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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.


ABC News executives insist their coverage has been evenhanded. "We very clearly label it when we get pictures only by virtue of an escorted Taliban tour, and we think our viewers are smart enough to evaluate them accordingly," says Paul Friedman, executive vice president of ABC News.

One longtime media critic, the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, brushes aside any suggestion of media bias in coverage of the war. "The media have really flown the flag, acted as patriots, been front and center in presenting themselves as behind the war effort," says Robert Lichter, co-director of the center.

Media See Problems of Different Sort

Many journalists think the media have been too deferential to the Bush administration, the Pentagon and the war effort.

"It's not our job to be cheerleaders," says Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Portland Oregonian. "Information about this war is so filtered that I'm less concerned with our giving away military secrets than I am with whether we're asking tough enough questions, examining inconsistencies, being suspicious of pat answers and evasions . . . and pressing hard enough to make sure we have accurate information."

Many news organizations are taking special care to avoid appearing sympathetic to--or easily manipulated by--the Taliban and their supporters and propagandists.

Walter Isaacson, chairman of CNN, told his staff late last month to balance coverage of civilian casualties with mentions of the deaths caused Sept. 11 by terrorists the Taliban are harboring.

Isaacson said CNN should not forget that Afghanistan's leaders "are responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in." It seems "perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan."

Many Americans clearly feel the same way--as Isaacson implicitly acknowledged recently when he said, "If you get on the wrong side of public opinion, you are going to get into trouble."

But journalists see an unsettling trend in public opinion.

"Some Americans are so fearful now that when they read information they don't like, they question the newspaper's patriotism," says Gina Lubrano, reader representative at the San Diego Union Tribune. "People are actually complaining about . . . too much information."

Lubrano is clearly echoing sentiments felt strongly by many non-journalists.

Leonard McGee, 48, of Salt Lake City put it this way in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune:

"The media justify their irresponsible reporting . . . by saying that the people have a 'right to know' or a 'need to know' what their government is doing. Wrong. As a private citizen, I have neither the 'right' nor the 'need' to know how my military is getting the bad guys. Frankly, I don't want to know right now.

"If a member of the news media wants to become famous by reporting about what the U.S. military has done in this war, then write a book when it's over. Until then, just shut up."

But journalists live for--and on--information. To them, the very concept of "too much information" is inconceivable. Journalists believe that information is essential to decision-making in a democracy. How can they evaluate the judgment and policies of the president and his top advisors? How can they know--and lobby for--the safety of airplanes, bridges and other possible terrorist targets?

"One of our most cherished values as a free society is that a fully informed citizenry will make wise choices, including about how to meet the new challenge of terrorism," says Clark Hoyt, Washington editor for Knight Ridder.

In some cases, it's not so much that Americans don't want to know as it is that they don't want our enemies to know.

Several print and broadcast news organizations have received angry calls, e-mails and letters, for example, about stories saying that in an attempt to help the Pentagon determine the whereabouts of Bin Laden, geologists are examining rocks visible in videotapes made by him and broadcast on U.S. television.

"Do you have no interest in seeing the man captured?" one reader asked the San Francisco Chronicle. "Are you trying to help him escape?"

Some See News Stories as Terror Blueprints

Not surprisingly, many in the U.S. are more upset by stories about our vulnerability to terrorist attacks than they are by stories about military activity in Afghanistan.

When the Oregonian published a story about security at a chemical depot, a reader e-mailed, "Are you out of your mind?"

When the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a story and map Nov. 4 on "the potential calamity of a terrorist attack" against the 150 chemical plants, storage facilities and oil refineries along the Houston Ship Channel, readers were furious. One threatened to report the paper to the FBI. Another said he was mailing the story to the Homeland Security Office "to see if you have violated a law." A third reader accused the paper of doing "leg work" for terrorists.

Early this month, The Times published an opinion page column by Brian Halweil that said meat processing plants have "virtually no security" and that turnover is so great and background checks so lacking that "no one really knows who is working there." Anyone working in a plant "could easily obtain a sample of salmonella or E. coli or other life-threatening agent from a plant's meat inspection lab and use this for large-scale contamination," the column said.

One caller accused The Times of "publishing a blueprint and an invitation" for terrorists.

News executives insist they are performing a public service, not providing a terrorist guidebook, when they publish such stories.

"When the media put these things in the open," ABC's Friedman says, "that puts pressure on the government to do something about them."

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