Reports of war draw fire to Fox

TV: Industry critics say network needs to clear the air over Geraldo Rivera's `friendly fire' reports from the front.

December 15, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

In recent days, as Fox News Channel's Geraldo Rivera says he has been ducking fire in Afghanistan, he has also been drawing unwanted attention at home.

News executives and journalism ethicists say Fox News needs to investigate and explain publicly the genesis of a discredited report by Rivera from the front lines of the war.

"If it's found that a reporter hasn't let the facts get in the way of a good story, then I think that's a firing offense," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman and former vice president for news at National Public Radio.

Rivera had claimed in a Dec. 6 dispatch to have choked up after saying the Lord's Prayer over the "hallowed ground" in Afghanistan where "friendly fire took so many of our, our men and the mujahedeen yesterday."

But, as Rivera admitted after questions were raised by The Sun, he was several hundred miles from the site outside Kandahar where three Americans were killed on Dec. 5 by errant U.S. bombs. In an interview by satellite phone on Tuesday, Rivera said he had confused the Kandahar deaths with another "friendly fire" incident that cost several Afghan lives in Tora Bora.

The problem with that explanation: The Tora Bora incident occurred at least three days after Rivera's report, according to the Pentagon.

"I believe that Geraldo Rivera and Fox News owe their viewers a substantive explanation of what this means, journalistically and ethically," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "If he did this in a way that violates journalistic standards, he is disrespectful not only to his profession, but to the families of those Americans who died."

Since the Sun article Wednesday about the episode, Fox News has offered no further explanation for Rivera's report. On Wednesday, Fox News spokesman Rob Zimmerman said he had "no information" on whether the network was reviewing the incident. Yesterday, Zimmerman suggested The Sun had a vendetta against the channel and hung up the phone.

War can be chaotic, dangerous and demanding to cover, experienced correspondents say. It often is difficult to obtain information readily, or to discern the reliability of the sources that emerge. Official U.S. government statements can later prove to be unwarranted.

But senior news professionals said challenges to veracity - such as those questions raised about Rivera's reporting - go to the heart of fundamental professional principles.

"If credibility is important to you as a news organization, you'd want to correct any mistake immediately," said Paul E. Friedman, executive vice president for ABC News.

Rivera left his job as a CNBC talk show host in mid-November to become Fox News' most recognizable war correspondent. Saying he is on a quest to avenge the deaths of New Yorkers, he has filed several stories - in which he has figured as a key player - about the fight against the al-Qaida network. Footage from the mountains of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, for instance, showed him ducking from apparent sniper fire.

Last Monday, after being informed of questions raised about the "friendly fire" story, he said on the air: "You know, I know that Kandahar is the place that suffered that dreadful friendly fire incident involving our special operators and some of the mujahedeen. But we had one here as well. You know, I walked that hallowed ground. At least three mujahedeen fighters [were] killed because of the fluidity of the front line."

In the interview Tuesday, Rivera said he had been misled in "the fog of war."

But those dead Afghan fighters in Tora Bora were not killed until at least three days after Rivera's Dec. 6 report, according to the Pentagon and journalists who have recently been in the region. Fox News did not have any explanation for how Rivera could have been confused by an event that had not yet occurred.

Several observers said they did not consider Rivera's subsequent remarks to constitute a correction or an explanation of how his story could go so far astray.

"Someone from Fox made a huge error in not making sure the facts were there before going on the air," said NPR's Dvorkin. "Mistakes will be made by all journalistic organizations. Making sure that you 'fess up is also part of the profession."

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