Newsies fight over bin Laden interview

CNN, Al-Jazeera deal causes controversy

News orgs rallied against exclusives on Sunday, saying that they don’t serve the public’s interest during a time of national crisis.

Although CNN had signed an exclusive deal with Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network, the other news orgs aired Al-Jazeera’s footage anyway, saying it fell under the “fair use” rule. The Al-Jazeera material provided the public with video of the attacks on Afghanistan as well as a videotaped statement from Osama bin Laden.

The fair use doctrine allows widespread use of broadcast material during a national emergency. The nets were able to retrieve the Al-Jazeera footage from a satellite feed.

“There was no question in anybody’s mind that these images from Al-Jazeera were of compelling national interest,” ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. “We felt we had a duty to broadcast them to the American people which far outweighed whatever commercial agenda CNN was attempting to pursue in this time of war.”

Walter Isaacson chairman-CEO of CNN News Group said that CNN has a “reciprocal affiliate deal” with Al-Jazeera and that “it’s Al-Jazeera’s material and we don’t have a right to give it away.” That said, Isaacson made it clear that “in a time of war, we won’t make a big deal about this sort of thing.”

Deal that didn’t work

The original deal called for Al-Jazeera to embargo the footage for six hours before releasing it to other nets. In return, Al-Jazeera was given access to CNN footage. Al-Jazeera faxed a letter Saturday that detailed its relationship with CNN to other news orgs. A couple of nets contacted CNN before the retaliation against Afghanistan began to see if they would make the footage available. At the time, CNN said it was not theirs to give away.

The letter made it clear that any net that picks up material off Al-Jazeera air and runs it before the embargo was lifted “shall be held legally responsible and could face prosecution in a court of law.”

Isaacson said that “if people want to pick up our material, that’s the least of the world’s worries right now.”

Al-Jazeera, which has the only uplink in Kabul, is largely viewed as the main news org in the Arab world. It is the only net that appears to have cameras in the Taliban-controlled portion of Afghanistan.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon Sept. 11, news orgs temporarily suspended competition and shared footage. They were furious that CNN wouldn’t forgo competition during a similar crisis.

“When bin Laden wants to send a message, he does it through Al-Jazeera. To try to mandate some sort of exclusivity to that material is unacceptable and unethical,” one news exec said.

Skeds scrambled

The broadcast nets largely preempted their regular skeds Sunday to cover the breaking news story. NBC preempted NASCAR racing from 12:30-4:30 p.m. and ABC dropped its coverage of golf’s LPGA Samsung World Championship final round. CBS gave its affiliates the option of airing NFL football games or news. Fox aired its regularly scheduled NFL games with news updates at halftime. The nets didn’t air commercials in any of their breaking news coverage, but returned to blurbs during their nightly news reports.

MSNBC and CNN temporarily abandoned commercials as soon as news broke about the strikes, while Fox News continued to air commercials during its news coverage.

Since Sept. 11, the newsies have been doing and spending just about anything to cover the war on terrorism in an all-out marathon to get correspondents geared up and shipped off to the frontlines along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

“The viewer has come to expect instantaneous pictures of anything that’s happening,” CBS News senior VP Marcy McGinnis said. “Maybe it’s not that urgent that you have someone standing on the roof of the Islamabad Marriott. But the viewers expect that you’re at least in the country where the story is happening.”

Sources said the Pentagon pool was activated midday Sunday when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held a press conference, but it has since been shut down. Washington insiders say the pool may, in fact, still be active, but that the public wouldn’t necessarily know about it since it operates under top secrecy.

“Under terms of agreement with the Pentagon, we are unable to comment one way or another on the timing of the pool activation,” NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin said. NBC News is currently the net that the Pentagon allows to relay the news to all the other outlets.

Pressing for access

Rumsfeld has assured journos that he understands the importance of their role in keeping the public independently informed. At the same time, he said he won’t jeopardize a mission, or lives, just so the press can come along for the ride. The press is concerned that it won’t have access to U.S. military forces.

The Radio-Television News Directors Assn. prexy Barbara Cochran won’t let the issue rest. Cochran, CBS’ Washington bureau chief during the Gulf War 10 years ago, says the press got stiffed by the military. Now she wants the Pentagon to abide by a set of principles drawn up following that campaign.

“We were subject to Draconian censorship during the Gulf War,” said CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who covered that conflict and is now based in Islamabad.

“Nonetheless, we were able to see more than we’ve been able to see in this instance. This, too, may change depending on the progress of the war.”

Once the initial NBC pool is activated by Rumsfeld, the principles to which the Pentagon agreed dictate that the military set up regional briefing centers so that newsies won’t have to rely on a pool. Ideally, after that, the military would allow reporters to go out in the field with a particular unit.

Taliban bans journos

But it’s not just the Pentagon that’s keeping broadcasters at bay.

Afghanistan’s Taliban government has banned foreign journalists from its territory, making it difficult for reporters to get close to the action — which is why the Al-Jazeera footage is so essential.

CNN’s Eason Jordan recently met with the Taliban ambassador to push for access into Taliban-controlled territory. Like all the major news orgs, CNN has reporters based in rebel-controlled northern Afghanistan. The net also has a Pakistani reporter in Taliban-controlled regions. To protect his safety, they do not reveal his exact whereabouts.

Recently, Yvonne Ridley, a London-based print reporter, was arrested for allegedly entering Afghanistan illegally from Pakistan. She is expected to be released today.

Limiting risk

News execs and veteran war correspondents say they’re eager to gain a foothold in Afghanistan, but not at a human cost.

“If I hear another network is in a place where the Taliban is and we’re not, I’m not going to force my people into somewhere that’s not safe,” CBS’ McGinnis said. “I’m anxious for my reporters to get in there, but I’m not crazy. Being live with the Taliban isn’t worth it if somebody dies.”

Amanpour is optimistic that reporters will eventually gain the access for which they’re so desperate.

“I fully expect that eventually we will get in,” she said. “It may not be the instant gratification that we’ve been so accustomed to, but we will eventually get to the bottom of this story.”

Until borders are opened, the closest newsies can get to the “action” is northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Conditions in northern Afghanistan, in particular, are primitive and potentially dangerous.

“They’re occupying buildings that are carved out of the side of mountains and fit six or seven people in a room. There isn’t any fresh water to bathe,” MSNBC prexy Erik Sorenson said.

High cost of coverage

Aside from the unpleasant conditions, there’s also the huge expense of shipping staff and equipment to remote locations. Not long ago, news orgs were laying off staffers amid belt-tightening efforts. Now they are touting how much money they’re investing to cover the war on terrorism.

“Now, as always, CNN spends what it takes to cover the news,” said CNN’s Jordan, who is chief of newsgathering.

CNN has occupied 30 rooms in the Islamabad Marriott at $200 per night each. That’s nothing compared to the cost of $8,000 satellite telephones and as much as $70,000 for shipping and setup of satellite equipment.

While news orgs try to keep expenses down by sharing resources, they all agree that money issues are dwarfed by the immensity of the story.

“We’ve had silence from the financial controllers who would normally be looking over our shoulders at every dime we spend,” ABC News senior VP Bob Murphy said.

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