MEDIA BEHAVIOR DURING HIJACKING CRISIS PROBED
The news media’s visibility in covering the TWA Flight 847 hijacking and the resulting ordeal of the American hostages came under sharp scrutiny this week as a congressional panel probed whether journalists--especially the TV networks--were making the news instead of reporting it.
As network executives insisted their coverage was “responsible, objective and dependable,” they were buffeted by criticism that press coverage was “sensationalized, excessive and sometimes even tasteless.”
Some of the sharpest barbs were fired at the news media Tuesday by former CBS News President Fred W. Friendly, who complained of “egregious errors” by print and television reporters seeking exclusive stories in a “haphazard frenzy of competition.”
He said that the media’s emphasis on reporting exclusive stories, and then hyping them as such, overshadows the journalist’s role, which is to report what is happening. Their focus on exclusives, he said, “are an echo of the yellow journalism of a different age and have no place in an era of instantaneous communication.”
“When too much competition comes in, context goes out the window,” he said, adding that that was what was missing from coverage of the hijacking ordeal.
Friendly, now a professor emeritus at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, also warned that “terrorism is the new war, a species of guerrilla warfare whose battlefield is the television screen and the front page.”
Journalists, he added, must send a clear message to terrorists. “We need to get it across that you can’t shoot your way onto our air,” he said.
Friendly also warned that unless the news media take efforts to assess themselves critically, the government might one day step in and do it.
Ben H. Bagdikian, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and former national editor of the Washington Post, agreed that the massive and overheated news coverage often produced “more than we needed to know.”
But he said it would be a mistake to shield the public from what is in the news. “The news is not always made by good guys,” he said.
Jody Powell, former press secretary to President Jimmy Carter and now a syndicated columnist, said that even though media coverage was at times “sensationalized, excessive and sometimes even tasteless,” the reporting did not impede efforts to return the hostages or prolong the crisis.
The hearing, held by the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, is part of the controversial dialogue that has surfaced concerning the media’s role in the hijacking and hostage ordeal, including intense coverage of the hostage families.
As Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) put it, “I think the news media got too big for their britches.”
While there was a consensus among the lawmakers present that there will be no legislative efforts to impose controls on the news media, several lawmakers suggested that journalists undertake some self-analysis and establish guidelines for reporting on terrorism.
“The media is caught in a historic dilemma: how to cover acts of war against the United States in which their role is a critical dimension,” said Rep. Edward Feighan (D-Ohio), subcommittee chairman. But, he asked, “is there a line to be drawn between the pros and cons of aggressive media coverage, and, if so, what do we lose and what do we gain?”
From the point of view of representatives from the four TV networks who appeared at the hearing, the potential losses from any restrictions are far greater than the gains.
NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman told the panel that there is “virtually nothing I would want to take back or do significantly different” in covering the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
Added Robert R. Siegenthaler, vice president of news practices at ABC: “We believe that our coverage was accurate, fair and responsible, and that it met our obligations as journalists and our duties as good citizens.”
Siegenthaler said his network has made one change since the TWA hostage crisis. “Good Morning America,” which is produced by the network’s entertainment division, will now be subject to the written news-policy guidelines of ABC News. Siegenthaler said that as part of ABC News ground rules, all interviews and statements from Beirut that were telecast by the network were pre-taped and edited by ABC News with the exception of one live telephone interview on “Good Morning America” in which host David Hartman asked Amal spokesman Nabih Berri if he had any final words to President Reagan.
Jack Smith, vice president and Washington bureau chief of CBS News, also disagreed with critics that the public had been given too much news.
“We believe that our coverage played a constructive role in ensuring the well-being of the hostages and perhaps in facilitating their release,” he said.
The networks also said that they withheld information that they considered sensitive to negotiations for the hostages’ release, although there was criticism that they had reported on the movements of special U.S. troops.
The charges also prompted comments from some, like Friendly, who said the news media have an obligation to take very seriously matters of national security, such as the movement of troops.
‘In my 70th year,” said Friendly, “I have decided that I am a citizen first and a journalist second.”
Those who have been in the glare of the media’s spotlight during hostage situations also had some strong feelings about the media’s role.
Peggy Say, sister of Associated Press chief Mideast correspondent Terry A. Anderson, one of seven Americans still believed held captive in the Middle East, said she turned to the media when she felt that she had been abandoned by the government in seeking the return of her brother.
“Nobody holds our hand but the media,” she said.
Others said that the families of hostages were exploited by the media, who often brought their cameras into homes.
But as Bruce L. Laingen, one of the American hostages held for 444 days in Iran, concluded, the real challenge to the media is to balance what people desire, want and need to know with the need to avoid giving terrorists an undue public platform.