Nets jostle for ‘exclusive’ rights

Journalists assess cooperative effort

NEW YORK — Faced with the biggest story they’ve ever covered, network newsies in recent days have been doing something that’s contrary to their nature — sharing.

They may not always play nice, but in the past month, the usually cut-throat networks have learned to work together.

“To the degree that everything about America has changed since Sept. 11, the networks’ competitive zeal –while not entirely abated — has had to make some room for a new sense of service,” says CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward.

“It’s inappropriate to be self-serving when it comes at the expense of the public.”

The new age of cooperation was ushered in when the nets agreed to share footage with each other following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But the niceties ended abruptly early last week when it came to sharing footage from Al-Jazeera TV in Afghanistan.

CNN bragged that it had exclusive rights to Al-Jazeera footage of the U.S. bombing of Kabul and of Osama bin Laden. The other webs accused the cabler of breaking the new, unwritten rules of life during wartime.

“Exclusives aren’t about paying the most to get some other news agency’s pictures, which is essentially what the Al-Jazeera business is about,” says MSNBC prexy Erik Sorenson. “That’s a very shallow way of seeing things. That’s not a journalist enterprise. It’s a business enterprise.”

According to CNN and ABC News — which signed a deal later in the week, with other nets likely to follow — they are not paying any money, just inking reciprocal deals to exchange footage.

Although CNN had an exclusive deal with the Qatar net — the only news outlet allowed into Taliban-controlled territory — the others aired the footage anyway, claiming it was in the national interest.

After being depicted in other media as a war profiteer, CNN eventually relented and agreed the competish could air Al-Jazeera footage when it comes to breaking-news stories of national interest.

“Yes, we have exclusivity. Yes, we think it’s enforceable. But we’re not going to enforce it in this unique circumstance because of the compelling national interest. We think it’s the right thing to do,” a CNN spokesman said at the time.

Of course, a lot of what the nets claim are exclusives are really the same fuzzy green images of nighttime bombs raining on Afghanistan.

“The viewers are flipping around like mad and they know everybody else has green nightscope cameras as well, so they wonder what’s exclusive about it,” Sorenson says.

However, for the first time execs could remember, there were open discussions with their rivals about coverage decisions. The frank talk followed a conference call with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on whether it was appropriate to air videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden or his followers in their entirety.

“We spend all day thinking about how we can beat each other. In that one moment, there was no thought of that,” says NBC News prexy Neal Shapiro.

“The phone call was a discussion among citizens about the national interest,” explains CBS’ Heyward. “We’re talking about a situation that’s bigger than any of our competitive concerns.”

Critics fear the new age of cooperation could lead to generic news coverage on all of the nets. They point to last year’s presidential election as an example of the dangers of news-pooling: If one net gets it wrong, they all do.

Yet Pentagon pool coverage will mean all the nets have to depend on one source for military footage.

News execs insist that working with the competish doesn’t preclude intense competition.

“In some areas, we will cooperate,” Shapiro says. “But for the most part, we all believe in competition. In the long run, competition serves the American public. It pushes us all to do our best.”

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