NEW YORK — Despite an internal flap at CBS over the decision to seek a South African lawyer's legal opinion about an upcoming documentary titled "Children of Apartheid," news executives at ABC and NBC say they sometimes do the same thing.
"The way it works, if we're going to run something (about South Africa), we have them look at it--not to tell us whether we're going to run it, but whether we're in trouble if we do," says Jerry Lamprecht, NBC News vice president for news coverage. "Then it's up to us. . . .
"Basically, what we're looking for is this: If they (South African officials) come after us for a specific story and take us to court, do we have a case?"
Of concern are the state-of-emergency censorship laws that the South African government imposed in June, 1968. The laws, aimed at curbing what the government considers propaganda for the anti-apartheid movement, limit what can be reported about political violence, peaceful protest and "subversive statements."
They apply to print and broadcast reporters, whether foreign or domestic. For foreign news organizations, violation could lead to expulsion from the country.
CBS News President Howard Stringer said he had those restrictions in mind when he called on South African attorney David Dyson to screen the program, which is reported by Walter Cronkite.
"I wanted to know what the legal implications of the documentary are for our employees there (in South Africa)," he said, but "not with a view to pulling the documentary."
The program still will air, Stringer said, although probably not until after the current Oct. 28-Nov. 25 ratings "sweeps" that are of major importance to local stations, because they help set local advertising rates.
But the one-hour program, Stringer said, will be essentially the same as it was before Dyson screened it, save for the deletion by CBS News officials of the original opening line: "This documentary is illegal."
Stringer, who described Dyson as the foremost expert on South Africa's press restrictions, said the attorney flew here last month, "looked at the documentary and said that the contents of the broadcast are not illegal."
Stringer's request for Dyson's opinion, according to a report in the New York Times, upset the program's producer, Brian Ellis. Ellis was quoted as saying he had protested Stringer's action, while Cronkite was quoted as saying he had never before worked on a program on which an outside lawyer had been asked to give an opinion. The former anchor of the "CBS Evening News" called the move "quite strange."
Neither Ellis nor Cronkite was available for later comment.
Officials at ABC and NBC news said Friday that their divisions occasionally ask private South African legal experts for opinions on whether a story would run afoul of that nation's press censorship. But they, like Stringer, said that the decision about whether to run a story is theirs, not the lawyers'.
ABC's Johannesburg bureau was given a warning last year by South African officials who reportedly came close to ordering it closed, apparently because ABC had aired taped excerpts of an interview with Winnie Mandela, wife of the imprisoned South African dissident Nelson Mandela.
(CBS, which also aired parts of that interview, has separate interviews in its upcoming documentary with both Mandela's daughter and the daughter of South African President P. W. Botha.)
Nothing came of that warning, ABC News executive vice president David Burke said. "We always retort to them, much as CBS does, that it's our intention to abide by the laws of the land.
"And editorially, if we can't stand that any longer, then we have to make a decision to leave or not. But in all those countries (with press restrictions), we make our intentions clear: We intend to abide by the laws of the land, even though we may think those laws are onerous and horrible to live under."
The idea, observers say, is to try to finesse the laws, to obey them but--as ABC News President Roone Arledge said last year--to try to "protest (the restrictions) as much as possible and to push the limits as much as possible."
"I don't find it so outrageous that they asked an outside lawyer to take a look" at the documentary and offer a legal opinion, Burke said in an interview.
Although he emphasized that he didn't know all the facts of the case, he said it was important to remember that "when you ask a South African lawyer to look at a piece of work, that doesn't mean you've asked a person who believes in what the South African government is doing. You're looking to get the best advice from a friend. You have to strike a balance between ongoing coverage and one documentary."
"It's a difficult call," Burke added. "The thing is, it appears on its face to be outrageous because the sainted name of Walter Cronkite is involved, and all that. But I'd find it a tough call."
Asked if NBC would do what CBS had done in this case, Lamprecht replied: "We might. . . . It's not a bad idea to have the opinion so you know where you stand if you start getting into trouble on it."