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[] NYT 22.10.01: Rivals Criticize CNN Methods Of War Reporting,
New York Times
October 22, 2001
Rivals Criticize CNN Methods Of War Reporting

By Jim Rutenberg And Bill Carter

Last night, a convoy of trucks was to traverse the terrain of Taliban- held Afghanistan with priceless cargo a satellite uplink that promises to deliver the first clear images from Kandahar, the Afghan city that has seen heavy action since United States bombing raids began on Oct. 7.

The satellite dish is the property of CNN, but it is to be shared with Al Jazeera, the Arab-language news network that has the only Taliban- sanctioned television presence in the area. In return, CNN will get exclusive interviews with an English- speaking Al Jazeera correspondent based in Kandahar potential journalistic gold in a war that has been woefully short on images and information from the ground.

It is typical of the sort of deal that CNN has struck over the years in its attempts to get war zone pictures and interviews that its domestic competitors cannot, the exclusive material it needs to maintain its image faded in the United States in recent years as the dominant global news network. In fact, it has been making them since before the Persian Gulf war.

But by doing so, CNN has perpetually engaged in a kind of geopolitics that its competitors have tried to use against it in times of war, questioning its ethics and implying that it is willing to cozy up to regimes at odds with the United States just to win a competitive advantage.

Certainly, at times like these, CNN calls in chits with governments and foreign news organizations with which it continually maintains ties, even when news is slow, through either news-sharing arrangements or collaboration on its weekly "World Report" program, which features unedited reports from places around the globe, including countries like Iraq that have state-run news agencies.

"CNN would take film from anybody who offered it, including countries like Iraq, and play it exactly as sent, even though it was obvious propaganda," said Reese Schonfeld, the founding president of CNN. "That was considered something of value to these countries, giving them access to a large, American audience."

Competitors have made no specific accusations in this crisis, but as they compete to get exclusive reports out of Taliban-held Afghanistan, they are quietly raising past accusations once again in the clear hope that the network will refrain from reaching the sorts of deals they say they cannot and would not make.

Fresh in their minds is the gulf war. For weeks during that conflict, CNN was the only network the Iraqi government permitted to report live from Baghdad. That gave it an immense advantage over CBS, ABC and NBC. People at those networks still maintain that CNN could have enjoyed such exclusive access to Baghdad only by striking some sort of deal with the enemy.

At the time, they accused CNN of permitting Iraqi officials to use its satellite telephone system for their own purposes. CNN acknowledged that it permitted the officials to use its phone system, but it said it did so only once, in an effort to secure visas for correspondents from other news networks. Rivals called the explanation unlikely.

They similarly criticized CNN's reports out of Baghdad made by Peter Arnett, the correspondent. They said the network too readily accepted restrictions placed upon it by Baghdad which closely monitored Mr. Arnett and limited his movements to places and events that supported its version of events in return for access.

More recently, CNN's competitors accused it of using the friendship between the founder of CNN, Ted Turner, and Fidel Castro (the two famously went on a duck hunting trip in Cuba in the 1980's) to help win a coveted news bureau in Havana in 1997 that, and some good, old- fashioned barter.

Executives at competing television networks have long asserted that CNN has left equipment behind on foreign soil as a payoff for exclusive access to the action during times of strife, something they say they are prohibited from doing by their own guidelines.

Eason Jordan, the chief news executive at CNN, said CNN has never done any such thing.

"As a matter of principle, we don't do that," he said. "We are an organization that operates within the boundaries of journalistic excellence and we play by the rules, period."

But, Mr. Jordan said, such accusations were not new to him. "We hear this when there are big international news stories," he said. "This is sort of routine. In my view, these nameless crybabies should come up with better excuses for routinely coming up short on news outside of United States borders."

Mr. Jordan said CNN's competitors are envious of the legitimate relationships it has struck with the foreign powers that it covers more closely than they do to feed its worldwide network, CNN International.

CNN has traditionally said its biggest advantage is the network of foreign affiliates it has built since it was created in 1980. They include organizations in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. When CNN began, it had too few resources to fill too much time. By striking video-sharing arrangements with foreign news networks some of them state-run it was able to obtain a lot of material without spending a lot of money. That is why CNN already had such strong ties with Al Jazeera when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, CNN said.

Those ties were strengthened further last spring, when Al Jazeera officials attended the annual CNN World Report conference, in Atlanta, during which the network provides seminars and banquets to to agencies that contribute to the "World Report" program and foreign government officials. CNN executives said the Al Jazeera officials at the conference invited Mr. Jordan to visit their operation in Qatar. Mr. Jordan did so in June, which put him in a good position to strike arrangements with the network after Sept. 11.

That conference was also attended by the information secretary of Pakistan, Syed Anwar Mahmood, solidifying a connection that CNN said ultimately helped it secure the first interview with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The "World Report" program has proved to be helpful to CNN. Network executives said after the gulf war that Iraq's contributions to the program and attendance at one of its annual conferences had helped pave the way for CNN's deal for exclusive access to Baghdad.

But what does CNN get in return? CNN executives said that if the program helped CNN win access to foreign governments not otherwise inclined to work with Western journalists, so be it.

"CNN plays to win," Mr. Jordan said. "But we always play by the rules."

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