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TV mobilizes for 'global war'

Still struggling with the terrorist attacks and their aftermath in New York and Washington, TV news managers everywhere are now getting ready for what may be an even bigger challenge: what President Bush calls the "global war on terrorism."

The executives say it is tough to prepare for because they don't know where the flash points will be or what form America's military action will take.

"The planning never stops," says Paul Friedman, executive vice president of ABC News and executive producer of ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.
"You try to pre-position people in logical places, and they may or may not turn out to be the right calls."

Indeed, it's not like journalists are invited to the war rooms at the Pentagon. "I think there is going to be a series of unforeseen events just like there were a series of unforeseen events on Sept. 11," says John Stack, vice president, news coverage, Fox News.

Says Bill Wheatley, senior vice president, NBC News: "It looks like this war … is going to be fought on multiple fronts."

ABC and CBS say they're positioning dozens of reporters and crews in Central Asia, where a U.S. military strike is highly anticipated. NBC is deploying a hundred or more people to the region, but it services three networks, including MSNBC and CNBC. CNN has more than 60 people in the area, many of whom were there before the terrorist attack, says Eason Jordan, president of newsgathering for the network. Late last week, Fox News had two coverage teams in Pakistan and another on route.

All say they will add more people as conditions warrant.

As of last Thursday, the main "staging area" for TV news in the region was Islamabad, Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan on the south. U.S. officials say the Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan is harboring Osama bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the terrorist attack.

All the major news organizations were trying to get people across the Pakistan border into northern Afghanistan, where anti-Taliban forces have welcomed Western journalists.

CNN had been the only TV network to have a correspondent in Kabul, the Afghan capital. But the correspondent, Nic Robertson, was kicked out of the city last Thursday. Jordan says Robertson was told he would be "dismembered" if the Taliban found him in the country after bombs started falling. "We obviously take such threats very seriously," says Jordan.

Other TV news organizations consider the capital and other parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan too dangerous to send in reporters.

But the Western media haven't been shut out entirely. "We're getting good coverage in Kabul," says Brad Kalbfeld, deputy director and managing editor of AP Broadcast.

Given the security issues, Kalbfeld was reluctant to detail just how or by whom AP was getting its video and commentary. "But we are very happy with the coverage we're getting out of there, in terms of words, pictures and video." The coverage has been picked up by all the major network news outlets, he says.

News budgets, of course, pretty much got torn up after the terrorist attack. Although news executives have been paying strict attention to costs and the bottom line for years now, their corporate bosses aren't imposing spending limits on the story, they say.

"This is the biggest thing that's ever hit," says Marcy McGinnis, vice president, news coverage, CBS News. "There have been no discussions of money. There will never be enough money to cover something like this. … You just do it, and nobody is going to tell you not to."

Tom Wolzien, media analyst at Sanford Bernstein, estimates that the Big Four news networks are spending between $1 million and $2 million more a day than usual to cover the story. Generally, he says, annual network news budgets are in the $400 million to $500 million range. Given the magnitude of the story, he believes the news departments may have to spend another 25% to 35% over the next several years. That, of course, would represent a reverse of the trend at the broadcast networks to trim costs, bureaus and news personnel over the past decade or so.

But some news executives don't believe they have to ramp up their costs to the degree that Wolzien suggests. ABC's Friedman is among them. The networks, he says, "have done a superb job of covering this story, so far, after going through a lot of budget cutbacks."

What the networks have done, and what they need to continue to do, Friedman says, is "bulk up on the story," by hiring additional free-lance crews and producers. "We're all spending a ton of money on the story, but it's not the kind of infrastructure that we used to maintain."

CNN's Jordan says that, while the story is "exceptionally challenging to cover," the network has all the resources its needs. Since the Gulf War, it has twice the number of people (now about 3,800) and twice as many bureaus outside the U.S. (30 staffed by about 300 journalists). "We're well-positioned."