CNN Says Focus on Civilian Casualties Would Be "Perverse" - 2 November, 2001

According to the Washington Post (10/31/01), CNN Chair Walter Isaacson "has ordered his staff to balance images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists, saying it 'seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.'" Post reporter Howard Kurtz quotes a memo from Isaacson to CNN's international correspondents: "As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people." The memo went on to admonish reporters covering civilian deaths not to "forget it is that country's leaders who are responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in," suggesting that journalists should lay responsibility for civilian casualties at the Taliban's door, not the U.S. military's. Kurtz also quotes a follow-up memo from Rick Davis, CNN's head of standards and practices, that suggested sample language for news anchors: " 'We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this from Taliban-controlled areas, that these U.S. military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the U.S.' or, 'We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this, that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan continues to harbor terrorists who have praised the September 11 attacks that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the U.S.,' or 'The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban regime continues to harbor terrorists who are connected to the September 11 attacks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the U.S.' " Davis stated that "even though it may start sounding rote, it is important that we make this point each time." The New York Times reported (11/1/01) that these policies are already being implemented at CNN, with other networks following a similar, though perhaps not as formalized, strategy. "In the United States," the Times noted, "television images of Afghan bombing victims are fleeting, cushioned between anchors or American officials explaining that such sights are only one side of the story." In other countries, however, "images of wounded Afghan children curled in hospital beds or women rocking in despair over a baby's corpse" are "more frequent and lingering." When CNN correspondent Nic Robertson reported yesterday from the site of a bombed medical facility in Kandahar, the Times reported that U.S. anchors "added disclaimers aimed at reassuring American viewers that the network was not siding with the enemy." CNN International, however, did not add any such disclaimers. During its U.S broadcasts, CNN "quickly switched to the rubble of the World Trade Center" after showing images of the damage in Kandahar, and the anchor "reminded viewers of the deaths of as many as 5,000 people whose 'biggest crime was going to work and getting there on time.'" If anything in this story is "perverse," it's that one of the world's most powerful news outlets has instructed its journalists not to report Afghan civilian casualties without attempting to justify those deaths. "I want to make sure we're not used as a propaganda platform," Isaacson told the Washington Post. But his memo essentially mandates that pro-U.S. propaganda be included in the news.

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