2001 Poynter Ethics Fellow
Writer, Commentator, Educator, Washington, D.C.
Emotions were still raw on the second Sunday in October when The Washington Post published its inside look at the Strategic Information Operations Center in FBI headquarters.
The story was illustrated with a large drawing of the 40,000-square-foot center, located on Pennsylvania Ave., about midway between the White House and the Capitol in downtown Washington. The facility is the central command for the government’s ever-growing probe into the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes.
Some readers reacted to the story — and the drawing in particular — with outrage. They felt the report made too much information available to America’s adversaries.
That reaction demonstrates the ticklish situation the press finds itself in during wartime, when the interaction between press and government comes into stark relief. It is an interaction that at once demonstrates how government and press are interdependent and how the press needs — perhaps more than at any other time– to guard its independence.
It is a journalism juggling act that can affect the accuracy and fairness of news stories if the sometimes-competing concepts are not kept in balance. Too much interdependence can result in spoon-fed, press-release journalism. Too much independence can produce under-reported stories that neglect important constituencies.
Ironically, at least a couple of news organizations have practiced a brand of independence during coverage of the war in Afghanistan that threatens to harm their reputations as impartial truth seekers. Without government pressure, editors with two organizations issued reporting guidelines that protect America’s military image more than promote thorough, unbiased journalism.
Though the words sound like antonyms, interdependence and independence are not mutually exclusive. The balancing act, however, does raise a potential for conflict that journalists must carefully negotiate.
Recognizing and developing creative forms of interdependence with a community, be it the Pentagon or neighborhood residents, need not hinder vigorous and aggressive journalism. To the contrary, hearing more voices strengthens the reporting process and encourages more informative stories.
Journalistic independence, in fact, can be bolstered by broadly defining interdependence with a particular community in a way that pushes reporters to seek out those who might otherwise go largely unheard. In today’s climate, that could include the more than 1,100 people the government has detained in near-secrecy since Sept. 11. The Justice Department has stymied reporting on the dragnet, which now has rounded up untold numbers. Officials no longer release the count of those who have been jailed or any details about them.
When Interdependence Works
In the case of the Post story, the newspaper acted with the government’s full cooperation, but certainly not to the satisfaction of some readers.
“This was absolutely irresponsible and stupid — not to mention dangerous for anyone living in the headquarters area,” one reader complained to Michael Getler, the paper’s ombudsman. “Do you really believe that the First Amendment protects you from the consequences of giving aid and comfort to our enemies?”
Another irate reader wrote: “With all of the experts telling us to be vigilant, art like that doesn’t help improve our sense of security. If nothing else, it adds to our perception that the media doesn’t give a hoot about security and just wants to be first with the worst.”
What the readers did not realize, because the paper had not explained it to them at the time the story was published, was the level of cooperation, or interdependence, that existed between the FBI and the journalists doing the story. In hindsight, one sentence explaining that cooperation might have saved the Post the readers’ ire.
“When the reporters arrived, FBI officials handed them schematics of the center’s layout,” Getler wrote in his weekly column. “As the story was being prepared, Post reporters called the FBI to tell them the paper might use the floor plan to illustrate the key point: the consolidation of multi-agency efforts in one place. Editors here repeatedly questioned whether the FBI had agreed to publication of the schematic.”
Furthermore, according to Getler, the Post showed the illustration to FBI officials before publication and deleted a couple of details at the bureau’s request.
This level of cooperation demonstrates the benefits of well-thought-out interdependence. The Post provided readers with a view of an important, but previously unseen, element of the FBI’s inner workings in a way law enforcement officials, if not all readers, apparently believed was appropriate. At the same time, the FBI was able to show how it was working to protect the public.
The Post’s decision to delete some information from the graphic was a reasonable and proper one, if based on three conditions. One, the deleted details did not significantly detract from the information provided. Two, the journalists believed printing those details could do serious harm. Three, insistence on including the details would have led the FBI to withdraw permission to print the drawing in any form.
“In my experience, the kinds of things that are withheld are generally trivial to understanding what’s going on,” said Phil Bennett, the Post‘s assistant managing editor for foreign news. “I have agreed to hold certain details when the overall story was not affected.”
Determinations to withhold information at the government’s request should be made on a case-by-case basis, using a deliberate decision-making process that considers the many pros and cons and stakeholders.
One crucial factor in that process should be the principle that interdependence must not lessen independence. What sometimes threatens true independence more than government cooperation is unilateral decisions by media bosses to conform to prevailing winds. When journalists act to guard their independence, sometimes their first line of defense needs to be protection against a surrender nobody demands.
Those surrenders can be particularly troublesome if they result in blanket rules that negate any decision-making process tailored to a particular situation. Since Sept. 11, news has been restricted or its play affected more by editors’ edicts than direct government interference. While editors certainly are paid to make decisions about coverage, at least two recent examples must be more pleasing to the Pentagon propaganda team than to defenders of independent journalism.
The chief copy editor at the Panama City (Fla.) News Herald, for example, sent a memo to his staff in which he relayed these instructions from the executive editor: “DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like. … DO NOT USE wire stories that lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. War on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the U.S. hits an orphanage, school, or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children.”
In a response written to Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews (at www.Poynter.org), which published the chief copy editor’s memo, executive editor Hal Foster said, “I’m not afraid of running casualty photos if there is context — that is, if casualties are a major part of that day’s story.” On rewriting wire copy, Foster said he wanted to ensure his paper led “with the most important stuff.”
From the small town News Herald to the international CNN, editors seem very concerned that their news products do not appear to put American military actions in too harsh a light. In a memo to his staff, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson said it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan … we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective.”
Given the number of minutes CNN understandably gives to the U.S. side of the story, Isaacson’s concern about how his organization’s reporting is perceived seems totally unfounded.
A second memo from Rick Davis, CNN’s head of standards and practices, offered script language for anchors to read: ” ‘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 Sept. 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 Sept. 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.”
The CNN memos, cited in a column by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, along with the memo from the News Herald suggest editors at those news organizations want to frame war news in a way that does not embarrass the United States. Clearly, it is the terrorists and those supporting them who are shamed by 9/11. Yet, the editors risk damaging their organizations’ reputations for independence by calculating ways to give American military actions the best possible image, rather than letting the facts dictate the play, Isaacson and other CNN officials would not comment for this article.
The White House did not seek to dictate, but obviously wanted to influence, the play the networks give Osama bin Laden. During an Oct. 10 conference call with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, television executives agreed with her request to limit the use of bin Laden’s videotaped speeches. White House officials said they were concerned he might send coded messages to his followers, though no evidence of such was offered.
Reacting to the White House/TV understanding in a commentary, Daniel Schorr, a veteran journalist and NPR analyst, said “a propaganda control agreement among highly competitive news organizations is a whole new concept in patriotic cooperation.”
That agreement threatened to give interdependence a bad name. Yet, because few speeches by anyone get on the air unedited, the effect of Rice’s request might have been more symbolic than substantive. But the symbolism was heavy and unnecessary. The form of her request appeared to apply pressure directly from a top government official to the media, which seemed to capitulate. Rice’s conference call damaged the public’s perception of the networks’ reputation for independence.
“If she simply asked them to be thoughtful about it during a speech, it would have been far less troubling than in effect calling them on the carpet and pushing pretty hard,” said Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer whose clients include The New York Times and CNN.
The CNN and News Herald examples demonstrate the difficult terrain editors must cross as they attempt to balance the need for complete reporting with concern for audience reaction. The patriotism drumbeat — illustrated by the American flag pins many news anchors now wear — makes it easier for news organizations to skew their products in ways colored with red, white, and blue. But as Kevin Merida, an associate editor at The Washington Post warned, reporters should not “start banging out copy that is the journalistic equivalent of the “Star Spangled Banner.” That is not our role.”