CBS takes flak for Pearl tape
Says the value to story on propaganda outweighed family, government concerns
By Dan Trigoboff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/19/2002 8:00:00 PM
CBS News took heat last week from the government and the family of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl for airing parts of a videotape made by his kidnappers and killers and now being used to recruit radical Arabs against the U.S. and Israel.
Both the State and Justice Departments asked CBS not to air the video, CBS confirmed. Anchor Dan Rather said the tape was aired only after great deliberation and the tape did not show the brutal slaying and decapitation of Pearl.
"We believe," said Rather, "it is important for Americans to see it and understand the full impact and danger of the propaganda war being waged against the United States and its allies, and also its effect on the young people of the Arab world."
CBS News Chief Andrew Heyward was contacted by Pearl's family prior to the tape's airing, and Pearl's wife, Mariane, called it "heartless" to air even parts of "this despicable propaganda video." She said, "It is beyond our comprehension that any mother, wife, father or sister should have to relive this horrific tragedy and watch their loved one being repeatedly terrorized."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said CBS made "a legitimate decision. CBS deserves credit for doing the right thing when they knew they would be attacked for it. What's more disturbing here is that the government—and not for the first time—has decided to intervene in telling journalists what they should and shouldn't do.
"There's nothing morally or journalistically that dictates that tape is off limits," he continued. "The job of a journalist is to provide information to the public in a way citizens can make up their own minds. What's hard for Americans to understand is how something so horrible could appeal to other people. CBS made the decision that we need to see some of this to try and understand that."
Raw video of the Pearl execution in February had been seen by numerous U.S. journalists, including several at CBS, but was not aired. But CBS Evening News executive producer Jim Murphy insisted the story here was not the execution.
"This is a story about a propaganda video used to recruit people to kill Americans and kill Israelis," Murphy said. The video was downloaded from the Internet by a Saudi journalist, Ali al-Ahmed, working with correspondent David Martin on the story, and it had therefore been available to any news organization working the recruitment story. Although the U.S. government successfully tracked down that site and had the video removed, Murphy said, it was appearing on other sites within a few days.
"We did not show the graphic scenes contained on the videotape, both for reasons of taste and out of respect for Mr. Pearl's family," Rather said. "CBS News brought you this report because, even in highly edited form, the video illustrates how far the enemy will go to spread its message of hate for the United States."
When used as a recruiting tool on the Internet, the tape is titled "The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl" and includes Pearl's death, according to CBS News. But Martin said the tape indicates that Pearl was murdered not because he was a spy but because he was a Jew and an American. Among the statements apparently forced from the condemned reporter were "My father's Jewish. My mother's Jewish. I'm Jewish." and "We Americans cannot continue to bear the consequences of our government actions such as the unconditional support given to the state of Israel."
Perhaps most troubling about the report was that, according to al-Ahmed, the video connects with its target audience, based on responses posted on the Web site. "The first place where they had it on, most of the people who commented on the tape said, 'I wish I was there. I wish I had done it,'" al-Ahmed said.
Murphy said CBS News weighed the family's feelings heavily "against what we considered our mission: to inform the public. Personally, I feel terrible about it. I'm a human being. I do the same thing for a living that he did."
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