Terrorism: the only winner when government tries to control news coverage

Saturday, October 20, 2001

Two instances of the White House attempting to influence the manner in which news organizations report one aspect of the war on terrorism — statements made by terror chief Osama bin Laden or his followers — mark a disturbing change in American governmental policy, one which bears watching.

The first instance, in which national security adviser Condoleezza Rice held an Oct. 10 conference call with top executives of five American television networks, asking that they review videotaped statements from bin Laden or his followers prior to airing them seemed innocuous enough.

What was perhaps most unsettling about the episode was the unanimity and swiftness with which the network heads agreed to limit their coverage. From now on, only snippets of video issued by bin Laden or his followers will be broadcast. Rhetoric urging violence against Americans will be excised, and any reports accompanying the tapes would contain “appropriate context.”

On Oct. 11, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who, along with Ms. Rice, was buoyed by the success of the previous day’s endeavor, announced that he intended to make the same request of American newspapers — that they limit their coverage of statements made by bin Laden or other al-Qaida operatives in the name of national security.

“The request is to report the news to the American people,” Fleischer said. “But if you report it in its entirety, that could raise concerns that he’s getting his prepackaged, pretaped message out.”

The arguments made by both Fleischer and Rice stressed their desire to limit coverage of bin Laden in order to avoid “inflaming” his followers, to deny bin Laden an outlet for his propaganda, and to squelch any chance that the elusive terrorist leader was somehow sending subliminal or coded messages to terrorist cells. That argument, in this day of instant communication over the Internet, doesn’t hold much water. Osama bin Laden has been inflaming
his followers quite nicely without the aid of the American news media.

In these difficult times, it is tempting to believe that anything other than “positive” coverage will play into the hands of the enemy. It is also the responsibility of all news organizations — broadcast or print — to exercise careful judgment in what they report, particularly when matters of national security are involved.

We would hope that the heads of the American television networks and newspapers would be able to make those kinds of calls themselves, without government interference. We would hope that the government would recognize that by attempting to influence what news is published or broadcast — or by keeping it from being reported in its entirety — we are giving terrorism a victory.

Tags: , ,