Thu. Oct 10, 2002
Boys of Baghdad, The Sequel
Boys of Baghdad, The Sequel – Tom Johnson, CNN President, in January 1991: ”Robert, again I want to emphasize, anyone who wants to leave is free to leave.”
There was silence on Tom’s end of the line. I knew he was under tremendous pressure. Only later would I learn how much … that the President of the United States had personally called Johnson, imploring him to shut down CNN’s Baghdad operation.
As I drove to the Ministry, my head felt like it was in a vise. The panic at the hotel, the Saddam interview, the flyaway, the possibility of Bernie [Shaw] getting stuck in this shit for months … Jesus, I could see the headline already: CNN ANCHOR TRAPPED INCOMMUNICADO IN HOTEL BASEMENT WHILE WAR SURGES IN PERSIAN GULF. We’d look like idiots. TV critic Tom Shales would be in seventh heaven.
Of course, it didn’t exactly turn out that way. The above is an excerpt from a great book, ”Live From Baghdad,” a personal memoir from Robert Wiener of his stint at ”Ground Zero” as a producer for CNN, and it was a lively one. From later in the book: ”This was not the first time I’d been under fire, not the first time I could have been killed, but the sheer force of the Tomahawk cruise missile that impacted on the grounds of the Al Rasheed, blowing out or shattering almost every window in the lobby and bar, brought me face to face with my mortality like nothing I had ever gone through before [...] ”If you could have seen yourself,” Nic [Robertson, who was an engineer back then] said, shaking his head. ”You actually sailed across the room. Are you okay?”
I think it’s good to remember when we critique the press during war that we do it from the comfort of a cushy chair with no chance at all of a nearby Tomahawk impact. This book, now unfortunately out of print, is not only a great inside glimpse at the events of that era, it’s an admirable portrayal of the workings of the media itself (at least, how CNN did it back then). Don’t take it from me, take it from Hunter S. Thompson, who doesn’t generally do book blurbs: ”Live From Baghdad made me feel like a leopard with no spots. Robert Wiener’s heroic account of his days in Baghdad has provided me endless enjoyment. Wiener is a hero and a living monument to the balls and best instincts of our trade.”
While the book is out of print now, that may change, as HBO is releasing a movie of it in December, starring Michael Keaton as Robert Wiener. But don’t expect a sequel.
From ”Baghdad revisited”: "The first Gulf War cost CNN $20 million to $25 million. The network has created a $36 million contingency fund for a possible rerun [...] One thing is already clear: Not even CNN executives think their network will have a repeat of the extended on-air exclusivity it had with the ’Baghdad Boys.’ "
" ’That was another era,’ says CNN’s Jordan. ’It won’t happen. Not to that degree.’ But CNN will have advantages over other U.S. networks, Jordan predicts. The network has kept its office in Baghdad since the Gulf War, making contacts and maintaining a bureau that is bigger than that of any other English-speaking outlet, he says."
"In recent weeks the network installed a new satellite uplink and added staffers to the bureau. With the arrival of correspondent Nic Robertson from London this week, CNN will have three on-air correspondents there."
Sounds like the Pentagon rotating air craft carriers in and out of the region. When there’s three, they expect something might happen. And I also note, Nic Robertson is completing an 11 year circle of sorts. Maybe more of an upward spiral. He was there the first time as the team’s engineer, and now he’s one of their better know correspondents.
In fact, I think I may have to reread that book this weekend. And for another good book about the Persian Gulf War, that isn’t out of print, try ”Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War” (”Exhaustive, albeit consistently absorbing, record of the 42- day Gulf War that offers fresh, often startling, perspectives on the planning and conduct of what the author characterizes as ’a brilliant slaughter.’ Focusing almost entirely on military operations…”)