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Howard Kurtz: Media ethics during the war on terrorism

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly program, Reliable Sources, which scrutinizes the media's fairness and objectivity. He is the media reporter for The Washington Post, and writes a regular column called Media Notes. He joined chat room from Washington, DC.

CNN: Welcome back to Newsroom, Howard Kurtz. What can you tell us about the conference call that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice held with television network chiefs regarding the use of videotaped messages from al-Qaeda?

KURTZ: Rice was very careful to cast this as a voluntary request, because I think the Bush White House is sensitive to the notion that it is strong-arming the press. But she made the case that the networks might be allowing Osama bin Laden to communicate with his followers through coded messages by giving him such unfettered access to the airwaves. It didn't take the news chiefs of CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox very long to agree that it would be better if they reviewed these bin Laden tapes before throwing them on the air. I'd be concerned if the networks refused to run such tapes, because even though bin Laden's diatribes are quite chilling, it's important for us to understand the thinking, or at least the rhetoric, of terrorists during a war on terrorism.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Who will be doing the monitoring, and how will they decide if releasing tapes intact will be sending coded messages to the enemy?

KURTZ: I confess that I'm puzzled on this point. I'm not sure how media organizations would figure out whether such messages even exist, although the Bush administration always has the option of presenting evidence about this, and trying to persuade news executives to keep this stuff off the air. But it sounds very tricky to me.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Kurtz, the media has been manipulated all through history by governments, is there a difference with what bin Laden is doing?

KURTZ: The fact is, the media are used every day by all kinds of politicians, business leaders, and others. When CNN and other cable networks provide live coverage of President Bush's speeches, Ari Fleischer's briefings, and Donald Rumsfeld's news conferences, they are obviously giving them a forum to get out the American message. I'm not saying that terrorists deserve or should have an equal platform, but if the networks stopped airing the propaganda from all sides, there wouldn't be very much left on the air.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Howard, is there any credible intelligence suggesting bin Laden IS sending messages to followers or do we simply fear it may be the case?

KURTZ: If there is any credible evidence about bin Laden sending such messages through these videotapes, it hasn't been shared with the media or the public. I'm certain he has other ways to communicate with his followers, but that doesn't mean the Western media should make it easier for him.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Shouldn't the U.S. news media use their skills to show that the Taliban are lying, that bin Laden is wrong?

KURTZ: Journalists are in the business of seeking the truth, however flawed our efforts might be. If reporters can uncover evidence that Taliban officials are lying -- such as with their early claims of having shot down U.S. planes -- we should do our best to expose that. But we should also try to hold U.S. and British officials accountable if some of their claims don't stand up to scrutiny. In short, the media must be careful about not serving as a propaganda arm for any side, but most reporters I know would take special satisfaction in exposing fabrications by the terrorists or their supporters in Afghanistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Won't these terrorists be able to get the same information through other channels besides the American news agencies, most likely through the Internet?

KURTZ: The short answer is yes. We already know that some of those involved in the September 11 attacks communicated through the Internet. So, it's probably not possible for a handful of American networks to shut down the communications among members of the bin Laden organization.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: U.S. State Department also said that Voice of America shouldn't broadcast the interview with Mullah Mohammed Omar. Do you think it's the beginning of the end of free speech in U.S.?

KURTZ: I don't think so. The VOA eventually did broadcast that interview with Mullah Omar, and its newsroom was outraged by what journalists there saw as a heavy-handed attempt at censorship by the State Department. A lot of people misunderstand the Voice of America's role and think that it is a propaganda operation, like Radio Free Europe. The VOA is supposed to operate as a legitimate news organization, and that includes airing interviews and comments from America's opponents, however distasteful they may be.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Don't we have the right to hear perspectives or viewpoints from all parties including bin Laden?

KURTZ: Sure. There's a legitimate concern about the media not helping terrorists do their murderous work, but of course the views of those in Afghanistan ought to be reported by the Western media.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Who owns the Al-Jazeera television station?

KURTZ: I was just talking about this subject with Judy Woodruff on CNN yesterday. Al-Jazeera, which was launched by the Emir of Qatar, has become the most popular TV station in the Arab world, because it airs opposition views in a region that is mostly restricted to government-run propaganda operations. U.S. officials have criticized Al-Jazeera for airing plenty of anti-American views, as well as serving as a conduit for the Taliban and bin Laden. But Al-Jazeera carried an interview with Tony Blair shortly after the bin Laden videotape was aired, and Colin Powell has also been on their airwaves. My sense is that while they cover this conflict from an Arabic point of view, they have a sense of journalistic balance that is all too rare in that part of the world.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today, Howard?

KURTZ: This is an extraordinarily difficult time for the media, which are being presented with such challenges as whether to air enemy video tapes, and what information to hold back about U.S. military efforts. It's not going to get any easier in the days and weeks ahead. That should keep people like me pretty busy.

CNN: As always, thank you for joining us today, Howard Kurtz.

KURTZ: Thank you all for joining the chat.

Howard Kurtz joined via telephone from Washington, DC. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Thursday, October 11, 2001.


• Howard Kurtz Bio

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