CNN got more than it bargained for last week when it began showing off its prize cache of al Qaeda training tapes.
The network clearly hoped the tapes would garner attention-and ratings-but it probably wasn’t expecting to find itself in the hot seat. Most of the talk since the video footage began airing has been centered not on the content of the tapes but on how CNN got its hands on them. Critics went so far as to accuse the news network of helping to fund terrorism after rumors surfaced that CNN paid in the neighborhood of $30,000 for the tapes.
CNN insists the money did not go to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, but common sense dictates that it’s impossible to say so with any degree of certainty. The network had to deal with some shadowy characters to obtain the tapes, and it had no way of knowing their affiliations-nor whose agenda was being served by turning over the tapes to the Western media.
CBS, meanwhile, has been airing similar videotape and has come under similar criticism. But because CBS apparently went through a more traditional photo agency and paid a more modest fee for its tapes, the harshest attacks have been directed at CNN.
Like CNN, CBS insists it is confident that its fee for the tapes did not go to terrorists.
The biggest problem may simply be that neither CBS nor CNN was particularly forthcoming on the subject of payment. It wasn’t until reports appeared elsewhere in the media that either network admitted it had paid for its tapes.
Paying for information has long been a journalism taboo, based at least in part on the idea that the promise of payment might inspire potential informants to manufacture stories. Paying for video documentation is a little different. CBS has likened its purchase of the tapes to paying a free-lancer for a photo, a comparison that has some merit.
But in their pursuit of the scoop, both CBS and CNN entered perilous terrain, if not crossing the line of journalistic ethics then at least crossing over into the fuzzy area around the edges. Among the hazards they encountered on that sojourn was the risk of playing into the terrorists’ hands-both by funneling funds to them and by potentially helping to promote their agenda by airing the tapes.
Maybe those risks had to be taken. The actual news value of the tapes appears to be minimal, but that would have been hard to determine in advance. And in the hostile environment in which the tapes surfaced, it would have been impossible to obtain them without bending the rules or taking some physical and ethical risks.
But news organizations that choose to take those risks have a responsibility to be forthright in their disclosures to the public. Both CBS and CNN should have stated up front that they paid for the tapes. Had they done so, they wouldn’t be under such scrutiny now.