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[] WPO 31.10.01: CNN Chief Orders 'Balance' In War News,
Washington Post
October 31, 2001

CNN Chief Orders 'Balance' In War News

Reporters Are Told To Remind Viewers Why U.S. Is Bombing

By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Staff Writer

The chairman of CNN has ordered his staff to balance images of
civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the
Taliban harbors murderous terrorists, saying it "seems perverse to
focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan."

In a memo to his international correspondents, Walter Isaacson said:
"As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must
redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply
reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how
the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have
harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000
innocent people."

As more errant U.S. bombs have landed in residential areas, causing
damage to such places as a Red Cross warehouse and senior citizens'
center, the resulting television images have fueled criticism of the
American war effort. This has sparked a growing debate, which began
with the Osama bin Laden videotape, about how the media should
handle stage-managed pictures from Afghanistan.

"I want to make sure we're not used as a propaganda platform,"
Isaacson said in an interview yesterday.

"We're entering a period in which there's a lot more reporting and
video from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan," he said. "You want to
make sure people understand that when they see civilian suffering
there, it's in the context of a terrorist attack that caused
enormous suffering in the United States."

While some CNN correspondents are concerned about having a
"pro-America" stamp on their reports, all the networks are clearly
sensitive to charges that they are playing into enemy hands. After
national security adviser Condoleezza Rice asked the network news
chiefs not to show bin Laden videotapes live and unedited, MSNBC and
Fox News did not air the next one and CNN showed only brief

Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," said of
the CNN instructions: "I wouldn't order anybody to do anything like
that. Our reporters are smart enough to know it always has to be put
in context."

Murphy said he doesn't believe "the danger is extremely high that
showing what we know, and covering what the other side purports, is
really going to change the mood of the nation. We know a terrible
thing happened, it will take time to deal with and mistakes will be
made along the way. That's war."

NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley took a similar tack, saying:
"I'd give the American public more credit, frankly. I'm not sure it
makes sense to say every single time you see any pictures from
Afghanistan, 'This is as a result of September 11th.' No one's made
any secret of that."

But Fox News Vice President John Moody said the CNN directive is
"not at all a bad thing" because "Americans need to remember what
started this. . . . I think people need a certain amount of context
or they obsess on the last 15 minutes of history. A lot of Americans
did die."

To be sure, the cable networks, with their American-flag logos,
carry hours of speeches and briefings each day by President Bush,
Donald Rumsfeld, Tom Ridge, Ari Fleischer and other administration
figures. Few viewers complain about this coverage being one-sided.

Taliban leaders are courting world sympathy, especially in the
Islamic world, by playing up the bomb damage, even as Pentagon
officials dismiss Afghan claims of 1,000 civilian casualties as
wildly exaggerated. And the issue is hardly a new one. CNN took
considerable criticism during the Persian Gulf War over
correspondent Peter Arnett's reports of damage from Baghdad.

Isaacson's memo said the network, in covering Afghan casualties,
should not "forget it is that country's leaders who are responsible
for the situation Afghanistan is now in."

Said Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism: "It
sounds as though they're worried about people being mad at them more
than about providing the information that is useful."

But Rosenstiel said the networks face a real dilemma, which is "how
do you communicate information that some in your audience might
perceive as sympathetic to the enemy? . . . If people get so mad at
you that they tune you out, you're also failing."

In a second memo, Rick Davis, CNN's head of standards and practices,
said it "may be hard for the correspondent in these dangerous areas
to make the points clearly," so he suggested language for the

" 'We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this from
Taliban-controlled areas, that these U.S. military actions are in
response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent
people in the U.S.' or, 'We must keep in mind, after seeing reports
like this, that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan continues to
harbor terrorists who have praised the September 11 attacks that
killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the U.S.,' or 'The Pentagon
has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize civilian
casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban regime continues to
harbor terrorists who are connected to the September 11 attacks that
claimed thousands of innocent lives in the U.S.' . . .

"Even though it may start sounding rote, it is important that we
make this point each time."

But aren't viewers who don't live in caves well aware of the Sept.
11 backdrop?

"People do already know it," Isaacson said yesterday. "We go to
Ground Zero all the time. We cover the memorial services. We cover
people's lives that have been touched. I just want to make sure we
keep a sense of balance."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

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