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Less bin Laden, more Maher

Back in October, when White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned the media about the dangers of buying into the Osama bin Laden tape-of-the-month club, this page introduced a note of caution, suggesting that, while the networks must be careful how they report video hand-outs from a terrorist, they should not line up to become government proxies in the restriction of information to the American people. (The image of the network news heads kowtowing to Congress over election-night coverage remains fresh in our memories.)

That said, this is war, and we think the media got it just about right in their treatment of the latest edition of the bin Laden Show. In contrast to the drop-everything roadblocking of the first tape and the similar treatment of the government-released "smoking gun" home video of the smiling assassin, the networks confined their coverage of the gaunt figure's latest musings to snippets and stills that made hardly a dent in their normal schedules. Having agreed, in response to administration requests, to review such tapes before airing them, the networks, though prepared to drop everything and go to the videotape, decided, as one executive put it, "that the content simply lacked the necessary news value."

And while they're making those independent editorial decisions, maybe now that we are seeing a little less of bin Laden, there will be room for a little more of Bill Maher, whose show, Politically Incorrect,
is still off the air in Washington (WJLA-TV) after he said something politically incorrect about the terrorists. We're all for speaking in one voice against terrorism, but understanding it requires allowing many voices to speak about
it, including saying things we may not like to hear. That's one of the freedoms we're fighting for.

Rebuilding New York towers

The confusion has been cleared up over which New York broadcasters will get government help to rebuild their facilities after Sept. 11. A couple of noncommercial stations will be able to tap into $8.25 million from an NTIA public-station facilities fund. What about all those commercial stations carrying local news to millions in the top market? Congress is always invoking local TV's status as a national resource (which it is) whenever it wants to justify its intrusion into content (which misses the part about freedom being one of the things that makes the media such a resource). Why then shouldn't the restoration of full, free over-the-air TV to the number-one market also be a matter of national interest?

The commercial broadcasters don't need a government handout, but they could use another kind of help. In their search for a tower site near Manhattan, the center of the metropolis, they are almost sure to face not-in-my-backyard opposition. We encourage government at every level—federal, state and city—to smooth the way, not stand in the way.