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Networks cautious in covering war

By The Associated Press, staff


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NEW YORK — CNN and other television networks heard from Osama bin Laden again, but it wasn’t what they were hoping for.

They received a letter from the al-Qaida terror group leader yesterday, aimed mostly at Muslims in Pakistan and urging them to fight Americans. It arrived instead of answers to questions CNN submitted for a possible interview with bin Laden two weeks ago.

Its newsworthiness was a relatively easy call for network executives, unlike more difficult decisions about airing video footage from Afghanistan showing injured people, crying relatives and pulverized buildings.

News executives find themselves considering what the pictures are showing since the Bush administration has expressed concern about how America’s news media might be getting manipulated to convey messages.

Top CNN officials recently sent a memo to network staff to warn against seeming to report uncritically from the Taliban’s perspective. Staffers were urged not to focus excessively on hardships in Afghanistan, and to balance such reports by pointing out the U.S. military was acting in response to the killing of innocent people on Sept. 11.

“We always need to be careful not to give a disproportionate amount of coverage to any one aspect of the news,” said NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley.

Both Wheatley and a CNN spokeswoman said there had been no effort to suppress pictures from Afghanistan.

“We want to be careful to make sure that anything we show is both legitimate and in context,” Wheatley said. “But we’re not reluctant to put it on the air. ... I think it’s vitally important that the American media perform the function of reporting what it knows.”

On Oct. 31, ABC News correspondent Dan Harris was among a group of reporters invited by the Taliban to look at reputed war damage in Kandahar. His report on “World News Tonight” showed video of a house hit by a bomb, reportedly killing 20 people.

Harris’ narration took care to report what ABC News didn’t know.

“Many of the reporters on the tour were skeptical,” Harris said. “There was no way to confirm the number of casualties we were given, and we weren’t taken to a hospital to see the injured.”

Paul Slavin, executive producer of “World News Tonight,” said it was important to tell viewers how the video was obtained and under what conditions the reporting was done.

Television networks last month, after the Bush administration expressed concern, agreed not to air video transmissions from the al-Qaida network without screening them first. The administration called them propaganda.

There was no video with bin Laden’s message yesterday. CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC all reported briefly on the content; unlike the others, Fox refused to show a picture of the letter itself.

“It’s certainly worth reporting, but it’s not a big deal,” ABC’s Slavin said.

Meanwhile, ABC’s news chief apologized on Oct. 31 for telling a group of college journalism students that as a journalist, he had no opinion on whether the Pentagon was a legitimate target for terrorists.

“I was wrong,” ABC News President David Westin said, trying to defuse a controversy over his remarks.

His statement at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism last week attracted no attention until it was telecast Oct. 27 on the C-SPAN cable network.

Asked whether he believed the Pentagon was a legitimate target for suicide bombers on Sept. 11, Westin said it was important for him and ABC journalists not to have an opinion on it.

“Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be, and when we get into the job of what ought to be, I think we’re not doing a service to the American people,” replied Westin.

The vice president of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog organization, was watching C-SPAN Oct. 27 and sent an e-mail to hundreds of contacts about Westin’s remarks.

“This is an example to us of somebody at a very high level of the news media following a policy of journalist first, American second,” said Brent Baker, the Media Research Center official who saw Westin.

Westin’s remarks were posted on the Drudge Report Web site. An editorial in the Oct. 31 New York Post condemned him, saying Westin wanted ABC journalists “to be so open-minded that their brains fall out.”

Westin, in his Oct. 31 statement, said he was trying to illustrate the academic principle that all journalists should draw a firm line between what they know and their personal opinions.

“Upon reflection, I realized that my answer did not address the specifics of September 11,” he said. “Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification. I apologize for any harm that my misstatement may have caused.”

The liberal advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting agreed with Westin’s apology. The group cautioned that journalists should not be so afraid of appearing unpatriotic, however, that they don’t think critically.


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