Sunday was another of those nerve-jangling days on TV’s Persian Gulf beat, with echoes of an old debate about broadcasting hostage tapes mingling with echoes of air raid sirens in Saudi Arabia.
It was a day when falling missiles and false alarms both sent TV reporters scrambling in Saudi Arabia.
It was a day when NBC’s Arthur Kent had to spring to action while preparing a gulf update for halftime of the network’s Raiders-Bills AFC championship telecast. As sirens wailed in the background, NBC’s camera caught the usually unflappable Kent frantically waving his gas mask while trying to alert the New York office, unaware the camera was rolling: “Hello, New York! They’re firing Patriots! This is not a drill!”
It was also a day when CNN’s understandably jittery Charles Jaco at one particularly tense time found himself stranded on his TV platform, locked out of the nearest air raid shelter. Being a reporter, he faced the camera and reported his plight.
Most of all, it was a day when the torment of war mournfully resonated on a 7.5-minute audio tape aired several times by CNN.
This time, though, the propaganda tape aired on TV was not of hostages but of men described as prisoners of war--downed airmen from the multinational forces attacking Iraq--and there were no pictures accompanying the scratchy sound.
Responding to questions asked in broken English, one by one the men told something about themselves and their missions and, sounding as if they were stiffly reading, most expressed regret for the war against Iraq.
--"I think our leader wrongly attacked the people of Iraq.”
--"I think the war is crazy.”
--"I do not agree with this war on Iraq.”
So that’s why the Iraqis allowed CNN to remain in Baghdad after expelling the few other remaining U.S. journalists who had been hanging on there during the devastating air bombardment of the city.
At least it now seems that Iraq let the three-man CNN contingent stay behind so as to retain one last channel of instant communications with the U.S. public, ensuring it a push-button entre to millions of viewers across the seas.
On Sunday, Iraq exploited that channel.
At about 1:30 p.m. it let veteran correspondent Peter Arnett transmit that audio of an Iraqi television “interview” of seven men who Arnett said the Iraqis identified as “pilots of multinational aircraft shot out of the skies over Iraq and Kuwait in recent days.”
Earlier, in Sunday’s wee hours, Arnett had reported in a censored piece that the Iraqis had said it was CNN’s “impartial reporting” that convinced them to revoke their initial order and allow the CNN crew to remain in Baghdad and continue their censored reports.
Yes . . . we all know about Iraq’s reverence of impartial reporting.
That the men on the tape are helpless pawns--and that the Iraqis were using CNN to deliver some sort of message to its enemies in this war--is a given.
That CNN acted correctly in airing the tape is not.
CNN offered the tape to ABC, CBS and NBC, and the latter two aired brief excerpts Sunday. However, ABC declined to air any portion of the tape, saying in a statement that such tapes “are often made under duress.” ABC added that it would do nothing “that either endangers the well-being of Americans in captivity or furthers the aims of those holding them.”
Meanwhile, an ABC News executive, who asked to remain anonymous, said the network expected to soon gain possession of a video copy of the Iraqi “interview” from a Middle East stringer for the network who taped it off TV. ABC may air the video version of the tape, the ABC executive said, “depending on what the pictures show.”
The executive maintained that that wouldn’t be inconsistent “because if the pictures show that these are really our pilots, that would be important to know.”
These kinds of propaganda tapes have their TV roots in the parading of U.S. POWs before the cameras during the Vietnam War, with orchestrated hostage videos subsequently becoming a frequently used weapon in the arsenals of modern terrorists.
In fact, ABC correspondent Charles Glass himself was held hostage by Muslim fundamentalists in south Beirut for two months in 1987. Moreover, it was his criticism of TV networks for airing his own video “confession"--which he said was made with an unseen gun aimed at his head--that was said to have contributed to ABC’s standing alone among the networks in rejecting subsequent hostage tapes.
Nonetheless, mutual manipulation--a tit-for-tat exchange between newsmaker and news reporter--has always been endemic to journalism, and in the case of this latest Iraqi tape, obtaining even fragmentary information about possible U.S. and allied POWs is worth the price of CNN being used.
Moreover, as the network noted in a statement Sunday:
“CNN clearly labeled the tape ‘recorded in captivity.’ Painful as it is, their (the men on the tape) statements are a necessary part of today’s news. We believe the public has a right to know what is happening to captured allied pilots.”
Meanwhile, the right-to-know debate spilled over into a televised press briefing concerning the 10 Scud missiles that Iraq fired at Saudi Arabia on Sunday in two separate attacks. Nine were hit by Patriot missiles and the 10th fell harmlessly into the sea, Lt. Col. Greg Pepin explained at a press briefing in Riyadh.
When challenged by reporters who said they had personally seen apparent Scud or Patriot missiles explode on the ground, Pepin said he had no information about that. When told by reporters that they had seen a crater, damage and possible shrapnel from a missile in Riyadh, Pepin again said he had no information about that. Yet, as he spoke, CNN split the screen, showing its own footage of the crater and damage to a building in Riyadh.
From prisoners of war, to prisoners of military propaganda, welcome to the video age.