The chairman of CNN has ordered his staff to balance images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists, saying it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan."
In a memo to his international correspondents, Walter Isaacson said: "As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts 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 civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people."
As more errant U.S. bombs have landed in residential areas, causing damage to such places as a Red Cross warehouse and senior citizens' center, the resulting television images have fueled criticism of the American war effort. This has sparked a growing debate, which began with the Osama bin Laden videotape, about how the media should handle stage-managed pictures from Afghanistan.
"I want to make sure we're not used as a propaganda platform," Isaacson said in an interview yesterday.
"We're entering a period in which there's a lot more reporting and video from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan," he said. "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."
While some CNN correspondents are concerned about having a "pro-America" stamp on their reports, all the networks are clearly sensitive to charges that they are playing into enemy hands. After national security adviser Condoleezza Rice asked the network news chiefs not to show bin Laden videotapes live and unedited, MSNBC and Fox News did not air the next one and CNN showed only brief excerpts.
Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," said of the CNN instructions: "I wouldn't order anybody to do anything like that. Our reporters are smart enough to know it always has to be put in context."
Murphy said he doesn't believe "the danger is extremely high that showing what we know, and covering what the other side purports, is really going to change the mood of the nation. We know a terrible thing happened, it will take time to deal with and mistakes will be made along the way. That's war."
NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley took a similar tack, saying: "I'd give the American public more credit, frankly. I'm not sure it makes sense to say every single time you see any pictures from Afghanistan, 'This is as a result of September 11th.' No one's made any secret of that."
But Fox News Vice President John Moody said the CNN directive is "not at all a bad thing" because "Americans need to remember what started this. . . . I think people need a certain amount of context or they obsess on the last 15 minutes of history. A lot of Americans did die."
To be sure, the cable networks, with their American-flag logos, carry hours of speeches and briefings each day by President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Tom Ridge, Ari Fleischer and other administration figures. Few viewers complain about this coverage being one-sided.
Taliban leaders are courting world sympathy, especially in the Islamic world, by playing up the bomb damage, even as Pentagon officials dismiss Afghan claims of 1,000 civilian casualties as wildly exaggerated. And the issue is hardly a new one. CNN took considerable criticism during the Persian Gulf War over correspondent Peter Arnett's reports of damage from Baghdad.
Isaacson's memo said the network, in covering Afghan casualties, should not "forget it is that country's leaders who are responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in."
Said Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism: "It sounds as though they're worried about people being mad at them more than about providing the information that is useful."
But Rosenstiel said the networks face a real dilemma, which is "how do you communicate information that some in your audience might perceive as sympathetic to the enemy? . . . If people get so mad at you that they tune you out, you're also failing."
In a second memo, Rick Davis, CNN's head of standards and practices, said it "may be hard for the correspondent in these dangerous areas to make the points clearly," so he suggested language for the anchors:
" '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 September 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 September 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."
But aren't viewers who don't live in caves well aware of the Sept. 11 backdrop?
"People do already know it," Isaacson said yesterday. "We go to Ground Zero all the time. We cover the memorial services. We cover people's lives that have been touched. I just want to make sure we keep a sense of balance."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.