Disturbing images cause turmoil at networks

Editors hurriedly decide whether to use some, all or none of graphic footage

War in Iraq

March 24, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Disturbing footage of U.S. soldiers being held prisoner by the Iraqi military and of the bodies of what appeared to be American troops threw television networks and cable stations into turmoil yesterday as each outlet tried to decide whether to air all, part or none of the upsetting images.

Editors at network headquarters in New York hurriedly reviewed the scenes distributed by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel just before 10:30 a.m. Almost immediately, ABC News President David Westin delayed indefinitely the broadcast of images of American prisoners of war. He decided not to use the pictures of the dead at all.

"The desire was to exploit these deaths in a cynical and the most graphic way," Westin said yesterday afternoon. "It would be troubling to many people and obviously to the loved ones of the dead."

Across town, CBS News President Andrew Heyward and his colleagues concluded that Face the Nation should broadcast excerpts of two captive soldiers being questioned so the news program's moderator, Bob Schieffer, could press guest Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for details.

"It looked indisputably authentic to us," Heyward said. "We could immediately put it in the proper context by talking to the top military official."

Later during the show, technicians digitally obscured the captives' faces after Pentagon officials requested that the soldiers' identities be withheld until family members could be notified. Once the Pentagon publicly named the prisoners of war, CBS producers would be allowed "judicious" use of the footage. But the network had no plans to show the dead.

Throughout the day, Rumsfeld said repeatedly that the footage showed that Iraq had violated the Geneva Conventions, which set protocol that is supposed to ensure humane treatment for captured combatants.

The three primary cable all-news channels - Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC -- did not immediately use footage of either the prisoners of war or the dead soldiers. But about 12:45 p.m., CNN carried a single image, taken from the Al-Jazeera broadcast, of the bodies. Fox News used a similar picture later in the afternoon. Both cable channels carefully selected or altered the images so no faces were visible.

News media outlets have been careful to manage their relationships with the military since the war broke out; hundreds of journalists have been integrated into combat units and are able to report widely, with restrictions on certain logistical details. In recent days, several "embedded" reporters have been expelled from their units after reporting information that officers deemed too sensitive to be broadcast.

"Your five W's - who, what, where, when, why - that are Journalism 101 aren't always permissible out here," said Marine Maj. Chris Hughes, a U.S. military spokesman in Kuwait.

Heyward said his network's handling on Saturday of a grenade explosion that killed a member of the 101st Airborne Division illustrated how sensitively his journalists were treating war coverage. Although a crew near the explosion taped explicit footage of the wounded, CBS showed restraint, he said.

Network executives and representatives acknowledged yesterday that their choices involved fine calibrations of conflicting impulses. In some cases, competitive drive was leavened by patriotic impulses and the recognition that there may be limits to how much grisly material their audiences want to see. And there seemed a desire by some journalists to convey how much they had seen of the footage - and how gruesome they found it to be.

On MSNBC, anchorman Lester Holt told viewers yesterday afternoon that his cable network would not soon broadcast the interviews with the prisoners of war; nor would it air footage of the slain soldiers. "I've seen them. They are beyond disturbing," Holt said.

There are precedents for showing such footage. In 1993, during U.S. operations in Somalia, networks and newspapers carried images of a captured U.S. pilot dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. During the September 2001 terrorist attacks, several networks broadcast videotape of people jumping from the World Trade Center towers.

"These are not clear issues," said ABC's Westin. "The POWs are a different case. I do think it is newsworthy to see the video, hear their voices and their answers to the questions. For me, there are three questions: Do we air it at all? In what form do we air it? When do we air it?"

On ABC yesterday, Pentagon correspondent John McWethy characterized the footage from Al-Jazeera, but his network did not show any of it. "The defense secretary is angered, and I would be too," said ABC anchorman Charlie Gibson. "Any time that you show bodies, it is simply disrespectful, in my opinion."

Ted Koppel, traveling inside Iraq with the 3rd Army Infantry Division, to which the captive soldiers belong, disagreed with Gibson on the air. "We have shown dead bodies often over the years, going all the way back to Vietnam," the veteran Nightline anchorman said. Always, Koppel said, it should be done so that family members do not first learn of the dead and wounded soldiers from television.

But, he told Gibson, "a great patriotic fervor" typically follows the start of any war.

"We need to remind people in the most graphic way that war is a dreadful thing," he said. "As President Bush has said many times, war has to be absolutely the last option. The fact of the matter is young Americans are dying. Young Iraqis are dying. And I think to turn our faces away from that is a mistake."

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