Media juggle wartime responsibilities

TV: CNN and ABC show how complicated it can be for reporters when patriotism and journalism meet.

November 02, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The tensions facing journalists pulled between their professional standards and the country's surge of patriotism surfaced this week in two incidents.

Executives at CNN made it known that their journalists won't be taken for suckers by terrorists. A day later, the president of ABC News apologized for remarks seen as indifferent to American dead at the Pentagon.

"They're directly related," said former network correspondent Marvin Kalb, now a media critic. The actions, he said, were prompted by "the sensitivity of journalism today to what it regards as its new responsibility in wartime."

In memos earlier this week, senior CNN officials urged reporters and anchors to remind viewers of the terrorist strikes against the United States after airing any account of the Taliban's claims of civilian deaths caused by American bombing.

CNN's Nic Robertson is one of a small group of Western journalists allowed into Taliban-held territory to be shown damage purportedly caused by the raids. His reports already carry disclaimers that those contentions can't be verified independently, but CNN officials wanted more. "We must continue to make sure that we do not inadvertently seem to be reporting uncritically from the perspective or vantage of the Taliban," wrote Richard Davis, executive vice president of news standards and practices.

Davis offered this as one of three examples of preferred copy for anchors to read: "We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this from Taliban-controlled areas, that these U.S. military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the U.S."

A CNN executive, speaking on condition that he not be named, said the memos simply reiterate a long-held belief in the need for context, not a departure from past practice.

Late Wednesday, ABC News President David Westin apologized for earlier saying that he had "no position" on whether the Pentagon was an appropriate target for hijackers. He made his remarks last month to a group of Columbia University graduate students. His comments were broadcast on C-SPAN, picked up by Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, and then given broader play by the New York Post and the Drudge Report.

"Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be," Westin told the students. "For me to take a position, `This was right or wrong,' I mean, that's perhaps for me in my private life, perhaps it's for me dealing with my loved ones."

In his statement of apology, Westin explained that he had sought "to illustrate the broad, academic principle that journalists should draw a firm line between what they know and their personal opinions." But, he said, his failure to acknowledge the horror he felt at the Sept. 11 attacks was wrong.

CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield said he backed his network's attempt to counteract the often distorting impact of powerful images, such as the devastation shown by Taliban leaders. But he said the tone of the coverage provided by major media organizations is coming under unrelenting scrutiny.

"There are people who are looking at this stuff and are ready to pounce," Greenfield said. "What Westin was saying was reflecting the enormous complexity of responding as a journalist and as a citizen."

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, CNN's Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw were castigated by members of Congress and others for broadcasting stories from carefully controlled areas of Iraq. Critics said they were aiding Saddam Hussein through their reporting.

Similarly, some television news correspondents in central Asia now say they routinely receive e-mailed diatribes from U.S. viewers for failing to denounce the Taliban.

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