BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This Sunday marks the deadline for Iraq to present a thorough accounting of its programs for weapons of mass destruction. In a bit of TV serendipity it's also the weekend HBO premieres a docu-drama about the last war in Iraq called Live from Baghdad. [SOUND TRACK FROM LIVE FROM BAGHDAD]
MAN: I've seen this panic before. Saigon. Same thing. White House spooked the **** out of everybody. The reporters got in the helicopters and got the hell out. Robert, you know what I'm talking about. Of course they don't want us here! If we're here, the White House can't control the story. It goes to the world live. But I say we stay and report and prevail.
MICHAEL KEATON AS
ROBERT WIENER: Okay. Two things. First of all remember where we are. We're within walking distance of the Iraqi Parliament, the presidential palace, the ministry of defense, telecommunications centers -- all of these are prime targets. Every one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The film stars Michael Keaton as CNN news producer Robert Wiener and Helena Bonham Carter as his producer partner Ingrid Formanek. It tells the story of how CNN managed to be the only news crew transmitting to the U.S. the first night Operation Desert Storm sent bombs raining down on Baghdad. Americans were able to hear it live from reporters Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett because Wiener had connived a four-wire radio transmission system from the Iraqi government, and in so doing he put 24 hour news on the media map forever. The film, says Wiener, is a reasonably accurate reflection of the facts, but in the early stages it was almost unrecognizable.
ROBERT WIENER: They brought in number of writers that basically threw the journalism out the window. One draft had Ingrid being captured by the Iraqi secret police somewhere in Kuwait and me having to walk over a swimming pool filled with sharks to prove my loyalty to [LAUGHTER] whatever, but I always thought it would be an interesting film in and of itself to show what goes on behind the scenes and the pressures.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't need to cross over a shark tank to have an interesting story.
ROBERT WIENER: Right. Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's get to the actual events depicted in the film. This is not only a pretty good commercial for CNN; it also is, in truth, the moment the way news is covered changed, and it was all because of a device that no one will have heard of until they see this film called a four-wire. So what was the significance of the four-wire in the story that you told?
ROBERT WIENER: Well the significance was that when the bombing started, the commercial telephone system was knocked out immediately, and the four-wire, which of course ran under the desert, stayed up. And until the main telecommunications building was blown to smithereens three days later, we were able --Bernie, John and Peter -- to transmit live to the world. It's amazing that people think they saw these guys, because actually what they were doing is what we're doing right now -- radio. There were no images. But even President Bush in his memoirs writes "I remember watching with Barbara as Bernie stood under the bombs."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That night was so vivid in people's minds, and many of them remember Bernie rambling on about that turkey sandwich.
BERNARD SHAW:5 a.m. here in Baghdad. Honestly don't know what time it is back in the States where you are but-- but I imagine around this time I would probably be on my desk, eating a turkey sandwich on whole wheat.
MAN: And we can't assess the damage officially, but none of us here, I am sure, will ever forget this night.
MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, we are off the air. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE: SIGHS OF RELIEF]
BERNARD SHAW: What the hell was I talking about turkey sandwiches? [LAUGHTER]
MAN: You were making me hungry!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now there was a lot of pressure from Washington to pull out of there, first from White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater; then from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, Colin Powell; and finally from President Bush himself. In the movie we just hear from CNN's Tom Johnson. He was--
ROBERT WIENER: Yeah, Tom was, Tom was the president and he had gotten a call from George Bush telling Tom to-- yank us out because he felt that we were in grave peril. No decision was made, but Tom had lost a couple of reporters at the L.A. Times, and Ted Turner took the pressure off his shoulders--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And placed it squarely on yours and your crew--
ROBERT WIENER: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- by leaving the choice up to you, which strikes me from a distance as rather unfair.
ROBERT WIENER:I don't think it was unfair. I think it was the right thing to do. It didn't go down exactly the way it's portrayed in the movie. I wanted to leave! But I felt that it would be reprehensible to have people come to Baghdad at my behest and then desert them. But I was frightened to death.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As somebody who's covered conflicts since Vietnam, you're used to making compromises with the American military, with the--
ROBERT WIENER: Iraqi military!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:-- with the Iraqi military, with the Iraqi government -- and so it was back in 1991. If you hadn't become friendly with the minister of information; if you hadn't been willing to play ball on certain things, you might not have had the four-wire that revolutionized television journalism. That, in the opinion of some, was a devil's compromise that CNN had to make and I wonder where did you feel that conflict most acutely at the time?
ROBERT WIENER: I felt it-- during the trip to Kuwait.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me quickly summarize what happened in Kuwait. You were offered this exclusive trip to Kuwait through the ministry of information; you got there. You were supposed to be reporting on the reputed "dumping of babies from incubators" and you were there to prove that that was not the case. They took you to one hospital, whisked you away again. You became the story as, as it was reported ahead of the fact that you were going to exonerate the Iraqi government which you didn't do. The whole thing was a big mess. The CNN crew was embarrassed and clearly manipulated, and I think that pretty much sums it up, right?
ROBERT WIENER: On the money. On the money. What happened in reality was that when we got back to Baghdad, I said to Naji --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Naji being the minister of information.
ROBERT WIENER: Well he was the undersecretary. Well, look -the hospital story's one thing; surely we can report what we saw. And he said Robert, you can report whatever, but I want you to know that if you talk about other things, that in itself will violate the ground rules which were not my understanding at the time. [SOUNDTRACK FROM LIVE FROM BAGHDAD]
MAN: Are you telling me that you can only report the hospital story and the hospital story's bull****?
MICHAEL KEATON AS
ROBERT WIENER: That's what I'm telling you.
MAN: You must have gotten other stuff. You were in Kuwait for Christ's sake.
WOMAN: We saw amazing stuff. We can talk about it.
MICHAEL KEATON AS
ROBERT WIENER: Can't talk about it. The parameters have just been re-clarified.
MICHAEL KEATON AS
ROBERT WIENER: We can report the story if we choose, but we lose any chance of a Saddam interview, and we could get kicked out.
MAN: We would never have agreed to those conditions. This is the darkest day in the history of this network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't you think it's ironic that the Iraqis went so far to manipulate you in order to exonerate them, to exculpate them from the charge of dumping babies out of incubators when it turns out that that story was made up in whole cloth by the Kuwaitis and they never dumped babies out of incubators as far as anybody can now tell?
ROBERT WIENER: That's right. But let me say that in reality, I asked Naji is this true, and he said absolutely not! Now in the movie, Michael asks is it true, and Naji doesn't answer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now why doesn't he?! What would have-- how would that have affected the-- the dramatic integrity of that moment for him to have answered what the truth happened to have been in historical terms?
ROBERT WIENER: Look, we can get into a-- speak for hours on the mysteries of Hollywood.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think you accomplished back in 1991?
ROBERT WIENER: Well, on one level, the world became aware of CNN. Because of CNN's new-found clout, Ted Turner was able to open a slew of bureaus around the world. We were able to devote more people and time to covering stories comprehensively. By the same token, there was a down side to what we did for CNN. And that down side was that the guiding philosophy of CNN which used to be the news is the star, following the Gulf War, CNN became personality-driven. Suddenly we found at CNN that we would go, in my perception, live for the sake of live at the expense of good textured reporting. Fabulous writers like Richard Blystone were no longer paramount. The money and the PR went to those whose live skills were paramount.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Wiener, thank you very much for coming in.
ROBERT WIENER: Well thank you. It's been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Robert Wiener was the writer of Live from Baghdad, the book and the principal character in Live from Baghdad, the movie showing this weekend on HBO. [MUSIC]