When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld settled into his seat yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation," the Pentagon had been denying media reports that at least 10 American soldiers were captured or missing in Iraq.
Suddenly, host Bob Schieffer played a videotape that had just been made available by the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera, showing a couple of stunned-looking Americans being forced to provide their names to an Iraqi interviewer. What did the secretary make of that?
"I have no idea," Rumsfeld said.
During a commercial break, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke asked CBS executives to blur the soldiers' faces, which the network did during a second airing. CBS, along with the other networks, later agreed to a Pentagon request not to show the video until the soldiers' next of kin had been notified.
"I didn't even know what was on it," Schieffer said in an interview, explaining that someone in the control room had told him of the al-Jazeera tape in his earpiece while he was questioning Rumsfeld.
Should CBS have shown the tape? "I think in retrospect, we should have waited," Schieffer said. "We probably shouldn't have shown the faces and allowed [one soldier] to say his name. It was just one of those split-second decisions you make in the news business."
It was a dramatic demonstration of how Pentagon officials found themselves outpaced by journalistic reports and images from the battlefield over the weekend. In several instances, the military has been unable to confirm bad-news bulletins from embedded U.S. correspondents that, hours later, turned out to be true. Since any casualty report must be verified up the chain of command, this time lag has kept defense officials off balance.
In the case of the al-Jazeera tape, which also showed the Iraqis displaying dead American soldiers, the Pentagon did not confirm its authenticity until about an hour after CBS aired the footage. Journalists at other networks were quick to denounce the video.
"They are horrifying pictures, and we are not showing them on MSNBC," anchor John Siegenthaler said. "Why would al-Jazeera put them on television?"
"They are extremely, extremely disturbing images," said NBC anchor Matt Lauer.
"They are utterly, utterly gruesome," said Fox News reporter Greg Palkot.
ABC News President David Westin said he decided not to show the footage of dead soldiers even before learning of the Pentagon's request. "I didn't see the showing of actual bodies as necessary or newsworthy," he said. "It was clearly done for the purpose of disturbing and enraging people." But he said he would air the footage of the prisoners of war once their relatives had been notified. CBS spokeswoman Sandra Genelius said her network would also make "judicious and tasteful" use of the POW footage after the Pentagon notification.
CNN last night aired a few seconds of the POW footage, saying in a statement that the story "needed to be told in as complete a manner as possible while remaining mindful of our concern for the sensitivities of the affected families." The online Drudge Report ran a still photo of the dead soldiers.
At a U.S. Central Command briefing, Lt. Gen. John Abizaid called the footage "disgusting" and said of al-Jazeera: "I regard the showing of those pictures as absolutely unacceptable."
An al-Jazeera staffer had no immediate comment. The criticism comes after administration officials have granted interviews to the influential Qatar-based network and tried to allow its reporters to be embedded with U.S. forces.
Separately, the Pentagon sent news organizations a memo requesting that they "not air or publish recognizable images or audio recordings that identify POWs. Additionally, we request you not use their names, first or last, or their unit, until next-of-kin notification is complete." The memo made the same request for the deceased soldiers, citing "respect for the families" and "the principles of the Geneva Conventions."
The issue sparked a disagreement when ABC anchor Charles Gibson told viewers it was "simply disrespectful" to show the dead bodies. "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel said from Iraq that he had earlier shown pictures of dead Iraqi soldiers in a way that they could not be identified.
Because the media are "ginning up patriotic feelings" before a war, Koppel said, "I feel we do have an obligation to remind people in the most graphic way that war is a dreadful thing. . . . Young Americans are dying. Young Iraqis are dying. To turn our faces away from that is a mistake. . . . To sanitize it too much is a dreadful mistake."
In the first days of the war, the presence of more than 500 correspondents embedded with U.S. military units produced a spate of positive reports filled with glowing reports of American resolve and weaponry. But now that some units have run into resistance, the same correspondents have become the first briefers of the second Gulf War.
On Saturday afternoon, CBS correspondent Mark Strassman broke into the college basketball playoffs to report that there had been a grenade attack on the 101st Airborne Division. Throughout the evening, several network reporters with the 101st Airborne described the attack and said that an American soldier was the chief suspect -- well before the Pentagon would confirm even the most rudimentary details.
Yesterday, CNN's Walt Rodgers, traveling with the Army's 7th Cavalry, said the unit had come under heavy fire in southern Iraq, and that a group of Iraqis surrendering with a white flag might actually have relayed the cavalry's location.
"It was an apparent ambush," MSNBC's Bob Arnot said of the same attack, adding: "It is the fog of war. It is confusing." Other journalists cited eyewitness reports of likely Marine casualties in a battle near Nasiriyah. Hours later, Pentagon briefer Abizaid would not address the number of casualties, saying that "first reports are always misleading."
Also yesterday, the British network ITN said it is convinced that correspondent Terry Lloyd, 50, one of three network staffers who were missing after coming under fire Saturday, is dead. ITN Chief Executive Stewart Purvis told the BBC that he believes Lloyd was killed by friendly fire from allied forces.