CNN Sues FEMA, Wins Injunction Against Limitations on News Gathering

Sep 9, 2005  •  Post A Comment

CNN won an injunction late Friday to prevent any agency from limiting the cable news network’s ability to cover any aspect of the Hurricane Katrina story.

CNN asked for the injunction Friday afternoon as it filed a lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency in federal district court in Houston. A hearing was scheduled for Saturday morning to determine whether the injunction would be made permanent.

CNN argued that barring reporters from covering the body recovery effort would constitute prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment.

In an e-mail to CNN staffers, CNN News Group President Jim Walton said the lawsuit was “in response to official statements earlier today that news media would be excluded from covering the victim recovery process in New Orleans and surrounding areas on the suggestion that what is reported may offend viewers’ or victims’ sensibilities.”

Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the three-star general in commanding the relief effort in New Orleans, said at a Friday press conference that journalists no longer will be embedded with the military mortuary teams recovering bodies from areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.

It was unclear whether the announcement was a preamble to restrictions on photographer access to areas in which corpses are likely to be found.

One network news executive said any limitations on the press in the devastated area would be unacceptable to the press and “the American public.”

Shortly after the press conference, Fox VP of News Gathering John Stack said his initial interpretation of the general’s comments was that he was appealing to news organizations to take their cues from the protocol followed by the military in the removal of bodies and notification of kin.

“I think everybody will be scrutinizing this [intent] in the next 24 hours,” Mr. Stack said after the press conference, in which plans for regular press conferences with recovery officials were sketched out.

The Federal Emergency Management Authority has requested that the media not photograph the dead in the disaster area, and there were reports earlier in the week that FEMA had been begun rejecting photographers’ requests to accompany rescue boats on their rescue and recovery rounds.

Most network news executives said no reports of such problems have crossed their desks. Furthermore, they said, they were confident that they could find other boats, or space on boats with rescue workers.

“There isn’t some overall effort to suppress us reporting on the dead,” ABC “World News Tonight” executive producer Jon Banner said Thursday, when he took the tack that his counterparts at broadcast and cable news organizations did on Thursday.

TV news executives said they intend to continue to exercise their own judgment and make decisions about whether or how to show corpses on a case-by-case basis.

“We try to do it in the context of the helplessness of the situation,” Mr. Stack said on Thursday, when he said Fox News had not run into any restrictions.

In his internal e-mail, Mr. Walton said: “As seen most recently from war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, from tsunami-ravaged South Asia and from Hurricane Katrina’s landfall along the Gulf, CNN has shown that it is capable of balancing vigorous reporting with respect for private concerns. Government officials cannot be allowed to hinder the free flow of information to the public, and CNN will not let such a decision stand without challenge.”