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Censoring the Enemy

October 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Last week, in an unusual request, the administration asked the broadcast and cable networks to use caution in broadcasting any videotape– such as this one, from Osama bin Laden or his associates in the al-Qaida organization.

In response, the networks, issued these statements agreeing in large part that they would screen any such tape before broadcasting it, and then would exercise their own editorial judgment on whether or what to air. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told network executives the administration wanted to insure that al-Qaida was not sending any hidden messages to this followers in the tape. She repeated her concerns in public today:

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: My message to them was that it’s not to me to judge news value of something like this, but it is to say that there’s a national security concern about an unedited, 15 or 20 minute spew of anti-American hatred that ends in a call to go out and kill Americans, and I think that that was fully understood.

TERENCE SMITH: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered a caution of his own today.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I think that we know of certain knowledge that the Taliban leadership and al-Qaida are accomplished liars, that they go on television and they say things that we know are absolutely not true. They are trying to manipulate world opinion in a way that is advantageous to them and disadvantageous to us. And we need to do everything we can to make sure that the truth gets out.

TERENCE SMITH: This past weekend, this informal understanding between the networks and the administration underwent its first test with the release of a taped statement by an al-Qaida spokesman threatening further terrorist attacks. CNN waited an hour after the statement was received to broadcast a brief portion of the taped message. Fox News Channel and MSNBC opted to air a still photo of the spokesman along with a summary of his comments. CBS aired about ten seconds of the tape to introduce a story about propaganda. The public seems to approve of the practice. A Pew Research Center poll released today shows that 52 percent of those surveyed think the American news media should withhold videotaped speeches made by bin Laden. Forty percent disagreed, 8 percent said they don’t know or refused comment.

TERENCE SMITH: We get two views of the public relations war from retired Air Force Colonel P.J. Crowley. He was a spokesman at the Pentagon and at the National Security Council during the second Clinton administration. Today, he is vice president of the Insurance Information Institute and former ABC News Correspondent Bob Zelnick. He covered the Mideast, Russia, the Capitol and the Pentagon in his 21 years with the network. He is now acting chairman of the Journalism Department of Boston University. Welcome to you both. Bob Zelnick, I wonder if you have any qualms about the networks’ decision to agree to the administration’s request. And you know the administration also asked newspapers, for example, not to run the full text of any such statements.

BOB ZELNICK: Well, I don’t have any qualms about the networks saying we’re going to view something and decide upon its news worthiness before we decide whether to put it on the air in whole, in part or not at all. That, I think, is standard editorial judgment. I do have a problem with the administration trying to pressure the networks into going one way or another. I do have a problem with trying to invoke a rule of silence at this point in time. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it’s self-defeating. I think that, for example, the first statement by Osama bin Laden after the bombing was quite newsworthy. I think he associated himself with the terrorists to the point where it mooted the argument about asking for proof because clearly he had embraced the act in its totality. I think he showed himself to be so extreme that more moderate governments are going to have an easier time aligning themselves with the United States.

I think that generally it was a statement that could be, in fact, helpful to those who were opposing him. There’s one other thing that’s important to note about this, and that is that we really don’t have the ability to stop those communications. If he wanted to send signals– and I don’t think there was anything, any proof that he was sending signals, it was a pretty overt, direct call for action– I think that he communicates directly with most of the Muslim world through the al Jazeera network. In fact, Americans can, through submitting to ordering this Echostar, can get it piped into their homes just as if it were a sporting event. I just don’t think it’s a realistic approach on the administration’s part.

TERENCE SMITH: Colonel Crowley, Dr. Rice told reporters today that analysts were still studying the messages to see if there was any imbedded message to al-Qaida’s followers in it but had not yet detected any. Do you feel it was a legitimate request to limit the exposure of these?

P.J. CROWLEY: I think it is unusual but not necessarily unprecedented. In every crisis there’s always going to be times where the news media is in possession of information that, as you evaluate the national interest, it’s better that they not broadcast right away or not broadcast at all. This is a little bit unusual in the nature of the delivery system where al-Qaida will pass a videotape to al Jazeera and then from there to the networks, but, you know, bin Laden is not the President of the United States. He should not be able to have unfettered access to our airwaves any time one of those tapes gets past.

I do agree with Bob that this is something where we need to have the administration make its case. If they have concerns that there are codes being passed, they need to be able to substantiate that. I also agree that over time these guys don’t wear well. As we saw, for example, in the crisis in Kosovo, the more we heard from Slobodan Milosevic, the stronger the international resolve was to defeat him. I think that could be well the case in this instance, but I think early on where we have this kind of very strong emotion and unprecedented kind of situation caution is appropriate.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Zelnick, do you see any sort of pattern here, any other attempts since September 11 by the administration to manage the flow of the news?

BOB ZELNICK: Yeah, I think first of all I agree with what P.J. Crowley said, going back not only to Milosevic but also to the Persian Gulf War with Hussein and his henchmen. They were on all the time. I think from day number one of this crisis, the administration has exercised a propensity for trying to manage the news while the president is doing a wonderful job on his own and dominating the news. The very first day when they responded to criticism of the circuitous route the president took back from Florida to Washington by floating the issue of a so-called threat to Air Force One, which is still not substantiated, I think we’ve seen more of this in the reaction to the interview by NBC with former President Clinton.

I think we’ve seen some thin-skinned attitudes on the part of the administration to anything smacking of criticism. And I think that the president is doing such a good job of mobilizing world opinion, making his case, defining objectives, defining his priorities, that they don’t have to be in the business of managing news. They just have to talk the truth to the American people and I think that the American people will follow.

TERENCE SMITH: Colonel Crowley, what about those examples that Bob cites?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not going to stand here or sit here and be a defender of the Bush administration and everything that they do; it’s not my place. I do think that over time they’ll have to, since this is an unprecedented request that they’ve made, they’re going to have to make their case that this is something that, where the balance needs to shift in the direction of caution usually Bob is exactly right. We believe in the marketplace of ideas and we let the American people decide. And overall they do make the right judgment.

By the same token, I don’t think that any leader, the networks are never going to give any leader 15 minutes at a time to invite people to kill the next American that they see. I think that in this particular case at this time the appropriate balance has been struck, as the crisis continues, the administration’s going to be required to substantiate that this is the right course to take over the long term. I don’t think it should be a blanket proposition, however.

BOB ZELNICK: I think….

TERENCE SMITH: Bob, I was going to ask you, you cited the case of the report of an attack or a threat on Air Force One on the very first day — a report that was later denied. Is this in your opinion… These examples that you just cited, are they genuine national security or are they public relations?

BOB ZELNICK: Oh, I think that they’re public relations and they don’t have to be. I would add to the list Secretary of State Powell’s intervention with the independent force of… Voice of America with its programming decisions. No, I think that’s the central point that we’re making. Another thing is very interesting. If the United States really wanted to stop the transmission of bin Laden from the area, it could put a lot more pressure on those vehicles, those satellite services that are carrying him. But I suspect there’s a good deal of benefit to tracking this man around. It tends to answer some important questions: Is he alive? Is he wounded? Is he inside Afghanistan? What is his mental state — things that help triangulate his whereabouts and his condition and make it easier at some point in time to go after him.

TERENCE SMITH: Colonel Crowley, is anything lost by not having the full text or not have these statements broadcast in full? For example, Bob Zelnick cited the virtual admission of responsibility for the September 11th attacks.

P.J. CROWLEY: Oh, I think that the first bin Laden interview was very compelling. And I think that it unmasked him as a false prophet and as a terrorist and as a murderer. I quite agree that that was compelling television and something that it was important for the American people to see. But the question is, you know, this is something that in our interest should bin Laden have the opportunity for 15 minutes or 20 minutes of fame every time he passes a tape to al Jazeera, the answer in my view is no. I don’t think it’s a question of censorship because, you know, it’s not that this is not getting reported. It could well be that it’s putting television at a slight reportorial disadvantage but television, on many occasions agrees to restrictions in return for access.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. I think we have to leave it there, both of you, thank you very much.