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Media Under Public Barrage Over Content of War Coverage

Information: Many say reports are irresponsible--that they help the enemy and alarm people at home.


Seven weeks into the war in Afghanistan, many Americans say the nation's news media are behaving irresponsibly--some even say "treasonously"--by providing coverage that helps the enemy and unnecessarily alarms people here.

There is no evidence that any stories have jeopardized U.S. missions or troops, and there have been no new terrorist attacks here, despite widespread coverage of vulnerable targets.

News executives attribute the criticism in part to patriotic fervor and anxiety over a war in which the country--already staggered by a massive loss of life--has been told several times that more attacks could soon follow.

Editors say many Americans also fail to understand that the media's duty is to keep the public informed about the war effort and about possible terrorist targets, even when that coverage may include unpleasant or unsettling news.

Many readers and viewers just don't accept that, and news executives across the country are hearing what Douglas Clifton, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, calls a "steady drumbeat of criticism."

Neither the volume nor the virulence of these charges yet approaches the level of the anti-media sentiment often expressed during the Vietnam War. But "treasonous" and "traitor" are words aimed at the news media with increasing frequency these days.

"Any time we run a story that has any level of specificity [about troop movements], we get complaints," Clifton says. "And when we ran a photo of a gaggle of Afghan . . . refugee kids--it touched off an avalanche of phone calls saying we were supportive of the enemy cause.

"One reader said using that photo was 'treasonous,' " Clifton says, "even though President Bush himself has asked the children of America to give $1 each to these needy Afghan children."

Newspaper editors and ombudsmen from Honolulu to Hartford, Conn., are hearing from readers unhappy with stories and photos showing civilian casualties from U.S. bombing raids. The Hartford Courant received complaints from more than 550 angry readers after publishing a Page 1 photo of what appeared to be a baby killed in U.S. bombing.

Taliban Not Dependent on U.S. News Reports

Although many readers are upset by stories about U.S. military tactics, "the Taliban certainly don't need our newspapers and magazines to know what our troops are doing," says James Kelly, managing editor of Time magazine.

Moreover, says Jeffrey Dvorkin, National Public Radio ombudsman, "virtually everything we report about military action comes directly from the Pentagon--in briefings, in interviews or from the Defense Department's own Web site."

NPR was sharply criticized in many quarters last month, though, when Loren Jenkins, its senior foreign editor, was quoted as saying, in effect, that if he knew the secret whereabouts of U.S. covert forces in Afghanistan, he would report it.

That comment played directly into the hands of critics who maintain that ego-driven journalists are so determined to break stories that they'll do so even at the risk of jeopardizing the safety of U.S. troops and the security of their missions.

Journalists say they don't want to do that, and in an effort to quell the controversy triggered by Jenkins' remark, Bruce Drake, vice president of NPR news and information, released a statement saying that Jenkins "neither believes nor intended to suggest that NPR would engage in reporting that would put in peril the lives of U.S. military personnel."

But many Americans remain skeptical--and critical.

Complaints About 'Specific Information'

More than 75 readers complained to The Times after publication of a Nov. 5 story that began: "Four Western men in wraparound sunglasses and U.S. sportswear were on the sidelines watching and videotaping as anti-Taliban troops practiced for battle on a barren hillside Sunday." The story went on to suggest that the men were U.S. military advisors and described in detail their appearance and vehicle.

Readers said enemy forces with access to The Times' Web site could use this "specific information" to put "these brave Americans' lives in danger," in the words of Jeanie Thiessen of Hacienda Heights.

In an e-mail response to readers, Foreign Editor Simon Li wrote that the presence of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan "is no secret to the enemy."

But couldn't the story's specific descriptions of these men render them vulnerable to enemy attack?

No, Li said. Because the men were with "friendly troops"--the Northern Alliance--in an area where "there has been no trace of enemy aggressive activity. . . . I do not see how [the] . . . report put them in any extra jeopardy."

Much of the criticism of media war coverage, as has often been the case, comes from conservatives.

One conservative media watchdog group, the Virginia-based Media Research Center, has criticized ABC News, in particular for spending "far more time than its competitors showcasing the grisly pictures that the Taliban purport are civilians killed by U.S. bombs."

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