WASHINGTON — Warning that U.S. TV networks could become propaganda pawns or even the tools of terrorists, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday persuaded the webs to forgo airing live statements by Osama bin Laden or members of his Al Qaeda network.
Rice made outlined the White House position in a rare conference call with network reps. When she got off the line, news toppers continued talking and collectively agreed not to broadcast any such statements in the “raw,” saying they would direct their newsrooms to thoroughly screen messages before determining whether or not to air them.
Newsies were quick to inform that at no time did Rice ask them to censor. Rather, her goal was to “sensitize” them to concerns that the messages could be somehow coded — serving as a go signal for terrorist acts, for example — thus jeopardizing the safety of American citizens and troops.
“She did not ask for a news embargo of this material and said that she realized that, in some circumstances, such material had news value for the American people,” NBC News said.
It didn’t take long, however, for some news anchors to express guarded concern about the decision during their own coverage of the Rice conference call. CNN anchor Aaron Brown pointed out that propaganda cuts both ways.
The early-morning phone conversation with Rice highlighted the difficulties TV news orgs face as they try to cover President Bush’s war on terrorism without jeopardizing national security — or conversely, their duty to inform the American public. It also underscored that in times of battle, television is a potent weapon in swaying public opinion, both here and overseas.
Rice set up the conference call after TV news nets aired two Al Qaeda statements. The first featured bin Laden and was aired on Sunday, shortly after the White House confirmed U.S. military action in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, CNN and several others aired a tape of Al Qaeda spokesman Sleiman Abou-Gheith, setting off alarm bells at the White House.
Both statements were initially aired on the Arabic all news channel Al-Jazeera.
During a briefing Wednesday, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said there was no hard evidence that the messages contained coded language.
“There are no easy conclusions to reach, but I think it’s rather plain to have these thoughts, these suspicions about what it could include. That’s why, as Dr. Rice indicated, at best, it’s pre-taped, pre-recorded propaganda, but propaganda of a most insidious nature. At worst, it could be actually signaling to his operatives,” Fleischer said.
On the Rice call were CNN News Group chair-CEO Walter Isaacson, ABC News prexy David Westin, CBS News prexy Andrew Hayward and NBC News prexy Neil Shapiro. Fox also participated.
Responding to press queries about Rice’s request, TV news nets issued virtually the same response.
“CNN will not air statements from Al Qaeda live and will review them first before deciding how to handle them,” the all news channels said. “CNN’s policy is to avoid airing any material that we believe would directly facilitate any terrorists acts. In deciding what to air, CNN will consider guidance from appropriate authorities.”
News nets said they already were wrestling about whether to air unedited Al Qaeda statements. They also credited Rice for not out-and-out asking for a blackout.
“National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice did not ask the networks to stop showing tape of bin Laden. In fact, Dr. Rice acknowledged the potential importance of messages and other appearances by bin Laden. She did ask the networks to keep national security in mind while exercising their independent news judgment,” CBS News said in its statement.
Ditto for ABC News, with Westin reiterating that the White House wasn’t trying to play editor. “Dr. Rice made no specific request of the news organizations other than that we consider the possible existence of such hidden messages in determining whether and how to air portions of Al Qaeda statements,” Westin said.
On another front, Capitol Hill lawmakers on Wednesday argued in favor of creating a new government broadcasting channel, Radio Free Afghanistan. Some pols said Voice of America, the government channel now reaching Afghanistan, has become pro-Taliban.