Lowndes Lipscomb

by Michael Goldstein
Worldwide Television News is to television what Associated Press is to newspapers, a news wholesaler. When you watch international news on CNN, ABC, or CBS, the actual footage is often from WTN.
Lowndes Lipscomb '72, M.Div. '75, the vice president and managing editor of World-wide Television News, has a problem. A recent Serbian rocket attack on Sarajevo seriously injured two of his WTN correspondents. "It was a delayed blast, so our crew heard the thud of a shell, but no blast," Lipscomb says. "So after a few seconds, they looked into the courtyard. That's when the shell exploded, with their faces pressed against the window. Our most senior guy has glass stuck in his eye and needs to be evacuated to try and save it." Lipscomb has arranged a United Nations helicopter to evacuate the injured correspondent, but the weather is atrocious.

The other journalist, Hanna, a local Bosnian WTN stringer, may not be so fortunate. She can't be moved, since any jostling would exacerbate the fragments in both her eyes. At WTN headquarters in London, Lipscomb's aides are trying to send medicines to treat her: The Bosnians lack even the basics, like hydrocortisone.

But the wounded are only part of the problem. WTN's customers, television networks from around the world, don't want excuses. They want pictures of the daily horror. It's up to Lipscomb to deliver on this steamy July morning. He keeps one ear pasted to the telephone for an update on the medical situation. With the other, he listens to a deputy brief him on their search for freelance cameramen to get some front-line Bosnian footage.

Their current Bosnian freelancer, Elvere, has been a disaster. "We're cutting him off completely," the deputy tells Lipscomb. "He's nuts."

"Will there be any official repercussions?" Lipscomb asks. After all, the Bosnian Muslim army "approved" of Elvere, and might be perturbed at his firing. "Hell, no. They're just surprised that he lasted with us this long," the aide replies. "They've known he's nuts all along."

Lipscomb considers his choices. There's "Don Achmed," a local camera-happy "Mafia" warlord. Achmed has the distinct advantage of being able to go anywhere--among the Serbs, Croats, or Bosnians--without any of the official permissions that most journalists need. Don Achmed, though, wants a $10,000-a-month retainer from WTN.

Another option is a one-man company known as Intermedia. He's a more traditional journalist, with a solid reputation. His rates vary, growing more expensive the closer he gets to the front lines. His top rate is 2,000 Deutsch marks per day, and it's understood that he sometimes returns with no usable footage but still expects to be paid.

Lipscomb needs the freelancers because his WTN bureau reporters are at the mercy of the local officials. The Bosnian Muslims, of course, are taking enormous casualties, but their officials don't allow access to the battlefield. "All they permit," says Lipscomb, "is to let us film their elite forces, all costumed up in various parades." He wonders aloud if "we should reconsider so much bureau spending when it's the cowboys who actually get the pictures."

The freelance "cowboys," though, are notoriously unreliable. Sometimes they take pay advances but don't provide any usable shots. Sometimes they use WTN cameras, but sell the footage to WTN's newest rival, Associated Press TV. Sometimes they'll "dress up their brothers and uncles and have them pretend to kill each other in the backyard," says Lipscomb. "There's a lot of extremely unconvincing battle footage which people try to sell us."

And sometimes, the freelancers are, quite inconveniently, killed.

Lipscomb decides to hire Intermedia for five days to try him out. "He'll need a couple of days to rest up--a grenade hit his car," the aide mentions, "and it shook him up a bit."

"Fine," says Lipscomb. "Send him to Western Slovenia," which is where the Croats are building up for an expected offensive against the Serbs. "Keep a close eye on where the fronts are, too, because we'll need time to get any of our crews in place. And," he adds, "see if you can get that Mafia guy to take a day rate."

WTN is to television what Associated Press is to newspapers. WTN is a news wholesaler: They sell pictures to 1,000 client networks throughout the world, each of which is in turn a retailer. The networks pay WTN annual subscription fees. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet sort of deal. The network can pull any footage it wants off WTN's nine daily satellite feeds, edit and write its own version of the story, and broadcast the "news" to the public.

In other words, without knowing it, when you watch international news on CNN, ABC, or CBS, the actual footage is often from WTN. WTN gives the networks the appearance of "being there."

For example, if WTN offers on the satellite a handshake between the prime minister of Israel and the King of Jordan, ABC will presumably use the footage for a story on a "peace agreement." CBS will use the same video, but with their own (similar) script read by their own Middle East correspondent. Libyan TV, meanwhile, might use the same video for an evening news story on "Arab betrayal and treason."

Roughly 70 percent of foreign news footage on American network TV comes from news agencies. Reuters TV is WTN's chief competitor, but there is also competition from regional alliances, like "Eurovision" and "Asiavision." And Associated Press has its recently-launched television venture. Today, APTV has a Chechnya story that WTN doesn't have. Lipscomb stares at a monitor and shakes his head. "That's not good," he grumbles. "We want every story."

ABC (and thus Disney) owns 80 percent of WTN. The remaining 20 percent is held by Independent Television News of Britain and the Nine Network Australia. CBS is a WTN client; NBC subscribes to rival Reuters TV.

Remember CNN trumpeting its "exclusive" coverage during the Persian Gulf War? In fact, WTN was there, too, supplying ABC and CBS with daily footage. In fact, when Peter Arnett's camera crew was tossed out of Baghdad for a few days by an angry Sadaam, it was WTN that supplied CNN's pictures as well.

"The Iraqi conflict was a major coup for WTN," Lipscomb recalls. "We went in right before the war started. There were no flights into Iraq because of the sanctions, so I took a ten-hour car ride from Amman into Iraq to make arrangements." He brought in a Jordanian cameraman who was well connected, so while almost every news agency left once President Bush's deadline for Iraqi withdrawal had passed, WTN remained. "The Iraqis wouldn't let any other news groups return," Lipscomb says, "and as a result, we were the only ones with access. We hit a home run."

L ipscomb is a basketball nut. "I've been known to call SportsPhone in New York from Damascus for up-to-the-minute Duke scores," he says. He further confesses to banding together with buddies from NBC and ripping off Duke game satellite feeds from the Armed Forces Network.

"My first Duke game was against Wake Forest," he recalls. "I was twelve, living in Thomasville, North Carolina. I saw Wake's Dick Christie punch Art Heyman in the nose. Heyman took the punch, didn't retaliate, sank the free throws, and got a standing ovation. I was hooked after that, and went to Duke early decision."

Lipscomb was a religion major with teaching ambitions. After graduating, he went to Duke Divinity School, where he finished as the valedictorian. "I got a Fulbright Scholarship to Israel," he says. "I had never left the nation, I'd almost never left the South, so when I got there, I felt like I was on the moon." He returned to school, studying at Columbia University for a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and literatures.

It was then that a friend of a friend brought him to a New York City television station. Lipscomb fell in love. "The speed, the excitement, the technology--it was dizzying. I almost dropped my dissertation, but I had already done so much work toward the doctorate. So I finished my Ph.D., but all while working in television as a freelancer producer and writer."

He started at WTN in 1982, taking various editing assignments. Two years later, with his background in Middle East studies, he was offered a post as WTN bureau manager in either Beirut or Israel. He chose Israel--and was lucky he did, because in 1986, the acting WTN bureau chief in Beirut was taken hostage and held for five years. "That could have been me," Lipscomb mumbles.

He'd met a woman in London, Bernadette, just before receiving the Middle East assignment. "I left without her, but soon called and asked her to join me." They were married, and have one son, Nikolai.

There's never a dull time in Israel, and Lipscomb's two-year stint was no exception. He covered the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, the shared presidency of Yitzchak Shamir and Shimon Peres, and the airlift of Ethiopian Jews. But his favorite story had nothing to do with politics. "Chief Sitting Bull's great-grandson, who was part Jewish, came to Israel for his bar mitzvah."

"You have to understand that all over the world, especially in Europe, everyone has a voracious appetite for Israeli stories," he says. "It's the one subject where everyone has an opinion. Even with TWA hijacking in Lebanon many years ago, which had nothing to do with Israel, all our clients demanded some sort of comment from Israeli politicians. But no one would talk. We ended up having journalists interviewing other journalists--and when you do that, you know you're in trouble."

In 1986, Lipscomb was promoted to managing editor, the highest editorial position at WTN. He manages 250 employees in fifty nations, negotiates contracts, and oversees an annual budget of $25-30 million--down to the smallest detail. Challenging an expense request over the phone, Lipscomb barks, "Tripod service? Can't you get that done in Hong Kong? And this field mixer in Manila, sorry--we can't afford that."

"The worst part of my job," Lipscomb says, "is that over the last three years I feel like I've been vice president in charge of funerals." WTN has suffered three deaths in that time: a Croatian cameraman, the South African bureau chief, and a (Soviet) Georgian cameraman. "It was his second day on the job," Lipscomb says of the Georgian, shaking his head. "Rebels captured the town, pushed him up against the wall, and executed him. I had to go hire someone to find his body in an unmarked grave, dig it up, and then somehow find dry ice in a war zone to preserve the body until the funeral."

The proliferation of satellite dishes and cable makes journalism more dangerous because now, even in the most remote war-torn areas, both sides can watch the coverage on TV. "Balanced coverage inevitably means that both sides see it as horribly biased," Lipscomb says. "So everyone hates the journalists. That's what happened in Somalia: Various locals watched CNN, got angry with how they were portrayed, and killed journalists."

Like a general, Lipscomb has to anticipate news to make sure that camera crews are in position. There are technical issues, too, like satellite access, and security needs. "Someone stole our picture?" he blurts into the phone. "But it's encoded. Did they bribe someone at the tower?"

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, he's opened ten bureaus in Eastern Europe. "Before that, we'd have women in East Germany smuggling tapes in their private parts past the Stasi," he says. In 1993, he flew to Beijing to try to open the first-ever foreign television news agency in China. After finagling a meeting with Wu Jiang Men, the director of information at the Foreign Ministry, Lipscomb made his case. "I explained to Wu that while he was deciding about which, if any, television networks to allow into China, he could permit WTN to operate in the meantime, as a sort of experiment. After all, in addition to the political and human-rights stories, China was home to sports, arts, and economic-growth stories that weren't getting out." Wu agreed, and soon WTN had a bureau where CNN, BBC, and everyone else did not.

But several conditions were attached. "A Chinese censor monitors our office--and we have to pay for it. We can't leave Beijing without permission, which is how they censor without admitting it outright. If, for example, a corruption scandal breaks out in Shanghai, the ministry will delay our permission to leave Beijing for three or four days. And then, of course, it's not news anymore." In July 1995, China sold WTN the infamous "Harry Wu confession tape," which purported to show the famous human-rights activist "admitting" his "lies."

S o how much power does Lipscomb really have? Well, it's clear that television foot- age--rather than any clear strategy or ideology--now drives American foreign policy. And the global recession forced many networks around the world to close their foreign bureaus, relying instead on WTN and Reuters.

Money is inevitably a major factor in WTN's editorial decisions. "We're way over budget with all the Yugoslavia coverage," Lipscomb says. "When we are overspent, the tendency is to take stories from less expensive bureaus (where, for example, overhead costs cover rent, staff cars, cameras, etc., so that the actual cost of generating a story is very low), or from ABC or the BBC."

One global trend, resulting from the increasing view of news as pure enterprise rather than public service, is that television networks are more likely to use video news releases (VNRs). A VNR is like a press release: A company or organization makes a news story about itself, then mails out copies of the video to various news agencies. Most broadcasters, if they use VNRs at all, take the video but write their own script.

WTN does not use VNRs, but will accept raw, unscripted video. For example, Greenpeace paid for a helicopter-based cameraman to shoot hours of footage of the Greenpeace "takeover" of a Shell Oil rig in the Pacific Ocean. WTN and Reuters TV might have ignored the event, since flying a helicopter into the middle of an ocean is expensive. By paying for the video themselves, Greenpeace not only ensures that they'll get on the news, but that it will likely be flattering toward them also, since they provided their own version of the story. In this case, Greenpeace managed to create such an international outcry that Shell was forced to cancel its plans to sink the rig into the ocean.

The limited funds mean that Lipscomb must pick and choose among possible stories. "The biggest decisions I make are the logistical--ensuring that the news division is properly resourced." Africa gets the least coverage on WTN. "We did, in fact, open a Nairobi bureau last year," Lipscomb says. "But the logistics there are tough. The technology is poor and news doesn't have a long life by definition." Money again plays a factor. The aid organizations, like UNHCR and UNICEF, help WTN with transportation and other issues. WTN saves money and thus is more likely to provide coverage; if the pictures of the starving masses go out on TV, then UNICEF and UNHCR can successfully appeal for more money from their donors.

Still, Lipscomb's editorial decisions are to some degree the tail wagging the dog. "We have to supply what our clients want," he explains, "where they deem the important places to be."

What is considered "important?" Well, that's changing. Two trends are shaping the flux of world news today. First, the de-evolution toward tabloid coverage is not just in America; it's happening around the world. Everywhere, local TV stations are demanding more about Michael Jackson and less about Boutros Boutros-Ghali for the newscasts. Second, there is an emphasis on regional, even subregional, news. That is, Polish TV stations don't just want news about Europe; they want news about Central Europe, about Hungary and Bulgaria, not about Spain.

"We can't control what each network does with our pictures," Lipscomb says. "There is definitely abuse. For example, there was just an armed attack against northern Israel. I assume the Israelis will retaliate, and our crews in Southern Lebanon are on notice to get footage of that. Now we will explain in our script that these are retaliatory strikes, but we don't have any footage of the original attack against Israel. So I can guarantee you that Syrian TV will show any Israeli air strikes that WTN puts out, but will, shall we say, neglect to mention the precipitating incident.

"That's a risk we run in not having editorial control over the footage that we sell. But that's our job. We take pictures." Ş

Goldstein '91 is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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