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When President Obama appeared in the Rose Garden on Aug. 31 to say that the United States should take military action in Syria after an alleged chemical weapons attack on its people, he sent a clear sign not just to the international community, but also to news organizations that this would be the big story of the moment.
While Congress debates a possible strike, and the U.N. and Russia work to steer international policy decisions, the TV news networks have stepped up their efforts to report from the embattled region. On Sept. 8, CBS News’ Charlie Rose scored an exclusive sit-down with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, the result of a month-long booking effort. As of press time, CBS News’ Elizabeth Palmer is the only American TV correspondent currently broadcasting from Syria, though other networks have had reporters there on and off over the past several months.
“We will do our best to have CBS News people on the ground if there’s an attack, absolutely. I don’t think you can cover a story like that from out of the country,” said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer. “I know other organizations are scrambling to do their best to get back in, which is very difficult.”
On Aug. 28, a week after the alleged chemical weapons attack, ABC News said it would reopen its bureau in Beirut, Lebanon, on the Syrian border. Jon Williams, the network’s managing editor for international news, traveled there last week to personally press the case for ABC News to gain entry to Damascus.
“Beirut is a great dateline; Damascus is a better dateline,” Williams said from Beirut, noting that having a bureau three hours from the Syrian capital is helpful when making the case for access to the government. “These things don’t happen overnight. They’re the result of investment and pressure over days, weeks and months.”
Williams said news organizations must make their request for visas through surrogates, leveraging the reputation of ABC News and the relationships he built in more than a decade at the BBC, as well as arguing that access is needed to ensure impartial reporting. “The greatest sign that I can give that ABC News is throwing everything at the story is to come here and lead from the front,” he said.
Preparing for Everything
With the likelihood of U.S. military involvement changing almost daily, networks have to prepare themselves for any situation.
“We have all sorts of plans in place for how to cover this if there is any action taken and it instantly becomes a whole different coverage with the personnel, with the technology at our locations,” said Parisa Khosravi, senior VP at CNN Worldwide in charge of international newsgathering, adding that she has a daily call with staffers in the region to go over editorial and logistical scenarios.
In the absence of correspondents on the ground, some networks rely on partnerships, like ABC News’ with the BBC; or user-generated content. But news execs stress there is no substitute for having your own people on the ground. CNN has put in place a system to verify such crowd-sourced video, listening for accents and dialects and looking for street signs or other identifying landmarks. “I think it’s a wonderful way to get a tip on a story, but we have to then put our own journalistic standards to it and there’s no shortcuts around that,” Khosravi said.
Besides access, other challenges to reporting depend largely on safety and security. But news networks stress their commitment to the region, with Williams saying ABC’s Beirut bureau will remain open regardless of American intervention.
“Without a doubt, if there’s a U.S. attack, it adds another dimension of importance to the coverage so yes, we will probably add more to it,” Fager said. “But we’ve recognized the importance of this story from the beginning and we’ve had some of our finest people on it. That’s not going to stop and that’s not going to change.”
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