Proceed with caution, but proceed
The White House is right to be concerned about the information being released by the Taliban or Al Qaeda for worldwide media consumption. The last thing TV and radio outlets in the U.S. want to do is become an unwitting conduit for instructions from bin Laden to his followers. The administration expressed that concern to the heads of major broadcast and cable news media last week, who then agreed—among themselves—to review any such tapes before airing them. That was a reasonable response, though we question why, say,
The New York Times
and The Washington Post
were not included in the meeting. Perhaps it was a tacit recognition that the electronic press is now the world's mass medium of choice. Perhaps it was just that the government knows it can make the electronic press jump through hoops because of its regulated status.
Clearly, some types of information can be damaging. In the Gulf War, for instance, according to a CNN executive at the time, reports on the network were pinpointing where scud missiles had landed, making reporters spotters for the Iraqis. The Bush I White House asked them to stop. They did.
But the networks must be careful not to cede their independence or to withhold important information from the public, especially if the information is readily available from other sources. The current Bush White House has been speaking softly, though insistently, on the media access issue, pointing out that it has simply been making requests. But with each press conference where the coverage issue is raised and new "suggestions" are made about how the media ought to be acting, and what people shouldn't be saying or reporting, the business end of that always implicit big stick starts to peek out from behind Ari Fleischer's back.
Should the networks be careful how they report information hand-outs from the other side—or from this side, for that matter. Of course. That's what editors are supposed to do. But neither the networks nor the administration should be in a hurry to block avenues of communication with the American people.
The FCC last week allowed noncommercial broadcasters to generate revenues from ancillary DTV services, including advertising-supported ones, and use them to help defray the cost of the DTV transition. Perhaps when they have paid that bill, they can use those revenues to support the bread-and-butter noncommercial service and further reduce their reliance on the government breadline. But that is another editorial, we just use it to illustrate the DTV-friendly mode of the current FCC.
While the FCC is feeling generous on the DTV front, we think it should bite the bullet and operate as though it recognized that a large portion of commercial broadcasters, for a host of financial and technical reasons, will not be able to make the May 2002 deadline for DTV conversion.
Chairman Michael Powell has been reluctant to issue a blanket waiver, but to do so could head off troubles down the road. Unless the commission does something to speed the waiver process, that flood of paperwork could add yet another bottleneck to the transition. The FCC last week named its new DTV task force with a charter to break deadlocks. Job one should be making sure the waiver issue doesn't become one.