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No air pretend video

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Execs weigh need to air bin Laden vid
Wed Jun 26, 3:20 AM ET

Andrew Grossman

NEW YORK (The Hollywood Reporter) --- As the world waits for al-Qaida to make good on its promise to deliver a new video missive from Osama bin Laden ( news - web sites), TV news executives are quietly debating the propriety of airing new statements from the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Most broadcast and cable news executives declined to comment for the record on how they will handle a new bin Laden video. MSNBC vp and editor in chief Jerry Nachman said "the genie is out of the bottle" as far as keeping any al-Qaida message from reaching its operatives.

On Sunday, al-Qaida spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith said bin Laden was alive and would shortly make a broadcast. Assuming the footage can be authenticated, the networks should give substantial airplay to a new bin Laden tape, a broad section of media observers said.

But last fall, Condoleezza Rice ( news - web sites), President Bush ( news - web sites)'s national security advisor, asked network chiefs to be cautious in deciding whether to air bin Laden recordings, saying that they might include coded messages to terrorists. "At best, it's pretaped, pre-recorded propaganda at its most insidious," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer ( news - web sites) said at the time. "At worst, he could be issuing orders."

At the time, network officials were noncommittal but sympathetic.

While most networks are saying the same things publicly today about what they would do with a bin Laden tape, Nachman said: "My sense is the administration's position was something of a red herring. Even when they get compliance with the network, there's no way you can control or restrict disposition of this stuff."

Media observers agreed, saying that any communication from bin Laden -- assuming it could be authenticated -- would be newsworthy at this point, considering he has not been heard from in months.

"The only reason not to put it on the air is (that it underscores) the fact that we couldn't catch him," said Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy. "I'm sure he'll be taunting us. He won't be pleasant. There's no question it is news."

What about the Bush administration's concerns about sending a coded message? "Has the government been able to point to any single video clip that contained a coded message?" asked William McGowan, a journalist and author of "Coloring the Media," which attacked the media for having a liberal bias. "It's a totally valid journalistic piece of tape to air."

Network spokespeople were cautious, saying for the most part that they might excerpt what was newsworthy and make their best editorial judgments, but Jones said that if it was a short enough tape, the networks should air it in its entirety.

Some media critics have expressed concern that airing a bin Laden tape would amount to al-Qaida propaganda.

"You keep national security in mind, but people's right to know is always in tension with national security issues," said Neil Hickey, an editor at large of the Columbia Journalism Review. "It's the business of journalism to sort that out, to draw those distinctions."

Center for Media and Public Affairs media director Matthew Felling feels a bin Laden tape, far from being a propaganda piece for al-Qaida, would help the administration revive war fervor in the United States.

"Seeing Osama on video gloating and further threatening America, would stoke the fire in America's collective belly like few other images," he said. "Short of bin Laden giving detailed instructions to his fellow terrorists, television news outlets should broadcast this."

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