Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2001 / 28 Tishrei 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Self-censorship rises again -- OSAMA bin Laden's publicity hunger has raised prickly questions for America's broadcast media.

For example, would we Americans have given Adolph Hitler's speeches the live and unedited access to our airwaves that the terrorist bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization have enjoyed?

"We did!" exclaimed J. Fred MacDonald, a retired Northeastern Illinois University history professor and popular culture expert.

We did?

"Sure, we did," he told me in a telephone interview from his office in Chicago, where he archives and sells rights to old newsreels, radio tapes and other media. He then read off a list of tapes of Hitler speeches broadcast live or after a brief delay on American radio by major networks of the time.

I have heard the Hitler question raised quite a bit since National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asked the heads of the five networks to refrain from airing unedited, prepackaged, pretaped videos put out by bin Laden and his organization.

After networks broadcast the taped diatribe by bin Laden and, two days later, a top spokesman for his terrorist al-Qaida organization, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was furious. He called the tapes, "at best, propaganda calling on people to kill Americans," and, at worst, coded messages to bin Laden's followers who would carry out such attacks.

That was a bracing charge. After all, many asked, would we have put Hitler's speeches on the air the way the networks put bin Laden on, live and unedited?

In fact, "it was not uncommon to put Hitler's rants on live with a translator," MacDonald said. "Usually it was early in the morning because of the time-zone difference."

But, like other media history experts I contacted, MacDonald could not find or recall any examples of Hitler's speeches being broadcast after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. After that day of infamy, Hitler's words appeared only in brief snatches in newsreels.

That's ironic. Yesterday's media were not much interested in broadcasting Hitler's speeches after the Pearl Harbor attack; today's media were not much interested in broadcasting bin Laden until after our new "Pearl Harbor," the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Maybe if we Americans had cared more about what he was up to beforehand, we could have avoided disaster.

Now we Americans are playing catch-up in our knowledge about bin Laden and his murderous movement. Yet, at the very time when we need to learn as much about this new enemy as possible, media have come under new pressure to keep him off the airwaves.

Under heavy and heated bombardment of questions from reporters, Fleischer produced no evidence or examples to support the possibility that bin Laden's tapes might contain coded messages. Nevertheless, all five networks agreed to review such tapes in the future before airing any portion.

I was not surprised at the easy cave-in. For one, bin Laden makes pretty revolting video for American audiences these days.

More important, responsible media tend to err on the side of caution when faced with conflicts over the public's right to know vs. national security hazards. Only when the wartime news turns sour does the public demand more aggressive reporting.

Major media and military leaders had a mostly cozy relationship before the Vietnam War dragged on for years longer than Washington led us to expect.

The same public that generally called on the media to back off the government during the early days of Vietnam shifted severely by early 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to run again and the public increasingly asked the media to become more aggressive in pursuing the truth about the war.

Unlike Vietnam, where reporters pretty much roamed freely, military leaders limited reporter access during our police actions in Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf. In the Gulf, the generals supplied enough dazzling photos and video of "smart bombs" and unerring anti-missile Patriot missiles every day to keep the media beast satisfied.

Only months after the war ended did new information indicate that our bombs and missiles were not as "smart" as we had been led to believe. But, by then, who cared? The war was over. We had yellow ribbons to take down and parades to cheer.

Today we Americans might well ask what our government does not want us to see in bin Laden's tapes. What strategic good does it do when the same speeches continue to reach millions throughout the Arab world on Al Jazeera, a popular all-news, Arab-language satellite TV channel out of Qatar?

We don't need to hear all of bin Laden's rants to get whatever point he is trying to make. But we should at least know what the Arab world is hearing. It might help us to figure out what all of the fighting is about, so we can prevent more fighting in the future.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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