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CNN's bin Laden dilemma

CNN got the inside track on being the first Western media outlet to question Osama bin Laden since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the possibility of a bin Laden appearance on American television responding to written questions from the network quickly raised controversy.

CNN said it had been contacted by Al Jazeera, the Arab-language network, regarding the submission of questions for the chief suspect in the terrorist acts and had pursued the arrangement.

At least two other networks challenged the practice of submitting questions. "CNN would not submit questions to President Bush," a Fox News spokesman said. "Why would they do it for a terrorist? This form does not allow any follow-up questions. Is that journalism? Fox would not have made the agreement."

Similarly, an NBC spokeswoman said, "It's not our practice or policy to submit questions to an interviewee in advance of any interview." Still, neither network ruled out using such a videotape—at the invitation of CNN chief Walter Isaacson—should one appear.

CNN said it was not its policy either and not "something we would do under normal circumstances. Obviously, these are not normal circumstances," a spokesman pointed out.

"It's far from ideal," said Bob Steele, a journalism-practice expert with the Poynter Institute. "But I believe CNN has thought it through very well. There is value in hearing what's inside bin Laden's head, even if it is propaganda."

And, he added, "CNN has said it will apply appropriate editorial scrutiny and made no guarantee that they'll use the material. It's a chip out of journalistic independence, but it's not a shattering of that independence."

CNN tried to preempt or blunt criticism, asserting that it had not agreed to any preconditions regarding questions nor had it committed to airing any or all of bin Laden's answers. (The New York Post
suggested CNN ask bin Laden, "Where are you at this moment?" followed by "Where can we find you in an hour?" The tabloid, owned by News Corp. which also owns Fox News, also suggested asking, "Do you have a financial stake in CNN?")

Networks have been sensitive to issues regarding security and use of the media for terrorists' propaganda. The week before the offer to CNN, the White House urged TV networks to be cautious in airing an earlier bin Laden tape, voicing concern that the videos could be inflammatory or contain coded messages.