Network news stable despite troop increase

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NEW YORK -- President Bush's decision Wednesday to send up to 20,000 more combat troops to Iraq isn't likely to change much on the ground immediately for TV journalists covering the deadly war, and the buildup won't be matched by an increase in reporters covering the story.

"It's an incredibly dangerous place, and it's very, very difficult to do the kinds of stories that you would want to do," CBS News vp Paul Friedman said. "Not only is it dangerous for our people but it's often dangerous for the people we come in contact with because one faction or another will accuse them of being in collusion."

The coverage of the war in Iraq in 2007 isn't much different than it has been in 2006 or 2005. The networks are for the most part prevented by security concerns in telling what's going on in much of Baghdad, much less the rest of the country. It's just too dangerous to go out there.

"We can't drive up every highway, we're not in every town and every city, and that's been the case for a while now," said CNN International President Chris Cramer.

Two times in the past year when American TV journalists have ventured outside the so-called Green Zone it's turned tragic: the deaths in May of CBS News cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan and the severe injuries of Kimberly Dozier in the same attack along with last January's attack on ABC News' Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt.

Those experiences have put a renewed focus on safety at both ABC and CBS, and while they have crews from time to time -- ABC's Jonathan Karl is embedded right now -- they're keenly aware of the risks and acknowledge it's changed their coverage.

"It's a very untenable situation," ABC News senior vp Paul Slavin said. "It's dangerous enough when you're not actively in a firefight. ... Generally speaking, it's not something we're comfortable with right now."

Cramer said his journalists are traveling occasionally "but less often, much more tentatively. ... We're mindful of the tragedies that have happened to our colleagues, including ourselves, over the last few years. Safety and security is absolutely paramount, and the coverage of the story is secondary."

Some in the Bush administration have complained that the U.S. media hasn't been covering the good that is happening in Iraq.

"One of the ironies of that argument is that we would love to, but it's really too unsafe to do it," Friedman said.

Most of the networks don't anticipate an increase in permanent staffing in Iraq as a result of the surge in troops in and around Baghdad and troubled Anbar province. ABC News said it could add to its staff in the coming weeks, partly because of the president's actions and partly because of the State of the Union address and its ongoing "Iraq: Where We Stand" franchise.

"We will ramp up some of the editorial in country if the safety situation allows for it," Slavin said. ABC has two correspondents in Iraq right now.

CNN has about 40 staff members in Iraq, including three correspondents. CNN's Cramer said Wednesday that he wouldn't rule it out but said that the numbers were adequate for the time being.

CBS doesn't anticipate sending any more than the four or five correspondents that they've been sending on rotations that last up to six weeks. CBS has been doing other stories surrounding the troop buildup, including anchor Katie Couric's reports from Fort Stewart in Georgia where many of the new troops are stationed. They're also doing stories on injured soldiers and posttraumatic stress.

Few if any network executives think the security situation is going to get any better any time soon.

"I think the next couple of weeks will be relatively telling," ABC's Slavin said. "Does Baghdad settle down? Does Baghdad get worse? That will very much influence (coverage plans)."

Off the table for the time being is a plan, which was being discussed, to pool coverage in Iraq so that each network wouldn't have to fully staff a bureau. Slavin said the discussions have been extensive but everyone is still going to go it on their own, though some footage is pooled already. Friedman said that the pool discussions seem to be off for the most part.

"They break down over really complicated issues over who will do what and how it will be split up," he said.
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