Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post complained in an April 18 editorial about the Supreme Court resisting the use of television cameras to cover its proceedings. The paper found irony in the justices barring cameras “from proceedings that are open to the public.” Well, it just so happens that Washington Post annual shareholders meetings are open to the public, in the sense that they are covered by members of the press, but television cameras are banned from them, too. The Post, which owns television stations and is a media company based on the First Amendment right to free speech, doesn’t want a video record of shareholders such as Accuracy in Media quizzing Post chairman Donald E. Graham and Post publisher Bo Jones about newspaper operations.

The main topic this year is the paper’s coverage of national security issues, which some commentators say borders on treasonous, but which has also been challenged on a factual basis.

Accuracy in Media has put in a request to cover the upcoming May 11 Post shareholders meeting with a television camera. But we have been told it is against an unwritten policy of not allowing such devices. This is unfortunate because AIM had hoped to capture on video tape the responses of Post company officials to questions and concerns that have been raised about the controversial Pulitzer Prize awarded to Post reporter Dana Priest for a story about CIA “secret prisons” that has not been confirmed.  AIM says the prize ought to be returned because of the lack of evidence supporting the controversial article and because some of the information in it was clearly exaggerated for political impact.

According to the Associated Press, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana has told a special European Parliament committee that he has no information that CIA agents interrogated suspected terrorists at “secret prisons” in Europe, as Priest alleged. He is the latest European official or investigator who has declared no evidence or knowledge of the accuracy of the allegations that Priest made. In the latest twist in this controversy, we have learned that Priest gave an interview to an alternative paper in Minnesota, in which she seemed to accept the characterization of the “secret prisons” as “secret gulags,” implying that U.S. antiterrorism officials behave like Soviet communists.  This was taking the story to another ridiculous extreme.

It appears that some aspect of the Priest story was true, in the sense that she was on the trail of a covert CIA operation that transferred terrorists through Europe. She also apparently had the names of some of the countries that assisted the U.S. in this effort, which was designed to save the lives of American and European citizens. But the transformation of this valuable and life-saving program into one about “secret prisons” or even “gulags,” which is what Priest herself implied in her article, turns out to be completely unsubstantiated and probably a deliberate distortion.  One of Priest’s sources, a partisan CIA official fired for unlawful conduct, makes the controversy even more troubling.

For those who doubt that Priest could get such a story so wrong, remember that Newsweek, a property of the Washington Post Company, had published the false Koran-in-the-toilet story. That story, which Newsweek apologized for running after it provoked riots and at least 16 deaths, was also based on supposedly informed but anonymous sources.

Playing the role of company man, Post media reporter Howard Kurtz is doing his best to avoid the growing scandal over Priest’s reporting, but AIM will persevere. It’s better for the paper, we believe, if it opens its annual meeting to cameras so that a video record can be made and the public can determine whether the paper can mount any kind of coherent defense of what Priest has done. It won’t be better for them only if they can’t.

It’s interesting to note that the Post editorial on cameras in the courtroom was followed by an April 25 Post column by Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also arguing that cameras should be covering the Court. Specter urged “a televised light on the justices.”

We urge a “televised light” on the annual meetings of media companies. AIM has long advocated opening stockholders meetings to television cameras. It is ironic, to say the least, that media companies which have urged that television cameras be admitted to courtrooms and Congressional proceedings bar television coverage of their own annual meetings.

Some companies have banned coverage on the pretext that their meetings are held in outside facilities, such as theaters, which have a general policy of prohibiting recording devices. That policy, of course, is designed to prevent people from recording films or plays and selling pirated versions for a profit. Such a policy is not meant to apply to media companies renting the place on a once-a-year basis. In the case of the Post, however, the shareholders meeting is being held in the Post building itself. So there’s absolutely no excuse for a policy prohibiting recording devices. We have not been prohibited in the past from taking tape recorders to the meeting. Why should a camera be that much of an issue?

We have asked the Post to reconsider its policy of banning television cameras from its annual shareholders meeting. Let’s see if the rest of the media join our call. If they don’t, their commitment to freedom of information and the public’s right to know will be seen as nothing more than a late-night-TV joke. And a bad joke at that.

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