned Rather’s also-ran status into a national joke. In a ”Wayne’s World” sketch, teenagers Wayne and Garth were watching CNN, NBC, and ABC. ”We didn’t even bother with CBS,” Wayne said. ”I’m sorry-their coverage sucks!” The laughter that followed may have been the most stinging blow of all.