osama bin laden released another videotaped message this week, his third since U.S. war planes began raining down bombs on Afghanistan.This time, though, not one of the major American networks ran any part of the tape.
The networks opted instead to run a still of bin Laden taken from the tape and to read a brief statement summarizing its contents: bin Laden accusing the U.S. of targeting innocent civilians in Afghanistan.
This is a far cry from the bidding war that erupted between CNN et al when the first bin Laden video surfaced on al-Jazeera, the Arab all-news network. But since then the "war on terrorism" has taken on a different complexion. The U.S. is losing the propaganda war.
And the U.S. networks, especially CNN, seem not at all shy about putting a pro-American spin on the latest from Afghanistan -- even if that news is about the increasing number of innocent civilians being killed in the bombing.
That became evident last week when a memo from CNN chair and CEO Walter Isaacson to news staff surfaced in the Washington Post.
In it Isaacson instructs staff, when showing pictures of civilian Afghan casualties, "to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using human shields and how the Taliban have harboured the terrorist responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people" in the World Trade Center attacks.
"You want to make sure people understand that when they see civilian suffering there, it's in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States."
Another memo leaked to the Post from Rick Davis, CNN's head of standards and practices, goes even further. It says it "may be hard for correspondents in these dangerous areas to make the points clearly" and suggests qualifiers for correspondents, among them that "the Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban regime continues to harbour terrorists."
CNN executives in Atlanta say they are only trying to "contextualize" the news, not guide the coverage.
Says CNN's Matt Furman. "If we're going to show civilian casualties, we feel it's important to remind our viewers that those casualties are occurring in the course of a war that was prompted by attacks on 5,000 innocent civilians in this country. That doesn't mean there's a moral equivalent."
Critics point out that there's a difference between providing a context and trying to justify civilian deaths.
But Furman says the memo "does not reflect any radical departure from the way CNN behaved in the past. It was simply a reflection of a lot of ongoing conversations in the newsroom and editorial board meetings about the kind of thing we should be certain to do in light of the fact that more video seems to be coming out of Afghanistan."
Fox News vice-president John Moody is one network news head who has no problem at all spinning the casualty shots. He says as much in the Washington Post.
But NOW's attempts to get Moody to elaborate were unsuccessful. All network spokesperson Irena Steffen will offer is a terse "no comment."
Fox, well known for its right-wing proclivities, is another network whose flag-waving has been front and centre in its coverage of Afghanistan. In U.S. media circles it's said that if you want to know what the U.S. administration is thinking, watch Fox.
But there are also signs that other networks, in addition to giving their anchors American-flag pins to wear during the 6 o'clock news, are taking a similar tack in their coverage. Media observers south of the border say that in general U.S audiences are seeing less of the so-called "collateral damage" being wrought by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan than are audiences in Europe.
There is criticism, too, of the perceived coziness between the networks and the White House. It came to light recently that execs from the major outlets held a conference call with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, after which they agreed to delete from their broadcasts any potentially "inflammatory" language in taped messages from bin Laden.
Rachel Coen, an analyst with New York-based media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, says a pro-U.S. bias has gripped the American mainstream media.
"There's a kind of misguided patriotism making itself felt," says Coen. "Obviously, we want journalists to contextualize their stories, but this really comes much closer to attempting to justify the suffering they're reporting on. It's especially troubling for a news outlet (like CNN) that Americans and others rely on so heavily."
Todd Gitlin, a writer and professor of journalism at New York University, says CNN, which is losing its dominance in the ratings war with Fox, is probably still stinging from the flak it caught from the American right during the Gulf War. Back then, Peter Arnett, the only American reporter left in Iraq, was also beaming back pictures of civilians killed in the U.S. bombing.
Gitlin says, "Images can loom large, especially when they're endlessly rebroadcast and seem to overwhelm the commentary around them." CNN, he says, doesn't want to show pictures that are too critical of the U.S. military effort to audiences in countries that are part of the coalition in the "war on terrorism."
"The battle is on for hearts and minds. Being a global network, CNN, I think, feels a little queasy about undermining the war effort."
It's a suggestion that CNN International spokesperson Nigel Pritchard denies point blank. He says there's no effort on CNN's part to soften the impact of pictures of dead civilians because of how they will play abroad.
"Anybody who says that hasn't been watching," Pritchard says, even while acknowledging that the heads of the network's international outlets all saw Isaacson's memo. "There is not a media organization in the world that has not sat down with its executives and reporters and issued a directive on how it's going to cover it. That's all we did. Somebody leaked it, and because we're CNN someone picked it up and decided to make a story out of it."
Closer to home, the CBC's executive director of news, Tony Burman, recently sent his own memo to senior staff outlining how to handle videotaped messages from bin Laden.
The memo directs CBC staff not to broadcast any part of statements from bin Laden or al Qaeda in the original Arabic, or air comments that may constitute expressions of hate.
CBC spokesperson Ruth Ellen Soles says there's been no similar directive about how the CBC should handle pictures of civilians killed or injured in the bombing.
"Mr. Burman trusts his staff to do what's right."
Across town at CTV, senior vice-president of news Kirk LaPointe says the network has a more open policy.
"What we're trying to develop is a complete understanding of who the Taliban are and who al Qaeda are, and you don't do that by pre-judging the value of presenting their messages live. Nobody wants to run a screed of hatred, but you try to do it equitably so that people come away with more than a caricaturish understanding."