Behind the scenes at CNN
It was the most-watched event in TV history, and CNN owned it. Within minutes of the first bomb-burst over Baghdad, the Cable News Network achieved total air superiority over the networks, and held it until Iraq temporarily shut down the news operation some 16 hours later.
Ten-year-old CNN, the news organization once derided as the ”Chicken Noodle Network,” ordinarily scores less than one-tenth the ratings of competitors ABC, CBS, and NBC. But on January 16, the first day of the war, 10.8 million households tuned in to CNN, only 1.6 million short of CBS’ score. Actually, CNN had an even bigger audience than the reported numbers, because hundreds of stations around the country carried its coverage — including many affiliates that switched from their own network’s feed to CNN’s. As Vic Aicken of Britain’s ITV channel put it, ”They cut to Bernie Shaw (CNN’s anchor in Iraq) because it was clear that they were getting their heads handed to ’em.”
Shaw, Peter Arnett, and John Holliman, CNN’s men in Baghdad, became overnight war heroes; major newspapers celebrated the team’s exploits under fire. But the newsmen owed much of their preeminence to their employer’s peculiar achievement: A tiny presence at home, CNN is titanic abroad, where there is little competition from either U.S. or foreign TV news organizations. CNN has had coups before — most notably at Beijing’s Tianenmen Square in 1989 — but this time it wangled exclusive access to a four-wire phone hookup in Baghdad. Other networks (especially ABC) would outdo CNN in analyzing the war. But at a time when the big guys, strapped for cash, are being pressed to cut back coverage, CNN keeps up the pressure by reporting breaking news whenever it happens.
As the war drew near, and while CNN’s men were witnessing history in Baghdad, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY was behind the scenes at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, a place that resembles nothing so much as NASA’s Mission Control. Just as the battle in Iraq will profoundly change the Middle East, the efforts of CNN are likely to permanently alter the way the world gets its news. Here’s how the word spread on the most important day of post-Cold War history:
January 14, 8:30 p.m. The Military Buildup
”Caution,” reads the sign outside the CNN studio, ”Robotic Equipment in Use. May Move Without Warning.” The robot cameras rove and home in on CNN’s stark news desk; the glass wall behind the anchors reveals some 80 or so CNN newsies briskly circulating among 150 flickering TV monitors, three doughnut-shaped writers’ pods, and rows of computer terminals hooked up to wire services. Today, the terminals are like seismographs awaiting a distant earthquake.
The newsroom’s atmosphere reflects that of the nation — conflicted about the crisis, inclined to gallows humor and other psychological ploys to keep fear at bay. One employee softly croons, ”All we are saying, is give peace a chance”; taped to a terminal is a postcard featuring Saddam Hussein surfing and the legend, ”WIPEOUT Iraq.” Near a desk bearing a Warplane Recognition Guide full of weapon silhouettes, someone has affixed a bumper sticker adorned with outlines of mosques and a sign that reads (in Arabic and English), ”Closed for Praying.”
”Everyone continues to hope war doesn’t happen,” evening supervising producer Charles Caudill says in a martial tone of voice, ”but if it does, we’re ready to cover it. That’s not an assumption, it’s a fact — we’ll be there as the world’s watchdog. Our capability is, in my opinion, awesome. CNN veterans are battle-tested — we have that experience, not where you’re in and out in a half-hour news show, but around-the-clock. Our coverage will be wall- to-wall live. It’ll make that movie Broadcast News look tame.”
In the newsroom, a writer stares at his computer screen, shaking his head and muttering: “The meteorological association says the weather is right for war.”
January 15, 8:30 p.m. Countdown to Agony
The world’s dread increases as the clock ticks toward the U.N. deadline backed by President Bush for Saddam Hussein’s retreat from Kuwait, but as CNN president Tom Johnson surveys the gathering action in the newsroom, he seems serene. “CNN has been preparing for this type of global crisis for many years,” he says. Johnson is a local boy from Macon; his dirt-poor daddy used to sell watermelons off the back of a pickup truck. Tom has done better: His last job title was CEO of the Los Angeles Times, and he has friends in very high places. On his CNN desk rests a considerable list of people whose phone calls he must return: President Bush; Vice President Quayle; National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft; Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar. The key to a world news network is networking worldwide, and Johnson is continuing the work that CNN founder Ted Turner presciently started a decade ago. As onetime CNN newswriter Michael Skinner, making a return visit to the newsroom, observes, ”Ted’s a wacko, but he’s smart. He realized you can’t beat the networks at home — if you want real growth, go overseas.”
Turner spent a decade putting together 24 bureaus here and abroad; a foreign cable and satellite audience comprising 10 million households and 250,000 hotel rooms; plus relationships with some 350 TV organizations worldwide. He characteristically went all out to get what he wanted: CNN landed a Gaddafi interview in 1986 by building the Libyan leader a $4,000 monitor so he could watch himself. Turner’s hard work has paid off: Poland’s Lech Walesa wears a CNN T-shirt, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd are devoted viewers, and Jordan’s King Hussein once watched a CNN report about him while at his dentist’s, leapt up from his chair in fury, and phoned the studio, which aired his retort an hour later. ”CNN is just straight news,” Skinner says. “You turn on the faucet and news pours out.”
But getting the flow going isn’t easy. At the center of the newsroom two hours later, producer Caudill stands with a pinkie pressed to his forehead, barking into a phone. ”You say you’ve got footage of Saddam prayin’? Why don’t you pray for me on this show!” He switches lines. ”Now, Bernie (Shaw) hasn’t slept in two days. If he starts goin’ on and on, wrap him up, ’cause I’m so tight on this I’m squeakin’.”
Caudill has multiple story elements to fit in by the midnight deadline (about 90 minutes away), plus live satellite feeds from all over the planet. He also keeps tabs on the control booth, which is looking like the overpopulated stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. ”Can I have Saudi Arabia?” demands producer Alec Miran, who always has two phones pressed to his head. ”Yes or no? Real quick.”
Out in the newsroom, Caudill says into his phone, ”Are ya ready? Everybody’s here, all the bigwigs, so let’s cook. Be careful what you say on the satellite.” This is good advice: During CNN’s coverage of Iran’s release of American hostages in January 1981, then-president Reese Schonfeld, unaware that a commercial he wanted cut had already been switched off, bellowed to his engineers (and TV audience), ”You prime assholes, get that off the air!” Caudill is calm by comparison: ”We’re ready to rock & roll.”
A producer gets on the phone to Baghdad between Shaw’s transmissions, which have been too abstractly phrased. ”Bernie, tell me what you see, the atmosphere.” ”I can’t see anything,” Shaw replies. ”I want touchy-feely,” urges the producer, ”I wanna know what you see, I wanna know what you feel.” In the newsroom, people feel an adrenaline rush, because they’re about to change crews minutes before midnight. ”We’d better be in Baghdad in 30 seconds,” Caudill yells. ”I don’t care what the f— you do, but you just be there by straight up.” The crews change as smoothly as a Mercedes shifting gears, and Shaw’s voice comes over the loudspeakers, right on time, as soothing and sonorous as Walter Cronkite’s. ”From our reporting position, I can barely see the streets,” he says. ”There’s this extraordinarily thick and eerie fog choking the city. I feel tension and I feel hope. In Baghdad, this is Bernard Shaw, CNN.” Caught up in the broadcast, he is oblivious to possible danger. The night before, he had told CNN’s audience, ”Personally, I do not think there will be a war.”
On camera 10 feet away from the control booth, anchor Patrick Emory intones, ”It is morning in Saudi Arabia. From this point on, military action can take place at any moment.” For now, the CNN staff has made its deadline and can relax. ”Thanks, everybody!” Caudill says. ”A real good job-we got through it.” Somebody adds, ”It’s a good rehearsal for war.”