Cable News Network executives grappled with some ethical issues last week after Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group — the alleged masterminds behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — invited the network to submit questions for an interview with bin Laden.
Two basic tenets of journalism hold that reporters should not submit questions to an interview subject in advance, and should have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, Syracuse University Professor Bob Thompson said. CNN waived both preconditions for the chance to get a videotaped response to six questions it submitted to bin Laden, drawing criticism from its competitors and others in the media.
"It's rare that we would ever do this kind of thing," CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer said in an interview last Thursday. "The question you have to ask yourself, 'Is the viewer better served by not even going through this process and at least checking out what any of his answers are?' "
Blitzer said the interview was arranged by Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic news channel that has been criticized for having a bias toward Al Qaeda. It has repeatedly run unedited messages from bin Laden and Taliban leaders, and shown ample coverage of supposed civilian victims of the U.S. retaliation.
"Someone came to Al Jazeera — we don't know who — claiming to speak on behalf of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and said, 'If you guys give us some questions we'll make sure Osama bin Laden answers them on videotape,' " Blitzer said.
CNN CEO Walter Isaacson, CNN U.S. president Sid Bedingfield and CNN Newsgathering president Eason Jordan agreed to submit six questions to bin Laden, but the network has made no commitment to running the responses.
"We didn't see much of a downside," Blitzer said.
Thompson said there are good arguments for both submitting questions and refusing to the terms of the interview. "I think in many cases the ethics of this kind of journalism are being invented as we go along," he said.
The Syracuse professor also noted that bin Laden and his group are very media savvy, and have been "directing and producing television shows" — from the way they planned for the World Trade Center attacks to be caught on live television to the way they've distributed videos to the media.
"In the old days a terrorist had to take over a broadcast tower to get their message out," Thompson said. "Now there is this notion that you can send a mere videotape, and the mere notion that it came from the enemy, it's deemed newsworthy."
CNN announced the bin Laden interview last Tuesday, just a few days after reporter Nic Robertson toured Afghanistan with a group of journalists that were escorted by the Taliban. Robertson was the only U.S. network reporter to join the group, which was taken to see what the Taliban claimed were civilian casualties of the U.S. air attack.
"The only ground rule they [the Taliban] gave him was that they go with him wherever he goes," CNN spokesman Matt Furman said.
Robertson toured Afghanistan with the Taliban just days after a British journalist was released from a prison in Kabul, Afghanistan. She was arrested for being in the country after the Taliban had ordered all Western journalists out — and threatened to dismember those who disobeyed the order.
Blitzer said on Thursday that the network was still awaiting a response from bin Laden. If CNN does get a tape from bin Laden, Blitzer said, it would make it available to other news outlets.
Fox News Channel spokeswoman Irena Steffen said the network hasn't decided if it would run the tape. She also noted that FNC wouldn't have agreed to the terms of the interview.
Although FNC reporter Rita Cosby submitted questions to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh — and received a written response before he was executed — Steffen said that was a different situation. Prison authorities rejected a television interview between Cosby and McVeigh, and many other journalists had submitted questions to McVeigh, she added.
MSNBC spokesman Mark O'Connor also said network wouldn't have submitted questions to bin Laden in advance. The network will consider running the tape if CNN gets a response, he added.
As the war coverage in Afghanistan continues, CNN is strengthening its ties with Al Jazeera. Next week, the network will begin running live reports from Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Al Jazeera will have access to a new satellite, and its reporters will provide exclusive coverage to CNN, spokeswoman Christa Robinson said.
While Al Jazeera has captured some of the strongest video images in Afghanistan, the network has taken some heat for some of its ethics.
On Larry King Live
last week, New York Times
reporter Judith Miller grilled Al Jazeera producer Dana Suyyagh on how the network distinguishes between "terrorists" and "martyrs."
"So terrorists who kill people, civilians in Israel, are martyrs, and terrorists who kill Americans are terrorists? Is that your news standard?" Miller asked Suyyagh.
"It's all in the cause," Suyyagh responded. "I think that's what we're trying to do, is differentiate between the causes. We still think that the acts of New York and Washington were terror attacks because they were causeless."