Off air, a battle over Afghan footage

Watr On Terrorism

The Events

October 08, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

An off-the-air tussle erupted yesterday when CNN tried to claim exclusive rights to extraordinary footage of suspected terrorist chief Osama bin Laden from an influential Qatar-based broadcasting company.

An indication of that tussle first surfaced in early afternoon, when CNN anchor Aaron Brown referred to his network's "exclusive arrangement" with Al-Jazeera. The Qatari news organization has been given unique access inside Afghanistan by the Taliban, the Muslim clerics who control most of the country.

Yet ABC, CBS, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC and sister station NBC all took Al-Jazeera's feed for remarks by bin Laden. They did so in defiance of a demand by CNN and Al-Jazeera that the others honor their arrangement, which places a six-hour embargo on the use of the Qatari broadcaster's images elsewhere.

Messages seeking comment from senior figures at the Washington bureau of Al-Jazeera were not returned yesterday.

"Any party that picks up material off Al-Jazeera air and runs it before Al-Jazeera lifts its embargo on it shall be held legally responsible and could face prosecution in a court of law," wrote Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali, managing director of the channel, in a letter Saturday to U.S. news executives.

Officials at CBS and NBC said they decided to use the footage after unsuccessfully pressing their case.

"Al-Jazeera's pictures are being sent by satellite, and we all know where they are," said Sandy Genelius, a senior spokeswoman for CBS News. "At a time like this, when our country is launching a military attack on another country, our position is that the public has a right to know."

By the end of the day, CNN was striking a less strident tone. "At this point, we're concerned about covering the war, and making sure the American people are as well informed as they can be," Matthew Furman, a CNN spokesman, said last night. "Given the seriousness of what's happening today, we don't intend to enforce that exclusivity at this time."

Many networks have drawn on Al-Jazeera's footage repeatedly since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, while taking care to credit the news operation. U.S. news officials pledged to share footage immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Although at least one cable network labeled it as "live," bin Laden's diatribe against the United States had apparently been taped before the American-led strikes on Afghan targets took place. He was shown in daytime, although it was already the middle of the night in Afghanistan. Several channels arranged to have translators interpret his statement, which called for further violence against the U.S.

As ABC anchor Peter Jennings remarked, bin Laden justified the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In so doing, Jennings said, bin Laden dispelled any doubts about his own involvement in those attacks, although he did not explicitly claim credit in his remarks.

CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour characterized the tape of bin Laden, who called for a war of Muslims against the U.S., as a "video news release."

Before yesterday's dust-up, competition among the networks in covering the conflict had become more intense: Fox News poached experienced reporter Steve Harrigan from CNN. He had been working without a contract in Afghanistan.

CNN had murky but exclusive shots from "night scopes" allowing pictures during the darkness. That footage improperly appeared on rival American broadcasts, according to CNN, because Al-Jazeera had picked it up as part of its arrangement with the U.S. broadcaster.

Al-Jazeera is widely watched in the Arab world because it allows a diverse range of viewpoints.

Late last month, the State Department asked Qatari officials to tamp down rhetoric against Israel and the United States, much as the government had sought to suppress a Taliban leader's remarks in a Voice of America report. However, the Qatar ruler said the Arab-language news agency would continue its current approach.

The networks appeared uncertain how much coverage to devote to the conflict. CBS News was not seen locally until late afternoon, as the network decided to show the Ravens-Titans game. Similarly, Fox showed both planned football games, while NBC, which had commercial-free coverage for much of the afternoon, broke away late for an "extreme sports" competition.

Yesterday evening, plans to televise last night' scheduled Emmys, the annual television awards ceremony, were scrapped. It was not known whether the awards show would be rescheduled.

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