October 11, 2001
At U.S. Request, Networks Agree to Edit Future bin Laden Tapes
By BILL CARTER and FELICITY BARRINGER
The five major television news organizations reached a joint agreement yesterday to follow the suggestion of the White House and abridge any future videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden or his followers to remove language the government considers inflammatory.
The decision, the first time in memory that the networks had agreed to a joint arrangement to limit their prospective news coverage, was described by one network executive as a "patriotic" decision that grew out of a conference call between the nation's top television news executives and the White House national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, yesterday morning.
The five news organizations, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, along with its subsidiary, MSNBC, the Cable News Network and the Fox News Channel all had broadcast, unedited, a taped message from Mr. bin Laden on Sunday. On Tuesday, the all-news cable channels, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, also carried the complete speech of a spokesmen for Al Qaeda.
Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, indicated in his news briefing yesterday that Ms. Rice was primarily concerned that terrorists could be using the broadcasts to send coded messages to other terrorists, but the network executives said in interviews that this was only a secondary consideration.
They said Ms. Rice mainly argued that the tapes enabled Mr. bin Laden to vent propaganda intended to incite hatred and potentially kill more Americans.
The executives said that they would broadcast only short parts of any tape issued by Al Qaeda and would eliminate any passages containing flowery rhetoric urging violence against Americans. They agreed to accompany the tapes with reports providing what they called appropriate context.
They also agreed to avoid repeatedly showing excerpts from the tapes, which they had previously done in what one executive described as "video wallpaper."
One network, ABC, said it would limit the use of moving images from tapes released by Mr. Bin Laden or Al Qaeda, mostly relying on a still picture from a frame of the tape and the printed text of whatever message was being delivered.
The coverage of the aftermath of the terrorists attacks on New York and the Pentagon has generated intense competitive pressure among the television news organizations, which has increased this week as the news divisions labored to find images to continue documenting American attacks on Afghanistan.
The tapes have been broadcast by the Arabic language satellite network Al Jazeera and picked up by the American networks.
The news executives said they had never previously consulted one other en masse and come to an agreement on a policy about coverage.
But they said the current circumstances were unlike any others they had encountered.
"This is a new situation, a new war and a new kind of enemy," said Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News. "Given the historic events we're enmeshed in, it's appropriate to explore new ways of fulfilling our responsibilities to the public."
The presidents of the news divisions all said that Ms. Rice had not tried to coerce them.
"She was very gentle, very diplomatic, very deft," said Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News.
Walter Isaacson, the chairman of CNN, said, "It was very useful to hear their information and their thinking." He added, "After hearing Dr. Rice, we're not going to step on the land mines she was talking about."
Mr. Isaacson did not specify what information Ms. Rice had provided that led to the executives' decision.
"Her biggest point," said Neal Shapiro, the president of NBC News, "was that here was a charismatic speaker who could arouse anti- American sentiment getting 20 minutes of air time to spew hatred and urge his followers to kill Americans."
The notion that Mr. bin Laden was sending messages to followers through the tapes seemed less than credible to several of the executives.
"What sense would it make to keep the tapes off the air if the message could be found transcripted in newspapers or on the Web?" said one network executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The videos could also appear on the Internet. They'd get the message anyway."
The unusual interaction between the White House and television executives was set up late Tuesday evening when Ms. Rice called each executive. They gathered in their offices at 9 a.m. for the conference call.
She spoke with them for about 20 minutes, explaining her reservations about allowing Mr. bin Laden such access to American television. A White House official familiar with the phone call said Ms Rice had two concerns: that the messages would reach any remaining terrorist cells in the United States and would also inflame Muslim populations in such places as Malaysia and the Philippines, who would see the tapes through international channels of CNN and NBC.
Ms. Rice answered questions. Then she hung up. But the executives had agreed before the call to stay on the line and talk among themselves.
The networks were not the first news organizations to acquiesce to an administration requests to edit or withhold information.
Leonard Downie Jr., the executive editor of The Washington Post, said yesterday that "a handful of times" in the past month, the newspaper's reporting had prompted calls from administration officials who "raised concerns that a specific story or more often that certain facts in a certain story, would compromise national security."
Mr. Downie added, "In some instances we have kept out of stories certain facts that we agreed could be detrimental to national security and not instrumental to our readers, such as methods of intelligence collection."
Clark Hoyt, the Washington editor of Knight Ridder, said his organization had decided to hold back a report about "some small units of U.S. special operations forces had entered Afghanistan and were trying to locate bin Laden" within two weeks of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Howell Raines, the executive editor of The New York Times, said that since Sept. 11, Times executives had not had any conversations with government officials about the handling of sensitive information.
Mr. Raines said: "Our longstanding practice has been that if a high government official wants to talk to us about security issues, we're available for that conversation. We also would feel free to seek guidance if there was information in our judgment that might be sensitive."
The networks' decision has not raised serious protests among television journalists. Ted Koppel, the ABC "Nightline" anchor, said, "If we want to run some of the videotape, our understanding is we're still free to do it."
But, Mr. Koppel said, the videotapes by and large have not been compelling enough for long showings.
The CBS anchor, Dan Rather, said: "By nature and experience, I'm always wary when the government seeks in any way to have a hand in editorial decisions. But this is an extraordinary time. In the context of this time, the conversation as I understand it seems reasonable on both sides."