Covering the Video War  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April 1992

Covering the Video War    

Live from Baghdad: Gathering News at Ground Zero
By Robert Wiener

Book review by Richard Krolik
Richard Krolik, retired from promotions and productions stints at Time-Life and NBC, is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     

Live from Baghdad: Gathering News at Ground Zero
By Robert Wiener
293 pages; $22

Certainly every WJR reader saw the video pictures out of Baghdad during what was CNN's finest hour. Now, for those who can wade through a lot of ego and somewhat annoying "re-created" dialogue, Robert Wiener delivers a valuable account of life in Iraq before and during the gulf war.

Wiener was the executive producer and de factobureau chief for CNN in Baghdad from August 1990 until a week after the bombing began on January 16, 1991. Although he left just before CNN could transmit live pictures with Peter Arnett's reporting, he was in the momentarily-famous al-Rashid hotel during the crucial first week of bombing and manages to make the reader duck along with him as the explosions come closer and closer.

One was a near hit. Arnett told the world how "CNN producer Robert Wiener was blown across the room." Wiener got a big kick out of it: "Flushed with the thrill of survival," he writes, "I also relished listening to Arnett's account of my latest derring-do."

Until the war started there was more dothan derringfor Wiener and his crew. When they tried to enter Iraq, they suffered from all the red tape and frustration that seems to befall foreign correspondents. They waited eight days in Amman, Jordan, for a visa to Iraq, which is " to impossible [to get] during the best of times..." Not even Jordan's King Hussein, a friend of CNN head Ted Turner, could pull strings to get them in.

Finally, the name of Rowland Evans, known in Iraqi circles for the television show he hosts with Robert Novak, proved to be the magic words, and they were granted entrance. Once in Baghdad, though, everything conspired against them – their equipment was searched extensively, six cabs were needed to transport the equipment to the hotel, and there were delays and problems everywhere.

Looming above them throughout the city, Wiener writes, were "portraits of Iraq's Maximum Leader look[ing] down on the populace. From some rooftops he pointed, from others he waved. From still others, he beckoned and he blessed. The portraits were a powerful and palpable force."

One of the CNN crew's "minders" explained the ubiquitous portraits. "His Excellency President Saddam Hussein doesn't ask for the paintings. He is a simple man but the people love him so that they rush to put them up." Later, Wiener learned that Saddam personally approved much of the artwork.

Needless to say, the Iraqis were sensitive about security. When Wiener and his "minder," Mr. Mazin, drove past the government compound, Wiener remarked, "So that's the presidential palace, huh?" Mazin replied, "Maybe."

Among the stories Wiener wanted to do in Baghdad was one on the Jewish section of the city. The request was filed and forgotten, but one day without warning Mazin said, "Tonight we go to the synagogue. You remember? You asked to do a story on the Jewish. Everything is arranged. We must leave in one hour."

"Tonight?" Wiener exclaimed. "This is Monday. Jews don't usually worship on Monday. Mr. Mazin, you didn't round up these people and force them to got to the synagogue, did you?"

Yes, Mazin had. After Wiener, "as calmly as possible, defined journalistic heresy and explained that even in Baghdad, we would never, ever stage a news event," the shooting was rescheduled for a Friday evening.

Wiener's foreign correspondent růsumů is extensive. He reported from Vietnam for ABC and NBC. With CNN since 1981, he has served as bureau chief in Los Angeles and Jerusalem and covered the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the Mexico City earthquake. Currently he is CNN's senior European producer.

But all that TV experience doesn't necessarily mean Wiener can write. His book is based mostly on recalled dialogue, which makes for easy reading but often strains the reader's patience. He uses four-letter words so frequently that one is reminded of Australian longshoremen who insert the F-word between syllables. And Wiener's continual use of "ya" instead of "you" grates on the nerves. Furthermore, for those readers not in the TV news business, a glossary of terms would have been helpful. Phrases such as "lay track," "feed gear," "four-wires," "beepers," "flyaways" and "INMARSAT" are not recognizable to many. Either Wiener is showing off or he assumes that the world is up to speed on TV terminology.

Wiener also forgets the main tenets of good journalism: covering the who, what, where, when and how. He provides more about how he did it than what the day's work meant in the context of swiftly-moving international developments.

Wiener also shares some inside detail that readers can do without. Do we really need to know that this jolly bunch drank four bottles of Stoly at $90 a bottle on an average night while inventing cutesy names for each other? And do TV professionals really say, "Let's make television!"?