Al-Qaida footage raises concern

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Networks didn't say they paid for videos

August 21, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Almost everyone who has worked in television news has a favorite story about the intense bidding for videotape of high-profile events.

Last fall, networks purchased amateur videos that captured the two airliners flying into the twin towers. Two years ago, footage taken by an amateur photographer of the Joseph Palczynski hostage standoff in Dundalk triggered a heated bidding war between Channels 13 and 11.

CNN's Mike Boettcher likes to tell of the time in the early 1980s when he paid an Argentine videotape editor $100 a pop to make copies of rare wartime video from the Falklands that was being sold "exclusively" to other U.S. networks for tens of thousands of dollars.

This week, both CNN and CBS are crowing about securing footage from 1998 that appears to show al-Qaida training for terrorist activities. But some professionals and observers are concerned about the two broadcasters' initial failure to disclose that they paid for the tapes.

"In the good old days, there was never any question in our minds about revealing we had paid for a tape," said Joseph Angotti, former vice president for news at NBC. "We absolutely made it clear from the outset. I think that's the only way."

Yet the payments first came to light not on the air but in published reports yesterday. While the Miami Herald reported that CNN had paid $30,000, the cable network's officials would only say the figure was in the "low five figures," prompting CNN's own media critic, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, to weigh in.

"It has been a little bit murky," Kurtz told CNN anchor Carol Lin. "I would like to know more about how much money was paid, and if the sources can't be disclosed, I would at least like to know some characterization of the sources that received this money."

It is supposedly a sacrosanct rule in reputable U.S. journalism circles that interviews can never be paid for, lest the promise of such compensation spur subjects to alter or invent their stories. News organizations commonly pay for video footage, with the price depending largely on how much the footage delivers. In 1963, Life magazine paid $150,000 for the famed Zapruder film that showed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That would be worth more than $860,000 today.

The CNN and CBS videotapes show a press conference, before a hand-picked group of reporters, featuring Osama bin Laden's declaration of war against the United States and demonstrations of how to manufacture bombs and use chemical weapons.

CBS bought 30 tapes from Magnum, a photography cooperative; CNN purchased more than 64 tapes with more than a hundred hours of footage. Both said they thought they were getting an exclusive.

"They're important because they give us a candid glimpse we've never had inside al-Qaida," says Boettcher, who covers the terrorism beat for CNN. Nic Robertson, the network's Afghanistan-based reporter, said he traveled 17 hours with a source to meet the person who showed him the tapes. Robertson said he was convinced the person he paid had no ties to al-Qaida or bin Laden. CNN officials also said the person had no ties to the U.S. government or any other allies.

Viewers will have their own chance to judge how informative these al-Qaida tapes are. Excerpts are to be shown throughout the week on CNN, and they have already aired on several CBS news programs. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said they helped to illustrate the seriousness of the threat that the United States is facing.

CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said the payments were not uncommon. It did not merit notice on the air, she said, beyond saying "CBS has obtained videotape" - a hint that it was not shot by CBS staffers. She compared it with a newspaper that pays for a free-lance article or photograph.

In explaining his outlet's initial decision not to acknowledge the payment, CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said Robertson has counterparts in hot spots around the world. "We are mindful that it's not in our colleagues' interest to advertise the fact they may, at times, have sums of cash on them," Furman said.

Yet it's no revelation that American reporters abroad often carry money. In this case, according to Al Tompkins, a television news veteran now at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., the channels were right to pay for the tapes, once their authenticity had been confirmed. But he says the channels were probably wrong to fail to note that they had done so.

"The more the public can know about the process, the better," Tompkins said.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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