The first Gulf War was a defining moment for CNN
Live news coverage became what audiences demanded
CNN was the only global 24-hour satellite news network at the time
It was the last chance to get out. In the early hours of January 17, 1991 my CNN colleagues and I were huddled together in our ninth floor office in the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad trying to decide whether to stay or go before the U.S. and their allies unleashed their firepower on Iraq.
We were there to report on the war but at the same time it was a scary prospect. We’d wake up in the morning feeling brave, get scared by lunchtime, and have a fortifying and morale-boosting drink by bedtime.
It had been a six-month long buildup to this moment. A roller coaster that started with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in early August the previous year – the thrill of being the daily news lead. The daily diplomatic highs and lows of efforts at a negotiated settlement. The back and forth verbal salvos between the Americans, their allies and Saddam Hussein’s regime. The buildup of military hardware, forces and power in the region. The fear felt by foreign hostages held in Iraq, or “human shields” as Saddam called them. The fear Iraqis endured but were afraid to speak of, lest they be punished.
And the constant threat of war.
Mother of all battles
But this was it. President George H. W. Bush had just gone on U.S. television announcing the start of the war, the air campaign on “military targets in Iraq,” code name Operation Desert Storm.
Saddam called it “the mother of all battles.”
How much time did we journalists have to commit to staying or leaving before the much anticipated fierce bombing began? None. That decision was made for us. The bombers and missiles were heading towards Baghdad.
The howling and barking of dogs broke the tense quiet of that Baghdad night, and our discussion whether to stay or go was over. I’d read somewhere that animals could hear things before humans could, and alert us to danger. The dogs signaled the imminent bombing. Within minutes the air raid sirens screamed, followed by the thunder of explosions, an unearthly light show from exploding big ordnance and the Iraqis lighting up the sky with anti-aircraft fire.
“Holy crap!” was the most innocent expletive heard in the halls of the hotel, as journalists scrambled, some to watch, some to run to the shelter. Most of us instinctively did what we there to do – report the war. Adrenaline replaced any thoughts we may have had of being used as human shields by Saddam’s regime.
Nothing was easy
We had prepared for this moment for months, but nothing was easy in Saddam’s Iraq. Television satellite transmission equipment was not allowed into the highly controlled, secretive, authoritarian state. Saddam’s spooks were everywhere; it was next to impossible to sneak anything, especially something as large as a satellite dish, into the country.
The Iraqis said all journalists would have to rely on filing reports from Iraqi state television facilities. Of course we all knew Iraqi TV was high on the list of targets – in any war, you want to cripple your enemy’s communications capabilities. We guessed that international phone calls, which always had to be booked in advance so a censor could monitor conversations, would not be reliable – surely the phone exchange had to be a priority target?
Who was ‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwarzkopf?
So, months in advance, we set to work on installing a 4 WIRE, a simple piece of equipment – in essence two open parallel phone lines – one in each direction.
If nothing else, it would allow us to communicate at all times between our Baghdad office, and CNN headquarters in the U.S. The trick was getting the Iraqis to allow it. It took weeks of endless negotiations, schmooze, and persuasion to get the Iraqis to agree.
In the end, they did. Probably because they believed it would benefit them to listen to all our conversations; the Iraqis really thought we knew more than we did, and they hoped to learn what the Bush administration was thinking and planning.
CNN’s advantage was that we were the only global 24-hour satellite news network, and the Iraqi leadership watched us. They thought we were indispensable to broadcasting their point of view to the world, and especially to the Americans. Like any other government, they considered the media key – whether you call it information or propaganda.
CNN makes history
“Something’s happening outside… the skies over Baghdad have been illuminated,” CNN anchor Bernie Shaw urgently intoned over the 4 WIRE. Our live audio broadcast started as we watched targets being struck from our ninth floor windows.
The telephone exchange building was one of those. That was the end of journalists phoning in their reports. But our 4 WIRE bypassed the regular phone exchange and we were able to give a blow by blow account of the opening night of the war.
We were the only journalists able to report. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was a global coup. News organizations around the world carried CNN’s live reporting of the first night of the Gulf War I; that night made television history and catapulted CNN into permanent news prominence. From that moment on, live news coverage is what audiences demanded and news organizations strived to achieve.
It was the first major conflict I covered, and it taught me a lot. The most important thing I took away from it was not that hard work pays off, but that we as journalists are privileged. We have a choice whether to report from conflict zones or not – but civilians like the Iraqis we worked with and who helped us achieve our goals, didn’t.
They endure, suffer through, and with luck, survive wars without having the choice of staying or leaving.