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CNN preparing for "other' battle

While many Americans were hitting the malls looking for holiday sales a few months back, CNN's chief news executive was doing his shopping in Kuwait.

At an auto dealership outside Kuwait City, Eason Jordan stocked up on Humvees and Hummers, the all-terrain vehicles that are key to hauling equipment and crews around the unforgiving landscape of the Middle East.

Buying Humvees is just one part of CNN's plans for covering a war in Iraq. The network is initially setting aside about $30-million for war coverage and will blanket the region with some 250 producers, reporters, camera operators, technicians and bookers. In Kuwait alone, it plans to have 80 to 100 staffers. By the end of this week there also should be 16 staff people in northern Iraq, along with four in Baghdad.

CNN is gearing up to fight its own battle in Iraq because what happens there is key to the network's future. The possible war is the kind of story CNN has long dominated, but this time around, its rivals _ and perhaps authorities on both sides of the military conflict _ will be gunning for it.

Long the ratings leader in cable news, CNN now trails Fox News Channel, which mixes opinionated talk shows and in-your-face marketing. Efforts to counter Fox by hiring big names Paula Zahn and Connie Chung have led to criticisms that CNN is star-struck and that the news is no longer the star, as founder Ted Turner decreed it should be.

Fox has benefited from publicly stoking the competition with CNN, but Jim Walton, the new CNN chief, ignores the tweaking, instead stressing CNN's reputation for quality. "Not every rating point is created equally," he says. "If it was purely about higher ratings, then we might do some different things and might see our ratings go up. But that might devalue and diminish the brand." Although CNN trails Fox, it takes in more advertising dollars and has a more affluent audience. "We don't want to do anything to diminish that," Walton says.

CNN is still the first news channel that viewers flock to when big news breaks, as last month's Columbia space shuttle tragedy showed. Even rivals concede that the world will turn to CNN when the bombs start falling, and its coverage will be endlessly scrutinized because of the sway it has with world leaders.

The network still has greater resources and bigger operations than its competitors. The broadcast networks have sharply cut back on overseas coverage during the past decade. CNN has cut back less, well aware that its reputation for covering breaking international news is a crucial part of its identity. That reputation was largely built during the 1991 Gulf War, when CNN was the only network that still had people reporting live from Baghdad as bombs started dropping on the Iraqi capital.

But neither Fox News nor MSNBC was around in 1991, and both will be in the game this time. Fox, whose Baghdad correspondent was tossed out in February, won't talk about its coverage plans, but it's unlikely to be shy about trumpeting inroads it makes. Meanwhile, the broadcast networks have formidable experience with big stories _ Dan Rather of CBS had the "get" on Saddam Hussein _ and will go to great lengths to challenge CNN's dominance. They have procured new satellite and video phones to relay stories, and they plan to pre-empt prime-time entertainment shows and broadcast without commercials early on.

Internationally, the Arabic-language Al Jazeera network will be a large new presence. Jordan sees the Pentagon's willingness to embed reporters with troops as an effort to combat what he calls the "Al Jazeera effect" of showing images only of civilian casualties, as was often the case during fighting in Afghanistan.

Advances in technology will make it easier to better deploy people throughout the region. "The satellite uplink CNN used out of Baghdad in 1991 weighed 2 tons and was about 40 cases of gear," Jordan says. "Now we have dishes mounted on top of Land Rovers." Besides using hand-held satellite video phones, which CNN used in Afghanistan, CNN correspondents have been filing stories via e-mail.

CNN will also have at least 25 people embedded with U.S. forces. Though each network was given at least 10 two-person slots, CNN managed to get a few more through a deal with Cox Enterprises under which the cable network is getting five of the newspaper chain's eight slots. In return, CNN correspondents will file stories for Cox newspapers.

CNN's powerful brand _ and that the network can be watched in Baghdad _ could turn out to be a disadvantage because the Iraqi government may place tougher restrictions on what the network can show. Iraq has banned video and satellite phones.

Cooperation between the media and the Pentagon will be put to the test once the guns start firing. "I'm not assuming it is going to go well," Jordan says. He imagines a scenario where cameramen capture scenes of American casualties, and troops don't want those pictures to get out.

"War is ugly," he says, "and we intend to show anything we see that is ugly."