Nets rally to cover Bhutto

News units mobilize after killing

When word came of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Thursday, the news had special meaning for "Today" co-host Ann Curry.

It was just two months ago that Curry interviewed the former Pakistani prime minister about her return from self-imposed exile and her drive toward the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections to help bring the country back to democracy. Looking back Thursday afternoon while preparing parts of the interview to air on "NBC Nightly News," Curry couldn't help but be struck by how matter-of-fact Bhutto was about the possibility that she could be killed.

"She knew there were many threats to her life," Curry said.

After speaking at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi, those fears became reality Thursday when Bhutto, 54, was shot and killed by a suicide attacker who then blew himself up. The assassination shattered the postholiday calm that had settled on the New York-based TV news divisions that quietly are gearing up for next week's Iowa caucuses.

Suddenly, Pakistan — where there are only a handful of employees for the U.S.-based networks — pushed U.S. campaign news off the cable news channels as the networks struggled to bring the developing story to American viewers. CNN was the first network to confirm the story, working off legwork from producer Mohsin Naqvi, who broke the story at 7:21 a.m. EST after attending the rally and hearing an explosion.

"He was right on it from the start to the end," said Parisa Khosravi, CNN International senior vp newsgathering.

Naqvi isn't alone. ABC News' Gretchen Peters is stationed in Pakistan for the network, which also is sending other correspondents, including "World News Sunday" anchor Dan Harris. NBC is sending correspondents Michelle Kosinski from New York and Ned Colt from London. Both hold current Pakistani visas, which NBC News newsgathering vp David Verdi said is a traditional precaution for hot-button regions.

NBC News constantly obtains visas "for people in our organization in the anticipation there would be breaking news in a country that would take months to get one otherwise," he said.

Fox News Channel moved into action immediately, bringing back many of its A-team who were on Christmas vacation. "The Fox Report" correspondent Shepard Smith anchored coverage from Memphis because he couldn't return to New York fast enough. Greta van Susteren hosted "On the Record" from Florida, where she is vacationing. Bill O'Reilly was scheduled to call into "The O'Reilly Factor" for a few minutes at the beginning of the hour from out of the country.

MSNBC had "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann return early from vacation to cover the story.

CBS will have Richard Roth covering the assassination and its aftermath, with Sheila MacVicar en route to Pakistan to be on the ground for "The Early Show." ABC has Nick Watt covering for "Good Morning America," which also will produce a nontraditional obituary, executive producer Tom Cibrowski said.

"It's the story of Benazir Bhutto, controversial and incredibly brave," he said. "Our viewers know she was standing up for something she believed in, and that makes a difference in the way we're covering it."

Looking back on her interview, Curry wonders whether she had been too tough on Bhutto while questioning her about why she was doing what she was doing after already having done so much for her country.

"With her eyes wide open, she expressed a deep love for her country and a wish for some day that it would become a democracy again," Curry said. "I cannot say she did not expect this. I think she did expect to be attacked again. She said she put her faith in God."

Curry said the interview took place after Bhutto had a wrenching meeting with the widows and family members who had lost loved ones in the previous attempt on her life. The former prime minister realized that she didn't have any lipstick and was reluctant to go on camera without it. Curry instinctively offered her lipstick tube. Bhutto accepted and readied herself for the camera.

The situation in Iraq and elsewhere has taught the networks to be careful of their own security. Although the journalists will not travel in Pakistan with the same level of protection required working in Iraq, being careful is at the top of the priority list.

Verdi said that Pakistan has modern cities and none of the threatening look of Iraq and that it's easy to let one's guard down.

"It's a very volatile situation, and we're very worried about the potential for violence on the ground," he said. "We're going to be very conscious of security."

Khosravi agreed and said that Naqvi told her Thursday night that he'd never seen his homeland so volatile and in such a state of shock as it is after the assassination.

"Safety is a big concern on the ground," Khosravi said.

That extends not only to rioting but also to Bhutto's funeral, which is scheduled for today in her hometown of Larkana, where her father and two brothers also are buried.
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