CNN's showing of POW tapes splits it from other networks in controversy WAR IN THE GULF

January 22, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Television viewers were dealt another emotional punch yesterday when the first videotapes of bruised and battered U.S. prisoners of war were broadcast to their living rooms.

And, as a result of those troubling images, the first clear split has surfaced among TV journalists on how best to cover the gulf war.

Cable News Network, which was the toast of the news industry last week for its reports from Baghdad, Iraq, was criticized by many yesterday for taking the lead in airing unedited tapes of POWs apologizing for U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf region.

In a videotape -- taken from Iraqi television -- of 28-year-old Navy Lt. Jeffrey Zaun and two other POWs, Lieutenant Zaun's face was horribly swollen, possibly from injuries sustained when his plane was downed or from being beaten.

CNN's Peter Arnett, the only Western reporter allowed by Iraq to stay in Baghdad, introduced the prisoners' statements, which then ran unedited.

CBS and NBC aired brief excerpts of the videotapes. ABC showed the pictures yesterday but did not air any of the pilots' words beyond their names.

"ABC News will be careful not to do anything that either endangers Americans in captivity or furthers the aims of those holding them," ABC News President Roone Arledge said of the decision by his network not to air the statements of the pilots.

The controversy over the POW tapes has added to the growing sense among television news executives that CNN and Mr. Arnett are being used by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for propaganda purposes, said industry sources.

But CNN spokesman Eileen Murphy said yesterday, "We believe the public has the right to know what is happening to the captured allied pilots. We carefully note [on-air before showing the tape] that they are not free to speak openly."

CNN's position on showing such images has been clear since August, Ms. Murphy continued, "when Hussein did the dog-and-pony shows [with hostage children]. Basically, it has been our policy to put it on the air and trust our viewers."

ABC's decision not to broadcast the hostages' words came, said Mr. Arledge, because "it is our experience . . . that statements by and interviews involving hostages or prisoners of war are often made under duress."

The audio tapes of the POWs became available Sunday at the very time that CNN was celebrating on-air its exclusive situation in Baghdad, quoting Iraqi officials saying that CNN was allowed to stay because of its "impartiality" in reporting out of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, CNN producer Robert Wiener and Nic Robertson, a CNN photographer, arrived in Jordan yesterday. Their departure from Baghdad left Mr. Arnett and Michael Haj, a photographer from England's Worldwide Television News, as the only two Western journalists in Baghdad.

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