Why the Networks' Decision was a No-Brainer

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Go back for a moment to the Oklahoma City bombing. Let's say that Timothy McVeigh was not captured right away, that he was on the lam and the focus of a national manhunt. After he has eluded capture for a couple of weeks, someone drops off a videocassette at a network news office saying, "It's a message to America from Tim McVeigh."

What do you do? Do you put it on right away in order to beat your network rivals? Do you watch it first and then make a judgment? Might McVeigh be sending a hidden message to some of his confederates? Are you helping him in some undetermined way by airing the tape unedited?

I'll bet that the networks would have aired the McVeigh tape, much as they aired the video feeds from Al Jazeera of both Osama bin Laden and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith making militant propaganda statements. You can't really argue against the claim that the tapes constitute news. Of course they're news.

But so what? The real question is whether any news network should air any kind of statement without vetting it first. There's a world of difference between televising a live event — the bombing of Afghanistan, the OJ verdict — and airing a videotape which you treat as a live event.

Remember, this was not Osama bin Laden sitting down for a chat with Connie Chung. It was in fact a terrorist infomercial, a homemade tape saying exactly what they wanted to say with no mediation and no annoying journalist to ask questions. Yet every American television news outlet chose to air it in full and unedited as though it were Osama Live.

So the network news heads dutifully talked this week with Condoleezza Rice, who urged them to examine any future videotape from bin Laden or his followers before airing it. The network chiefs agreed — clearly the right decision. Now, they will probably err in a new direction, and only show still images of bin Laden or others. They were rightly skeptical, however, about the idea that bin Laden was sending hidden messages to his followers. (Question: where's the hidden message in his straightforward urging of Muslims to rise up and kill Americans? Nothing hidden about that.)

In explanation of the networks' agreeing to abide by the White House suggestion, one of the network chiefs was quoted as saying, "It's a patriotic time." Yes it is, but such a decision is based not so much on patriotism but on simple journalistic judgment. Why would you ever air any kind of statement from anyone without first evaluating it? We don't even do that with political commercials, which are all looked at by the networks before they air them. It might be easier for the networks henceforth if they simply say any future videotapes would have to pass the Tim McVeigh test.

The question of whether to curtail or edit some types of new coverage for national security reasons is a different issue. But about that there really isn't much to debate either. Would anyone claim that a scoop is so important that it's worth jeopardizing the lives of U.S. military personnel?

The networks would all agree with that. But, I can assure you that they're not spending millions of dollars and flying correspondents all around the world in order to broadcast the same news coverage as each other and be video stenographers for government officials. Nor should they be. Their duty is to do their best to get the story, and then make a decision about whether it is right to televise it. Let's hope they make the right one. The vexing component, though, is their frequent combination of sentimental nationalism on air with cutthroat competition behind the camera in order to be the first with whatever story is going that day.