News or Propaganda?
Broadcasters who agreed to edit the bin Laden tapes should also be
skeptical of U.S. government information.
By Jane Kirtley
In1988, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government used the 1981
Broadcasting Act to keep British television and radio stations from
airing the actual voices of any person representing or supporting the
Irish Republican Army or its political arm, Sinn Fein. For nearly six
years, listeners and viewers were allowed to see, but not hear, the
likes of Irish Nationalist Gerry Adams. Broadcasters hired actors to
read his words, or displayed them in captions accompanying video of his
Jane Kirtley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
In March 2000, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that Russia's
Information Ministry declared that news organizations airing interviews
with Chechen leaders would violate the Russian anti-terrorism law, which
prohibits dissemination of information that could incite or justify
violence. Sergei Ivanov, secretary of Russia's Security Council, urged
journalists to "take part in the information war against Chechen
terrorists" and warned that media that broadcast voices and images of
the rebels would face legal action.
On October 10, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asked the
major U.S. television networks to edit videotaped statements by Osama
bin Laden and his followers rather than broadcast them live and in their
entirety. The next day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer urged
newspapers to withhold the full text of such statements.
The Bush administration justified its requests on two grounds. First,
the tapes might contain coded messages to bin Laden's worldwide network.
Second, by airing the tapes intact, the media were providing a platform
for vicious anti-American "propaganda."
The television executives jointly acceded to the government's demands,
pledging to screen any al Qaeda materials before airing them. ABC News
went further, announcing, in an undertaking reminiscent of the IRA
broadcasting ban, that it would not run the bin Laden tape "in such a
way that the Arabic language can be heard. Instead, viewers will see a
single frame of the speaker and will hear an English translation,
accompanied when appropriate with a written text of the statement."
Meanwhile, the print media were both skeptical and defiant. Many
insisted that the government present evidence that the tapes actually
contained secret signals before they would consider self-censorship. A
New York Times editorial pointed out that because foreign news
organizations, such as Al Jazeera television in Qatar, carry the tapes,
bin Laden's henchmen could easily receive the information from other
sources, including the Internet.
Ironically, on October 15 when British Prime Minister Tony Blair's
director of communications tried to persuade the BBC and the other two
British TV companies, ITN and Sky, to similarly censor themselves, they
politely turned him down, reserving the right to make their own
editorial judgments. And they don't even have a First Amendment to
In a way, neither do broadcasters in the United States. Licensed by the
Federal Communications Commission, subject to laws drafted by Congress
that regulate not only content but critical financial interests such as
ownership and spectrum allocation, they are used to being told what to
do – and to following the rules in order to retain those valuable
licenses. However persuasive Rice may be, it is hard to imagine that the
networks would have caved in so readily if the threat of regulatory
retaliation had not loomed in the background.
Other pressures may have influenced them, too. As of this writing,
broadcasters were still waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration
to lift the ban on news helicopters operating in the 30 largest U.S.
cities, imposed after September 11. And although all of the news media
continue to be frustrated in their efforts to gain meaningful access to
military operations in Afghanistan, the restrictions hit broadcasters
the hardest. Their medium uniquely requires video and pictures to
communicate, and they must depend upon the military to provide footage.
That means that broadcasters can't provide the truly independent
reporting that the American public deserves and expects.
So the networks have made the "patriotic" decision. As a statement from
Fox News Channel put it, they won't allow themselves to be used as tools
of propaganda for those "who want to destroy America and endanger the
lives of its citizens." They will use their journalistic judgment to
decide what they will air.
Let's hope they will apply that judgment just as rigorously to the
material they receive from U.S. government sources. In an information
war, what is "propaganda" and what is news? When does "judgment" stop
and censorship begin?
It shouldn't be the government that decides.