The Free Congress © Commentary:

CNN: Where Propaganda Can Masquerade As Journalism

By Paul M. Weyrich
October 24, 2001

Some cultures never change regardless of whom is running the organization. Ted Turner is no longer the top boss at CNN. You wouldn't know that by that network's behavior, however. Go back more than a decade to the Gulf War. Iraq expelled the other networks. Not CNN. There was a good reason for that. Their reports from behind enemy lines often reflected the views of good old Saddam.

I didn't happen to think that that war accomplished much and indeed if we are to believe what is said about him, Osama Bin Laden turned against the USA because of the Gulf War. Given the fact that Saddam Hussein is still with us and, if it is true as I believe, that we can trace the events of September 11th to the rage of Bin Laden and his terrorist network, then it is legitimate to question who won that war.

Nevertheless, our country was at war at the time and when we get into a war I believe our country's citizens and institutions, including the news media, have certain obligations. That didn't occur to Turner and his operatives who felt that their ratings were more important than the security of the United States. Later on CNN produced so-called documentaries about Vietnam, which proved to be absolutely untrue. When the pressure became too much they fired various people connected with the documentaries but they never adequately retracted what they had done.

The beat goes on. Now comes the war against terrorism. There is no question that Bin Laden is the leader of the terrorist network that killed all those innocent people in New York and Washington. So does CNN behave as if he is the enemy? Not exactly. Instead, they submit six questions to him in advance for an interview. As a journalist by profession, I can tell you that one of the first things you are taught is you NEVER give questions in advance to a political or governmental figure before an interview. You might agree on the topic areas to be covered, sure. But specific questions? Absolutely not.

History might have been a lot different had Roger Mudd given Senator Ted Kennedy the questions he was going to ask him in advance of that famous 1980 interview. When Kennedy couldn't articulate why he wanted to be President his campaign was washed up right then and there. If he knew that question was coming and could have had his huge campaign staff collaborate on a polished answer then who knows how history might have been changed. Kennedy might have done in Jimmy Carter who was at the height of his weakness right then.

Or suppose Michael Dukakis and his staff knew that he was going to be asked the question about what he would do if his wife Kitty had been attacked. If he had been able to give an answer dripping in compassion, I don't know that he would have defeated George Bush but the race might have been a lot closer. And don't you think if both the elder George Bush and Dan Quayle knew what was going to hit them when Bush unexpectedly picked Quayle to be his running-mate in 1988 that they would have handled things a lot differently in their dealings with the news media. Perhaps Quayle would not have been dead on arrival as Vice President.

I could go on and on. We learn a lot about a political figure's knowledge, dexterity in handling tough questions on their feet, understanding, humanity, even spirituality, when we hear how he handles himself under such circumstances. Senator Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's 2000 running mate, was a media favorite when nominated. They thought he was interesting, clever, funny and very intelligent. Dick Cheney was thought of as competent but they didn't believe the man had a soul. After the debate, everything turned around. The media lost respect for Lieberman and really gained respect for Cheney. Neither man knew what questions were going to be asked. The results would no doubt have been quite different had each candidate had advance knowledge of what was going to be asked.

So right from square one CNN violates one of the most critical rules of the journalistic profession. That is bad enough. But hello? We are again at war. What is the idea of giving the enemy time to expound his viewpoint over our airwaves? I'll bet if Adolf Hitler had been given six questions in advance by CBS radio, with enough coaching, he could have sounded reasonable to at least some of the American people. Who knows? As the body bags came home by the tens of thousands, would our nation's resolve have weakened if Hitler had been allowed to appeal to the American people to put pressure on their leaders to stop the bombing of Germany while promising concessions by his own country in return?

The New York Post asks the best question of all: Do we think Emperor Hirohito should have been given airtime to explain Pearl Harbor to the American people? Questions in advance to Bin Laden under our current circumstances should never ever be contemplated, let alone implemented. Once again CNN is more concerned with ratings than it is with the security of the USA. Or the other possibility is, and I hesitate to mention it lest I be branded a McCarthyite for life, that the CNN crowd is really sympathetic to our enemies. They want Saddam's and Bin Laden's point of view to come across because they think it has merit.

Now their argument is that once the American people see Bin Laden in action they will correctly judge that we should be going after him. But how do they know that? How do they know that if Bin Laden is allowed to broadcast his propaganda, and have it repeated constantly (doubtless the other networks will pick up the answers too), it won't spark another significant anti-war movement, which is already just beginning to sprout on some college campuses again.

In an earlier age, this kind of behavior would be considered treason. We don't use that word any more because we have abandoned the concept. Well, just as God and real men have made a comeback since 9/11, maybe the concept of treason during wartime will as well.

Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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