BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away. I'm Bob Garfield. After more than a year of war and occupation, Iraq on Wednesday was to regain its sovereignty, a ceremony whose historical and political significance is debatable, but whose headline value is unquestioned. Thus did the 24 hour news channels and major broadcast networks start airlifting anchors, designing logos and generally preparing for a major, major photo-op. But then, the unthinkable happened. Security concerns prompted the powers that be to make the switch two days early, before the networks could even cue the theme music. CBS was the first of the broadcast big three to get the story on the air, but not before a mad scramble. [CBS CLIP PLAYS] [MUSIC]
WOMAN:: CBS is getting details in Baghdad from our correspondent, Dan Rather.
DAN RATHER: One of the questions is going to be well, why didn't they broadcast this live on radio and television? Why wasn't the public allowed to see it? And the answer, which has not been given officially, but is obvious, that for security reasons they did it in this manner, including moving up the schedule.
BOB GARFIELD: Joining me now is CBS's Senior Vice President for News Coverage Marcy McGinnis. Marcy, welcome back to On the Media.
MARCY McGINNIS: Thank you, Bob. Great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So-- Monday kind of like spending six months planning an expensive wedding only to have the couple elope?
MARCY McGINNIS: [LAUGHS] A little bit. [LAUGHS] More like the wedding that you had to plan really quickly, because they decided to do it two days early.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, tell me what CBS and you had done in preparation for what was going to be the handover on Wednesday.
MARCY McGINNIS: Well, we had sent our anchor, Dan Rather, over there. He got there Saturday. And we had our people on the ground, shooting some material that would then turn into pieces for the various broadcasts that we do.
BOB GARFIELD: Graphic artists hard at work coming up with logos for over the anchor's shoulder and stuff like that as well?
MARCY McGINNIS: Oh, sure, all of that, and also just general reporting pieces -- you know, what does it all mean? What to expect? That sort of thing.
BOB GARFIELD: So it was a big production.
MARCY McGINNIS: It was a lot of preparation.
BOB GARFIELD: And on Monday at about 2:30 in the morning did the--
MARCY McGINNIS: My phone rang; I was deep asleep, and the producer of our overnight broadcast said to me - the handover's happened, the handover's happened. I said what do you mean, what do you mean it happened? And he said it already happened, and-- Dan's on our air right now. It was 2:30; he had broken the story on radio, and then he called Up to the Minute, and he was breaking the story on television, and so I said to the producer, okay -- finish the sentence that you're talking to him, and then turn it into a Special Report, which means he was on the air with the stations that were taking the overnight broadcast at the time, and I wanted him to go to all stations.
BOB GARFIELD: So-- I need for you to be absolutely candid with me here: what percentage of your being at 2:30 in the morning is saying oh, this is wonderful - it's unexpected - it's therefore news, and I'm all for news - and what part of you was saying dammit to hell - after all we went through?
MARCY McGINNIS: [LAUGHS] You know what? When it - news happens, I'm not kidding - when it's happening, it doesn't matter if it's happening at 2:30 in the morning or if it's happening on schedule at 11 a.m. on Wednesday. All I was thinking at that time was oh, my God - I have to get up, get dressed and get in there. I wasn't really thinking in terms of -- oh, no. I was thinking of - oh, my God.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you about Dan Rather. You know, he heads over to Baghdad for this historic handover of sovereignty, and here this event occurs, and you know, Dan is all dressed up -no place to go. He's not in the room. He can't report live. He has to wait till it's all over and to pick up the pieces. How frustrated was he?
MARCY McGINNIS: Well, he wasn't frustrated at all, because we, frankly, never knew if he was going to get into the ceremony anyway. We never knew, in fact, if there was going to be a ceremony. So on that morning, when his team got a call that said bring a camera and whoever you want to this location - you can't bring your cell phones - our people said - uh-oh - something's going on - we don't know what it is, but we'd better be able to report this if it does happen, and if we can't bring cell phones, then we'd better figure out some kind of communication, and we'd better keep Dan at the location where he can actually broadcast. So we devised a system, which I don't want to say how we did it, where our people that were inside -- the cameraman and the producer --were able to get the information out to Dan who then was at our broadcast location, so that's how he was able to get on the air. So at 2:30 when he broke the story, he was totally pumped, and the stories that he had shot for-- Wednesday - you know, we moved them up to Monday, and the early show revamped its broadcast to accommodate the handover ceremony. So it really didn't affect much of the planning that we had done ahead of time; it just made us scramble.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. Well scrambling's fun. Adrenlin is fun.
MARCY McGINNIS: Yeah, it is fun. It is fun, especially 3 o'clock in the morning.
BOB GARFIELD: I have to tell you -- I took a sort of smug satisfaction in what happened, because it's my feeling that there is, especially in this era of 24 hour news channels, both on cable and in the broadcast networks, a kind of theatricality that has been imposed on major news events with all the graphics and this specially composed music and the, you know, the logos given to--
MARCY McGINNIS: Right. Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- to wars and so forth.
MARCY McGINNIS: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: That-- somehow ultimately trivializes the underlying news. So, you know, I kind of smirked when this all happened, I'm embarrassed to tell you. Do you have any sympathy for my smirkitude?
MARCY McGINNIS: [LAUGHS] I understand your smirkitude, and I would only say that we as a network, and I think we are different from the cable networks who do have to stay on the air for 24 hours and have a lot of air time to fill -- we are in the television business - we are in the visual business - so-- you do have to, you know, make some decent-looking graphics, because the viewer is used to it. If you were still doing black and white TV with, you know, very not-modern graphics, nobody would be watching. So in that sense, I don't make any apologies for doing nice graphics and, and maybe to have some opening animation that kind of captures the eye. I think the real reason we're there though is to bring perspective to the news that we're trying to report, so in other words, the sovereignty is handed over; fine. There is the ceremony. Now let us try to provide a little bit of perspective as to what it means and what it means for our particular viewers.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Marcy. Well, thank you very much.
MARCY McGINNIS: All right, thanks Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Marcy McGinnis is senior V.P. for news coverage at CBS News.