The latest audio recording from Osama bin Laden renewed debate last week over how and when news outlets should cover such communications.
When the new tape surfaced last Tuesday, Fox News Channel was the first U.S. network to air it—giving it breaking-news treatment—while CNN and MSNBC cautiously, or timidly, depending on whom you ask, waited for translations. All aired the audio, or pieces of it, with file video and stills of bin Laden.
It was actually Secretary of State Colin Powell who broke the news of a new recording, mentioning it in a briefing before Congress during which he asserted links between the Iraqi regime and bin Laden's terror network.
Bin Laden tapes always grab headlines. The possibility of a looming war with Iraq only served to heighten the news value.
"It's journalistic responsibility to show it, but the question is how you air the content," said Al Tompkins, head of broadcast for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.
Fox moved first in this country, airing the tape in its entirety in mid afternoon, with an English translation voiced over. (Worldwide Arab news channel Al Jazeera was the first to air the 16-minute recording.)
"There was no indication from the administration that it could present a security concern," explained John Moody, Fox News' senior vice president of news and editorial. "Its importance was unquestionable. It was the news of the day."
Had the latest recording been videotape, though, Moody said Fox News would likely have screened it first.
CNN and MSNBC, for their parts, held back, dispatching translators to work through the material first and then playing pieces of it.
With a "purported" bin Laden tape, "I'd rather not be first but be careful," said MSNBC Vice President of Daytime Programming Mark Effron, who directed MSNBC's coverage.
ABC, NBC and CBS held off until their evening newscasts, airing snippets of the tape as part of reports. By then, "we were able to analyze it and give it some context," said CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius.
After 9/11 and numerous bin Laden recordings surfaced, the Bush administration urged news executives to screen tapes for possible signals and coded messages. Broadcast and cable news chiefs agreed to review tapes but remained guarded to preserve their journalistic independence.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer repeated the administration's concerns on bin Laden messages last week. "People should use their discretion and think twice about playing something in its entirety." The administration did not admonish networks for the latest treatment, though.
One reason may be that the tape seemingly fortified the Bush Administration's contention that Iraq and al-Qaeda are linked at a time some other nations and anti-war critics question the connection.
At CNN, policy dictates the network screens and translates recordings first, according to spokesman Matt Furman. "We carefully review [tapes] using our own translators for newsworthy elements and report the newsworthy elements only."
But Fox's Moody said Powell's mention of the tape and the fact that the secretary had seen a transcript negated those concerns. "When the Secretary of State speaks before Congress and says there could be a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, that's news."
Fox's rivals didn't miss out on a chance to question the News Corp. channel's coverage.
Said MSNBC's Effron, "I'm not sure it's written anywhere that putting on 16 minutes of Osama is our journalistic mission."
Calling the tape a "propaganda tool," CNN's Furman said to air the tape "in its entirety and without reviewing it first would simply be irresponsible."