On the TV front line

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I'm not going to quibble with NBC's decision to fire Peter Arnett. But I do understand how the veteran correspondent may have believed that giving an interview to Iraqi TV was no big deal. After years of talking into countless cameras, making sure that every word is clear and succinct, any reporter could easily start focusing most of his or her energy on the lens and not pay enough attention to the person who's holding it.

Sloppy journalism? I'd say yes, but I also know that over the past two decades the boundaries for acceptable behavior by TV organizations and personalities have been shifting and swirling like dust in a desert storm.

The proof is on the air every day. What could be more surreal than broadcasting companies using Operation Iraqi Freedom as a marketing tool? When I first saw slogans like "No one takes you closer" bannered across the screen, I thought for an instant that my cable system had somehow plugged Comedy Central onto the same channel with CNN.

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Now that I'm fully tuned into the networks' battle strategy, here are a few suggestions for a future barrage of promotional salvos that might have an even bigger impact on the ratings: (1) More retired generals! (2) Battlefield traffic and weather together! (3) We don't just cover the front line - we ARE the front line!

While many longtime viewers may be shocked and awed by how quickly and inexorably the medium is changing, I'm already thinking about its future role in post-Hussein Iraq. If I had to pick one face that could make a successful transition to a new regime, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is a prime-time candidate. Yes, his boss is a murderous tyrant, but Mr. Aziz always projects a mood of self-assurance and moderation when he steps in front of a microphone. Through the invasion of Kuwait, the rout of Desert Storm, and the long dispute over UN inspections, he always appeared patient while explaining to the world that everything in the region would be fine if the US and its friends would just relax and stop blaming his country for every problem that came up.

As the old saying goes: If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. Aziz speaks our language. He's media-savvy. This is a guy we can do lunch with. I can easily visualize Aziz in the years ahead as a regular panelist on a Liberated Iraq TV version of "TheCapital Gang." Or he may push the envelope even further and negotiate a deal with the Fox Network to serve as coproducer and host of a new reality series - "Survivor in Baghdad."

Sound preposterous? Just remember that when the fighting is over and coalition forces begin their occupation duty, creating and supervising a new TV schedule will be a crucial part of the job. Will the Iraqi talent pool produce homegrown versions of Ted Turner, Ted Koppel, or Peter Arnett? All we can do now is stay tuned.

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