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TALK SHOW COVERAGE OF WAR IN PANAMA

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We seem to be at war. It's a little hard to tell. Since early Dec. 20, when U.S. forces invaded Panama, the networks have had precious little footage from the scene of the fighting. They have had to rely on telephone reports from correspondents in Panama City.

So it hasn't been a living-room war yet so much as a phone-in war, and the coverage has been a talk show. Wednesday was really the night of the generals, as the networks dragged in military experts to speculate on what was, might be, or possibly could be happening in Panama.All the networks have had worrisome periods in which they have lost contact with their correspondents for hours at a time. When Juan Vasquez of CBS News returned to the air by phone at about 3:30 Thursday afternoon, it was the first CBS had heard from him since 8 o'clock Wednesday night.

"Yes, Dan, how are you?" Vasquez said to anchor Dan Rather.

"Well, all the better to hear your voice," Rather said.

Earlier, George Bush held another of his helter-skelter press conferences. Answering a question from Wyatt Andrews of CBS News, Bush told him, "We've had calls from your network, your chairman of the board" as to the whereabouts of a missing CBS News producer. The producer, not named by Bush, is Jon Meyerson, abducted Wednesday by troops loyal to fugitive leader Manuel Noriega.

Bush's reference was apparently to a phone call made by CBS Inc. president Laurence Tisch to White House Chief of Staff John Sununu. Rather reportedly appealed to Tisch to make the call to press for information on Meyerson.

The Bush press conference was erratic. At first he looked tired and grinchy. But soon he was joking and joshing with reporters, even cavorting about on the stage of the White House briefing room. Asked if he'd tried to nab Noriega in the past, Bush said, "Have I? No, I've been right here on the job." Then he giggled.

It seemed odd behavior considering that at least 19 American lives had by that point been lost in the operation. CBS cut quickly from the press conference to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where four caskets were being unloaded from an arriving plane. The other networks soon joined the scene. Only CNN remained with it long enough to air, live, remarks in memorial by Navy Secretary Lawrence Garrett.

CNN was relying heavily on the telephone for its coverage, just like the other networks, although it did have extensive hidden-camera footage yesterday of looting in Panama City. Then CNN invited viewers who were watching from Panama, via Armed Forces television, to phone a special number so they could be put on the air. And a few of them were. One said her husband was missing.

Another caller was a Panamanian businessman who asked not to be identified and who described the situation as "anarchy." He said looters were doing "Christmas shopping without going to the register."

Airing phoned-in reports from civilians at the site of a news story marks another step in turning viewers into reporters. Already, CNN and many local stations solicit news footage shot by viewers on home video. The problem is in checking for accuracy. The Panamanian businessman voluntarily estimated losses at $200 million. Who knew if he knew what he was talking about?

Obviously more authoritative were CNN interviewees Juan Sosa, former Panamanian ambassador to the United States, and Eric Delvalle, former president of Panama. Sosa defended the invasion to the extent of saying "drastic action was necessary."

Confusion hung over most of Thursday's coverage, and anchors acknowledged it on the air, but it wasn't as messy as Wednesday. The networks had felt an obligation to stay on the air even when they had nothing to report.

NBC took the cake for non-coverage coverage. As the "Today" show lingered past normal sign-off time, it turned into a pow-wow for pundits. At one point you had Jane Pauley and Deborah Norville on the screen alone discussing the situation in Panama and possible courses of action.

If that was heavy, what can next was positively unwieldy: Bryant Gumbel, Tom Brokaw, commentator John Chancellor and reporter Brian Ross sitting around on couches and chewing the fat. No guests, no experts, no inteviewees. Where, one wondered, were Gene Shalit and Willard Scott? Maybe Al Roker should have weighed in.

It was NBC's "Meeting of the Minds." To stretch a term.

As for Rather, he was busy being Marathon Dan again. The goal appeared to be to stay on the air longer than anybody else, even when all the report were used up. Rather slurred words and his eyes reddened as the coverage wore on. You can admire his zeal and still wish that he'd occasionally give it a rest. But then maybe the most we can expect from sort-of-a-war is sort-of-journalism. That's what much of it has been so far.