On October 10, television network executives from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN held a conference call with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and apparently acceded to her "suggestion" that any future taped statements from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda group be "abridged," and any potentially "inflammatory" language removed before broadcast.
The question of how to present the words of bin Laden or representatives of Al-Qaeda is certainly a valid one for journalists to consider. The statements require context and explanation of the kind journalists should use to bracket the remarks of any party in a major news story. But it is inappropriate for the government to dictate to journalists how to report the news. In the context of recent heavy-handedness on the part of the administration (including White House spokesman Ari Fleischer's ominous remark that Americans "need to watch what they say"), Rice's request suggests that the White House is actually asking for something other than simple journalistic judgment.
Originally the administration expressed concern about the possibility of Al-Qaeda members sending "coded messages" to their followers in the segments. But Rice's main argument to the networks seems to have been that bin Laden's statements must be restricted because of their content. NBC News chief Neal Shapiro told the New York Times that Rice's main point "was that here was a charismatic speaker who could arouse anti-American sentiment getting 20 minutes of air time to spew hatred and urge his followers to kill Americans."
Although presented as only a call for caution, there's a danger that the White House conference call may make broadcasters think twice about airing any footage of bin Laden at all.
The following day, Fleischer took the administration's campaign further and contacted major newspapers to request that they consider not printing full transcripts of bin Laden's messages. "The request is to report the news to the American people," said Fleischer. "But if you report it in its entirety, that could raise concerns that he's getting his prepackaged, pretaped message out" (New York Times, 10/12/01).
To its credit, the Times has apparently resisted such requests, but some media executives seem to actually appreciate the White House pressure. "We'll do whatever is our patriotic duty,'' said News Corp executive Rupert Murdoch (Reuters, 10/11/01). In an official statement, CNN declared: "In deciding what to air, CNN will consider guidance from appropriate authorities" (Associated Press, 10/10/01). CNN chief Walter Isaacson added, "After hearing Dr. Rice, we're not going to step on the land mines she was talking about" (New York Times, 10/11/01).
The point is not that bin Laden or Al-Qaeda deserve "equal time" on U.S. news broadcasts, but that it is troubling for government to shape or influence news content. Withholding information from the public is hardly patriotic. When the White House insists that it's dangerous to report a news event "in its entirety," alarm bells should go off for journalists and the American public alike.