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TV's balancing act

On Sunday, Oct. 7, at 3:30 a.m., NBC cameras recorded American B-2 stealth bombers taking off from Whiteman Air Force Base outside Kansas City, Mo. But it was 16 hours later that NBC and MSNBC aired the tape.

Suspecting that the bombers were part of the opening wave of air attacks on Taliban and terrorist targets in Afghanistan, NBC held off on the tape until the bombs were falling and it had an OK from the Pentagon.

"It's a timing issue for security, knowing when to show or not show something," said MSNBC President Erik Sorenson.

As America's war on terrorism moves into its second week, such decisions by TV news executives are being made continually. "Anytime you cover a war or something that involves national security," said Marcy McGinnis, of CBS News, "you have to be conscious of what you're putting out and if it could harm American lives."

Like Sorenson, other executives say they've held back stories, sometimes entirely and other times for hours, out of concern for national security. And reporters say more than ever they're looking for second and third sources to confirm stories.

Some of the pressure to consider the security implications of what is reported is coming from the White House. Indeed, bowing to administration concerns, the major TV news organizations agreed to review videotaped statements from suspected terrorist organization Al Qaeda before airing them.

The decision came after President Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice held a 30-minute conference call Wednesday morning with CNN's Chairman Walter Isaacson, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, NBC News President Neal Shapiro, ABC News chief David Westin and CBS News President Andrew Heyward, urging them to be cautious in airing Al Qaeda tapes. "They want us to be aware of their concerns that videos could contain coded messages or be inflammatory," said a broadcast news executive.

The White House was particularly concerned about a videotape released last Tuesday by Al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu-Ghaith, who urged Muslims to take up arms against U.S. interests across the world. CNN and MSNBC aired the footage live, while the broadcast networks and Fox News later showed segments.

"At best, it's propaganda, and, at worst, it's issuing coded orders to operatives," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said at a press briefing Wednesday.

The five news operations followed up with statements explaining their willingness to prescreen and edit the Al Qaeda tapes. "We believe a free press must and can bear responsibility not to be used by those who want to destroy America and endanger the lives of its citizens," Fox News said in a statement.

"This isn't Republicans saying don't run the voice of the Democrats," said MSNBC's Sorenson. "This is the government saying these terrorists have killed more than 5,000 people and are celebrating their deaths and we'd appreciate it if you'd take some caution before giving them free access to the airwaves."

Rice's call has not incited a backlash from other journalists, mostly because she expressed the administration's concern about the tapes, rather than asking or telling outlets not to air the tape.

"It deserves a lot of thought. Al Jazeera keeps putting these statements on. [Doesn't Al Jazeera] have some moral responsibility to tip the police off?" said Fox News' correspondent Amy Kellogg, who is stationed in Islamabad, Pakistan. "If they are giving coded messages, I'd stand by Condolezza Rice."

Al Jazeera is the Qatar-based satellite news services that has received and been first to broadcast the Al Qaeda tapes.

Media ethics experts have said the Bush administration's requests are sensible. Networks should always prescreen video to properly analyze it and present reliable coverage, according to the Poynter Institute's Aly Colón."Getting it first rather than getting it right is not a productive way for any journalist to operate," said Colón, who serves on the think tank's journalism ethics faculty.