News ops feeling White House heat

Oct 15, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Television news operations are under increasing pressure from the White House to self-censor their reporting and forgo access to information as the Bush administration steps up its war on terrorism.
The military campaign in Afghanistan has put the media in a bind: If it ignores government requests it might appear unpatriotic, but if it heeds them it could compromise journalistic integrity and undermine its role as a watchdog.
“We think that decisions about information should be in the hands of editors and news organizations,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
But she said the government has a right to raise concerns about news coverage and that the media would never do anything to compromise the war effort.
“We are journalists. We’re also citizens. We’re not going to put anything on the air that’s going to jeopardize human life,” said CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius.
Taking a step toward government influence over TV news, the administration asked the networks last week to exercise restraint in airing pre-taped messages from terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group. The messages were also carried on the Al Jazeera Web site.
The White House fears the tapes-two received airplay recently-may contain coded messages to terrorists to initiate attacks. And it views the rhetoric, including calls for followers to kill Americans, as dangerous propaganda that shouldn’t be publicized.
Confusion mounted in the wake of an Oct. 10 conference call between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and TV executives over what the major broadcast and cable news networks had agreed to. Ms. Rice asked the networks to “exercise judgment” and suggested the tapes not be played in their entirety but never demanded they not run at all.
Network officials told Electronic Media they agreed to screen the tapes before running them, not to carry them live and to use editorial discretion in reporting on them.
But they insisted that they never pledged to avoid carrying them in their entirety or to censor portions containing inflammatory rhetoric-contrary to news reports. They may take those steps at their discretion, but might not if the tapes are deemed newsworthy.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters on Oct. 10 that the networks agreed not to air unedited versions of the videos.
But he added: “The media makes these decisions for themselves. That’s part of the job of the media and the responsibility of the media, and that’s why it is literally a request.”
Meanwhile, after grumblings from journalists in the days following the start of military action, the Pentagon finally released bomb damage assessment video last Thursday, but far less has been released than during the Persian Gulf War, when footage showing bombs striking-and sometimes missing-targets was a staple of news coverage.
Some reporters had begun to wonder why the Pentagon wasn’t releasing any of the footage.
John McWethy, chief national security correspondent for ABC News, raised the concern with Maj. Gen. Henry Osman of the U.S. Marine Corps during a Thursday briefing, for example.
The military released still photos all week long of bomb targets before and after they had been hit.
The media also was dragged into a verbal firefight between the president and Congress over how many lawmakers should receive classified briefings on the anti-terror campaign.
Early last week, President George W. Bush cited congressional leaks to the media as justification for a highly controversial decision to severely restrict access to top-secret data.
On Oct. 9, he said only eight key lawmakers would be kept in the loop: the top House and Senate leaders and the chairmen and ranking members of the Intelligence committees.
Several legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., squawked that the White House plan undermined Congress’ oversight role.
The next day, after meeting with congressmen, the president relaxed his directive.
Under his revised policy, members of all the armed forces committees-Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence and so on-would be briefed along with top congressional leaders.
But Mr. Fleischer said the president’s message was heard lound and clear. “There’s no doubt about it that the importance of keeping classified information classified has been stressed-and the president hopes that it will be closely, exactly adhered to,” he said.
In related news:
* The Senate passed anti-terrorism legislation at midnight Thursday that contains provisions making it easier for federal authorities to wiretap cable-delivered Internet and phone services. Cable companies would not be required to notify individuals that the government is reviewing their subscription records or intercepting their communications. But the measure prohibits authorities from monitoring the viewing habits of cable and other video service subscribers. On Friday afternoon, the House passed counterpart legislation that contains similar provisions.
* Fox heeded a request from the FBI to air a special edition of “America’s Most Wanted” on Friday to help the government publicize its newly released “most wanted” list of 22 international terrorists.
* To help the military anticipate and prepare for any future attacks, Hollywood producers brainstormed with military officials about possible terror scenarios. The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology think tank, which works with the entertainment industry and the military, facilitated the dialogue.