Battle lines drawn in propaganda war

WASHINGTON — If “Propaganda” were the latest reality show, who would get kicked off the island first: the Bush administration or Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network?

A trivial exercise maybe, but there can be no denying that TV newsies are at the epicenter of a high-stakes war game, in which the airwaves have never played a more critical role in shaping opinion.

(Not to mention that TV nets and major newspapers may be targets of terrorism themselves, evidenced by the revelation late last week that an NBC News staffer in Gotham has been infected with anthrax.)

Propaganda also has gotten a potent technological facelift, thanks to the ever-hungry, 24-hour cable news channels. Hence the unprecedented conference call placed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to network news prexys, cordially suggesting it was dangerous to play live, unabridged statements by bin Laden or any other Al Qaeda network reps. The White House advised that the webs might be bin Laden’s unwitting propaganda pawn, or worse, the tools that bin Laden was using to send coded message to terrorist cells.

After Rice hung up, the news execs from ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and CNN agreed to not air the statements in the raw, saying they would give a thorough editorial review before any decision was made about to beam over the airwaves.

Shrugging off any suggestion that they were letting the government play editor — the ultimate no-no for the free press — the newsies reiterated that Rice never made any specific request.

“Journalists always have to be wary about any government guidance in the editorial process. We’re not in that territory yet. This was already an issue we were discussing amongst ourselves (whether or not to air the Al Qaeda videos in their entirety). We’re not a propaganda arm of Al Qaeda,” says CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward.

The 24-hour Arab news channel Al-Jazeera has a different take, though, and questions whether the Bush administration is in fact dabbling in de facto censorship.

If so, some pols fear the West is losing the propaganda war. Thus, the White House was working with Fox on a special terrorist episode of its “America’s Most Wanted.”

The Qatar-based satellite news org was the first to air the two Al Qaeda statements after the tapes were dropped off at its bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan. (American newsies later picked up the feed from Al-Jazeera, which has beaten out all competitors in terms of access to the military action in Afghanistan.)

Al-Jazeera Washington bureau chief Hafiz al Mirazi says the Bush administration may have been engaging in propaganda tactics of its own in suggesting that U.S. news webs think twice before airing Al Qaeda footage.

“We should not shoot the messenger just because we hate the message,” al Mirazi says. “I believe the Pentagon … and the U.S. government have the upper hand over the media … and (are) using security as an excuse.”

Notwithstanding these words, the channel is trying to get President Bush to sit down for an interview, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell did several weeks ago.

U.S. newsies, too, are continually frustrated by the news blackouts imposed by the Pentagon, forcing webs to rely primarily instead on their correspondents along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, or on footage supplied by Al-Jazeera.

For the foreseeable future, then, network news execs will have to guard carefully the ground around the First Amendment, making sure that propaganda doesn’t encroach. They’ll also have to fend off questions that they’ve become cohorts of the Bush administration, jeopardizing objectivity.

“All we agreed to do is continue to do is what we always do,” says ABC New exec veep Paul Friedman. “We look at the material, and we decide whether it should be put on the air or not, and in what form.

“If there’s a situation where there’s a sense of urgency and we get a message from the so-called enemy, we might put it on as soon as we get it and then put it in context, as we did in the case of the Osama bin Laden video.”

(Paula Bernstein in New York and Reuters contributed to this report.)

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