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Ted Koppel's war stories

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Ted Koppel was disappointed. When he arrived at the Egyptian government guest house in Cairo at 9:30 on the morning of Friday, Aug. 10, Koppel expected an exclusive interview with Tariq Aziz, foreign minister of Iraq, nine days after Aziz’s country had seized control of its tiny, oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait. Instead, what Koppel found was a press conference. It was the first of many setbacks the ABC News anchorman would encounter before scoring one of his greatest journalistic triumphs, but Koppel reacted with the unflappable determination that would see him through a grueling, nine-day Mideast reporting trip. First, he captured Aziz’s attention, which was relatively easy. Koppel was the only American anchorman present and Aziz had appeared on his program, Nightline, in 1987. Next, he buttonholed the diplomat, who agreed to appear on the show. ”The added clout of an anchor can make something happen,” Koppel says. ”Aziz knew me.” Nevertheless, it would take five more days, filled with bureaucratic snarls and relentless lobbying, before Aziz would talk with Koppel in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad for 45 revealing minutes.

In the media war that has accompanied the crisis in the Persian Gulf, the Aziz interview was an important victory for Koppel. He became the first Western journalist — broadcast or print — to enter Baghdad after the Kuwait invasion. He beat his closest competitor, CBS News’ Dan Rather, by a day, and his Aziz interview was the first with a top Iraqi official in Baghdad since the invasion. ”It was a rare coup,” says Dorrance Smith, Nightline‘s executive producer, who accompanied Koppel. ”In this day and age, with such strong competition, it’s unusual for one network to get ahead of the others on such an important story.” Even the competition praised Koppel’s achievement. A CBS News spokesman said, ”We tip our microphone to them,” and Steve Friedman, executive producer of NBC’s Nightly News, conceded, ”Ted had a clear scoop. He’s a real pro.” Although Rather made up for lost time with dogged reporting from Baghdad, and a number of Western correspondents have since been allowed into Iraq, Koppel’s breakthrough coverage of Aziz and American hostages in Baghdad is still the best television reporting to come out of the conflict.

And it demonstrates the current telejournalistic approach to covering major events: Send in the big names and let them fight it out head-to-head. Networks now routinely ship their anchors around the world at the first sign of trouble. Rather was on a fishing trip in the south of France when Iraq took over Kuwait. He began reporting on the crisis the next day. NBC kept anchorman Tom Brokaw at home at first, but then sent him to Saudi Arabia, where he tried for six days to enter Iraq before returning to New York. Bryant Gumbel of NBC’s Today and Harry Smith of CBS This Morning both jetted to the Mideast as well.

Of the three network anchors, only Peter Jennings of ABC’s World News Tonight stayed home — a luxury the network could afford thanks to its depth of talent. ”In years past, we looked longingly at the bench strength of NBC and CBS,” Koppel says. ”In the ’80s, I think that changed in our favor.” The development and aggressive use of these resources on Nightline, 20/20, and This Week with David Brinkley have helped make ABC the top network for news. Its World News Tonight has been the No. 1-rated nightly newscast almost every week this year. With a star of Koppel’s magnitude on the spot, ABC News executives preferred to keep Jennings in New York, where he could coordinate the work being done around the world. ”I was in the right place,” Jennings says. ”This was a story about widespread geographic points, three of which we could get to — Washington, Kennebunkport, and the UN — and two of which — Iraq and Kuwait — we couldn’t.”

That is, of course, until Koppel went to work. During his nine days in the Middle East, he relentlessly pursued Aziz and the story of American hostages in Baghdad. For all the clout his celebrity gave him, Koppel and his ABC associates had to work around the clock to get the story. Nightline was actually the first program to offer in-depth coverage of the Aug. 1 Iraqi invasion. A few days later, Nightline segment producer Gil Pimentel went to Jordan to lay the groundwork for reporting. On Aug. 8, Koppel and company left the U.S. to cover the one-day Arab summit in Cairo convened to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. ”Roone (Arledge, president of ABC News) decided that this story was tailor-made for Nightline. It would be guest-driven,” says Dorrance Smith, referring to the sorts of stories Nightline specializes in. ”There weren’t a lot of pictures coming out and there wasn’t a lot to cover. The way the story was unraveling, it was going to require a lot of analysis.”

From the time Koppel took off for Cairo that Wednesday evening, the pace of reporting, and sometimes of the news, quickened:

Aug. 10, 12:30 a.m.
Koppel and Smith arrive in Cairo, where they check into the Ramses Hilton Hotel and assemble a 10-man team: Pimentel, who has received assurances that an exclusive interview with Aziz will take place that day; correspondent Forrest Sawyer; two ABC producers; and two camera crews. Six hours later, Koppel conducts Nightline from his hotel suite. The guests are Middle East experts based in Cairo and Amman, Jordan.

By 9:30 in the morning, Koppel arrives at the guest house where Aziz is staying. That’s where he finds he’s not exactly alone in his pursuit of the foreign minister — the press conference is going on. Aziz agrees to appear on Nightline that night, but the Arab summit meeting runs long. Pimentel tries to prod the foreign minister into appearing anyway. Aziz refuses, but sends this consolation prize: ”We’ll see you in Baghdad.”

Aug. 12
After Pimentel has hounded the Iraqi Embassy three times, Koppel and crew receive their visas, but things don’t get any easier: There are no flights into Iraq. Says Koppel, ”We still had to find a way to get in.” Told that it is easier to travel to Baghdad from Amman, Koppel flies there, only to learn that no charter pilots will risk a flight into Iraq. That evening an ABC producer arranges a meeting between Koppel and Jordan’s King Hussein and Queen Noor. ”It evolved into a 3 1/2-hour dinner,” Koppel says. ”The king was very disturbed about what was going on. He thought there was great danger of this turning into a war and he felt that there wasn’t any dialogue between the U.S. and Iraq.” Koppel gently presses his Aziz interview request with King Hussein, who is to leave the next day to talk with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Koppel believes that the king helped convince the Iraqis to let the interview with Aziz take place.

Aug. 13, morning
The Iraqi Embassy in Amman suggests that the ABC staffers drive to Baghdad. This involves an 18-hour trip over a narrow desert road recently plagued by sand storms, so Koppel and Smith try to pressure the Iraqis into providing air transportation. ”I sent a cable telling Aziz our interview was going south and suggesting he reconsider letting us fly in or do the interview on satellite,” Koppel says. That night, according to Smith, ”we went to bed thinking that we’d been given a bureaucratic runaround and that we wouldn’t get to Baghdad.”

Aug. 14, afternoon
The Iraqis relent. That night a special Iraqi Airways flight takes Koppel and the Nightline team to Baghdad (the round-trip fare: $200 per person). They arrive after 9 at a deserted airport and are forced to wait an hour and a half — the official who stamps passports has gone home.

Aug. 15
A U.S. citizen stranded in Baghdad drives Koppel around the city and shows him the sights: the place where Iraqi military leaders meet daily and Al Rasheed Hotel, in which about 35 Americans are detained. Koppel goes to the swimming pool and talks to hostages. ”They told me their greatest concern was the children,” he says. ”They asked me to do what I could to help.”

About 6 p.m., Koppel and his ABC crew tape the Aziz interview in a Baghdad TV studio. During the cordial 45-minute talk, Aziz quietly outlines Iraq’s position, without Koppel’s usual pinpoint interruptions. ”I thought it was my function to get the Iraqi point of view,” Koppel says. ”I wasn’t there to kick the ass of a foreign leader so that Americans would have a sense of well-being.” He allows Aziz to speak at length, pressing him only on the status of the children at Al Rasheed Hotel, one of them a 6-month-old boy who has a hernia. Aziz reassures Koppel that the children will be released, although that does not come to pass. Selected quotes from the interview air that evening on World News Tonight and all of it is heard later on Nightline.

”After the interview with Aziz,” Koppel says, ”I put in a formal request to talk to the hostages, I put in a formal request to interview Saddam Hussein, I put in a formal request to go around the city and film. I asked what I was allowed to do the next day and the answer was: departure.”

Aug. 16
Most of the Koppel team, with the exception of Forrest Sawyer, a producer, and the camera crews, leave Baghdad — but not before playing a practical joke on Dan Rather, who himself entered Iraq the day before. On a desk in the U.S. Embassy where the CBS anchorman will be sure to see it, Dorrance Smith leaves a note that reads: ”Interview with Saddam Hussein. At 11:30, August 17th. One hour?” The ABC crew figures Rather will be upset if not apoplectic at the prospect of being scooped again. Koppel says now, ”The hook sank in deep.”

That evening on Nightline, back in Amman, Koppel discusses some of the press restrictions in Baghdad. ”We got (there) because the Iraqi government wanted us (there),” Koppel says. ”Not for news coverage, as we normally understand it, but for the express purpose of conducting an interview with the Iraqi foreign minister. He is the man at the moment who is putting forward the soft line, what he wants you and the United States to hear.”

Aug. 17
Koppel flies back to the United States, arriving just in time to be a guest on his own show, this night hosted by Barbara Walters. He criticizes another guest, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Mohammed al-Mashat, for his country’s treatment of Americans who were taken from Al Rasheed Hotel after Koppel’s visit. After al-Mashat insists that the Americans are not hostages, Koppel retorts, ”Let me just ask you what your definition of a hostage is, because if the current situation doesn’t define hostage-taking, I don’t know what does.”

Koppel himself drew criticism last week because of his news-gathering about the hostages. A Newsweek story said the White House thought Koppel’s reports had endangered the Americans at Al Rasheed. He doesn’t buy that: ”It seems to me that you have to blame the people who took them hostage.” The Bush administration’s criticism has been drowned out, however, by hosannas from media critics. The network has been trumpeting these accolades — ”ABC leaving its rivals in the desert” — in commercials.

Whether all this praise has had an effect on ratings is unclear. Koppel’s were up about 30 percent in the first two weeks of the Iraqi standoff, but some of that could be the normal upswing in Nightline viewership during any crisis; millions depend on the program for breaking stories. ”The fact that I got into Baghdad first generated some publicity and that brought some attention,” Koppel himself says, in his reasoned style. ”People see that and say, ‘I haven’t been watching that program. Maybe I should.”’ Considering the quality of the Iraq coverage, they may well be back.

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