Bush Request that Media Review Bin Laden Tapes Has Some Nervous

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Following a request by the Bush administration, the major U.S. television networks jointly agreed not to air videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden or his associates without reviewing them first.

The request already has some First Amendment advocates nervous.

"The ACLU is troubled by the Bush administration's request and the agreement by the networks to withhold information from the American public that is freely available to the rest of the world," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero.

The request is not unconstitutional, Romero said, since it was apparently not couched as a demand. But he added that the government should not be "encouraging censorship" as we engage in a battle to preserve our freedoms.

As White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described it, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday morning called a group of network executives to "raise their awareness about national security concerns of airing pre-recorded, pre-taped messages from Osama bin Laden that could be a signal to terrorists to incite attacks."

"At best, Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans," Fleischer explained. "At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks."

Rice asked the networks to "exercise judgment" about how these pre-taped messages will air but said such editorial decisions can only be made by the networks themselves.

This is something the networks already do, according to Richard C. Wald, professor of media and society at the Columbia School of Journalism and former president of NBC News.

Still, he said, "It's a very peculiar thing.

"The peculiarity comes from the source of the suggestion...the federal government," said Wald. "The whole point of the development of what we think of as a free press is that the federal government has absolutely no say about what you do.

"It isn't that they can't talk to you...and it isn't that in a pragmatic way they don't make requests; they do," he said.

"I have been on the receiving end of requests not to show something, not to do something," said Wald. "From time to time I have [honored the requests]."

But, he said, news people know that governments will sometimes lie when they talk to you about national security and other issues.

"I think that [the administration is] involved in a propaganda war and they don't want that kind of propaganda on the air," said Wald. "Like everything else in life, it's a mixture. Maybe they know something we don't know. If they do, you have to listen. If they don't, what they're doing is playing the game."

On balance, he thinks that in this situation, the networks made the right decision. But, Wald said, they have to make some tough calls.

"Essentially they know they should not become captives of the government," he said. "They know that their audience needs to know what it is that an Arab audience knows and sees.

"You can't have a system of reporting in which you hide what the other guy is saying," said Wald. "That's not reporting; that's propaganda."

Others are far more comfortable with the federal government making requests of the media.

"It is both proper and wise to do," said James Lindsey, senior fellow in the domestic politics of foreign policy. "I don't think there would be any problem with it if it were peacetime, let alone during wartime."

Rice "did not demand," said Lindsey. "She merely asked them to consider the context in which they're airing it and the possibility that they would be unintentionally giving aid and comfort to someone who just killed 6,000 people.

"As long as there's not even a hint of coercion...I don't think there's any problem with it," he said.

"There's nothing in the Constitution that forbids a government official from asking news media to use editorial judgment," Lindsey concluded. "Just as the news executives has every right to say, 'thank you but we make those decisions and we don't need your help.'"