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 AJR  Columns :    FIRST AMENDMENT WATCH    

From AJR,   December 2001  issue

News or Propaganda?   

Broadcasters who agreed to edit the bin Laden tapes should also be skeptical of U.S. government information.


By Jane Kirtley
Jane Kirtley (kirtl001@tc.umn.edu) is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.     

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 speeches.

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 protect them.

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.