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FRIDAY, MARCH 1, 1991
Dhahran

And so the waiting begins.

I checked in with the CNN bureau Thursday morning, and they said, "Get here now, your convoy to Kuwait is leaving." In fifteen minutes the three of us were in the hotel lobby waiting for a cab. And waiting. An hour later we raced into the CNN bureau with all our luggage. "Have a seat," they said. "The convoy's already gone."

Next came a day of orientation. Orlando from Telemundo1 showed us to the camera gear. He waved to a table of broken pieces, spare parts, and odds and ends and told us to help ourselves. There was only one decent camera in the lot; Chester grabbed it and he and Rob began setting up some gear to work with. All the other good equipment has already gone north to Kuwait. The entire bureau, in fact, was in the same shape as that equipment table. Worn out, cannibalized and limping along. Staff included; everyone here is sitting (or better still, sleeping) on their suitcases. The story here, like the bureau, is dying. Not an ideal situation for green recruits.

Nonetheless, we rolled up our sleeves and waded in. I checked out the remaining edit bay, and found no surprises. The tape library is well organized--all 1700 reels. The pool feed station is a mess of wiring, but it seems to work. And isn't that what they say about CNN in general?

sketch by Robert Johnston     
CNN Saudi Camp Kit The "bureau" itself is very much the product of a six-month war. The windows all around what was once a ballroom are covered with thick tape to prevent the glass from shattering. Work tables line the walls, and tape shelves form partitions for the edit booths. But dominating the room in dead center is the lounge; the troops have circled the sofas around the electronic hearth, the ubiquitous CNN, our whole reason for being here. What was this place like in the thick of things--during the Scud attacks, while crews were dashing about from one assignment to the next, as the phones and feeds and edit bays were churning around the clock? Well, I guess I'll never know. But the impact has been noticeable right away--CNN has become a passport to notability, if not notoriety, wherever it goes.

So I got here in time to pick up the pieces. The first test came during the afternoon. Reporter Mike Chinoy had an interview scheduled at the bureau, but word came in that Kuwaiti diplomats were in town on their way home. In a controlled panic, Chester and Rob were dispatched with borrowed press credentials (ours had not yet been approved.) Then I was left to scrounge enough gear to shoot the interview at the bureau. I came up with a mismatched camera, deck, a power supply and battery, and figured I was all set. So I waited. The guest, a Kuwaiti royal journalist, was 2 hours late. Chet and Rob returned from their wild goose chase, and so we put away my jerry-rig and set up the good stuff of theirs.

Then another alarm--a convoy of Kuwaitis was leaving town! Off went Chet and Rob with the gear, and in walked Mike Chinoy with his guest. I scrambled to reset the gear I had improvised before; by now it was dark out on the set, so I had to throw up lights and get rolling. The wind whipped up to threaten the light stands and rumble in the guest's microphone. And to top it off, the battery went dead during the last answer, and the best sound bite. I was pissed! The reporter looked at the tape and said it was okay, but it never made it in his report.

And that was the sum of my first day on the job. I did increase my score on the Gameboy Tetris pocket video game from 21 to 50, quite an improvement. And I got my press pass from the Saudis, and applied for one from the Kuwaitis. I got a room in the hotel, abandoned by a reporter sent to Kuwait. And I signed up for my meal ticket. I crashed out at 2 a.m., which is a hell of a long day of waiting.

The handwriting on the wall was translated for me this morning. Our supervising producer began the conversation with the warning, "this is not what you want to hear..." Then he explained how I had come very highly recommended (by whom, he didn't say) as a jack of all trades, and since there wasn't an engineer left in Dhahran, I would be needed to keep this bureau operating for the next week. Not the news I wanted to hear, but exactly what I had feared. I told Terry I would agree to the job only until they could get a real engineer in here, but I really wanted to get out in the field, particularly Kuwait. He said not to worry, the story would still be there. But I know that I could wind up getting there when it's in the same shape as it is here.

MIDNIGHT FRIDAY, MARCH 1
Postscript

Well, for one exciting half-hour, I was on my way to witness the Mother of All Surrenders, somewhere in the Iraqi desert. "Stormin' Norman" wanted to be sure CNN was live when he took the Iraqi sword, and I was assigned to tomorrow's crew. Then NBC and CBS exercised some obscure prerogative and claimed the limited space on the General's chopper. The good news: I upped my Nintendo score to 77. Lights out.


1Editor's note, 2011: Telemundo was a Spanish-language news channel owned by CNN at the time.


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