The Videophone War  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2001

The Videophone War   

The new technology enabled television photographers to provide viewers with a closer look at the early days of the fighting in Afghanistan. That look, however, wasnt crystal clear.

By Elizabeth Wasserman
Elizabeth Wasserman, former Washington bureau chief of The Industry Standard magazine, is a freelance writer in Fairfax, Virginia.     


If Vietnam was America's first "television war," then the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan will go down in the annals of history as our first "videophone war." During the first week of the conflict, the closest views of the fighting were provided in live reports by correspondents using videophones--literally, cameras plugged into satellite phones.

It's true that reporters traveling with rebels in the remote mountains of northern Afghanistan never seemed to transmit much more than a jerky talking head or a dark and grainy night picture punctuated with the occasional explosion of green.

But despite sometimes inferior-quality pictures, the videophone may prove as revolutionary in war coverage as some of the other technological milestones we've seen over the past two centuries. During the Civil War, the telegraph was used to get word of casualties back from the battlefield. World War I ushered in the newsreel. Edward R. Murrow helped define the use of radio during the air raids on London during World War II. In Vietnam, television reporters recorded their stories but had to fly the footage out to Japan before it could be broadcast back home--delaying reports by several days. The Persian Gulf War marked the rise of the satellite uplink and the immediacy of live coverage.

The videophone has enabled television news crews to venture out into the danger zone in northern Afghanistan, untethered to the customary satellite uplink they need to beat the other guy on the air with the live shot. Over rugged mountain routes, crews are able to tote scaled-down versions of equipment that usually weighs in excess of a ton. "This stuff is small, compact," says Dick Tauber, CNN's vice president for satellites and circuits. "It can fit into two briefcases, one having one or two satellite phones, the other having the videophone. With that gear plus a car battery for power, you're ready to go."

The videophone is actually a new twist on a technology that businesses have been using for years: videoconferencing. The videophones, which cost about $8,000 each, combine videoconferencing equipment with "store and forward" technology--which helps compress very-high-bandwidth feeds so they can be transmitted via satellite. The satellite phones also cost about $8,000.

One of the most popular videophone units with crews from CNN is called the TH2--the Talking Head--made by 7E Communications in London. This videophone links via a standard ISDN socket to a high-bandwidth satellite phone, the Inmarsat GAN terminal, which provides a dial-up two-way connection via satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above the equator. Some of the networks have even customized their own versions.

News executives consider the videophone reports only one element of a broader coverage plan. They've been installing more traditional satellite uplinks in places like Islamabad, Pakistan, and, in some cases, northern Afghanistan. The videophone is "a good first recourse to use while we transport our uplink and set it up," says Frank Governale, CBS News' vice president for operations. "There are some rare situations when we can't get the proper permission to operate an uplink in a location, so videophone is the only alternative way to get pictures out." And there can be drawbacks to setting up a "flyaway"--a portable uplink--in a war zone. They're difficult to get in place, as the equipment can weigh a ton. And they're potential targets.

Videophones first gained attention in April, when CNN's Beijing-based producer/correspondent Lisa Rose Weaver delivered live coverage of the departure from the island of Hainan of the crew of the captured U.S. spy plane. It was an exclusive--the shot heard round the broadcasting world. Even better was that Chinese officials confronted the news crew--on air. Ever since, the videophone has been the must-have gadget for television news correspondents stationed in remote locations overseas.

In the early days of the fighting in Afghanistan, there were some scary moments for correspondents going live over videophones. NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders on October 9 showed viewers how real the danger is when he came under fire while live on MSNBC. Pinned down on a rooftop, Sanders explained, "Somebody has taken three shots at us. We're not exactly sure what's going on. We're in an area controlled by the Northern Alliance, and it's supposed to be a friendly area." Even the anchor urged him to take cover, but like the most devoted of war correspondents, he kept reporting, finding out that the shooting had come mistakenly from Northern Alliance troops.

Videophones have also enabled some cable news channels that weren't around during the Persian Gulf War to hit the ground running. Before the bombs started dropping, Steve Harrigan, CNN's main man in Afghanistan, signed a lucrative contract with rival Fox News Channel. He was reporting via videophone for Fox the very next day.

At times, anchors back in the States expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of the videophone pictures. CNN anchor Aaron Brown was on air October 8 with correspondent Matthew Chance, Harrigan's replacement, who was reporting from northern Afghanistan in the middle of a sandstorm during the second wave of air attacks. The videophone shots of the horizon were dark and nondescript. On air, Brown told viewers, "And there is not a lot of detail in this and there is not going to be. These are night attacks and the kinds of technology that are available to us, while pretty good, to be honest, [are] imperfect, certainly at night."

There have been some harsh critiques of the trendy technology. The New York Times at one point called the reports from northern Afghanistan "sketchy" and the images "almost indecipherable." But videophone technology will only improve over time. And for an observer of America's prior conflicts in this century, even the imperfect images they deliver today are certainly better than none at all.

"I think that they add a dimension," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a one-time speechwriter for President Dwight Eisenhower. "They get the electronic reporter closer to the battlefield."

###