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House committee examines role of broadcasters in terrorism fight

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House committee examines role of broadcasters in terrorism fight

  • Keeping too many documents secret is not the best way to fight terrorism, broadcasters and other experts told a U.S. House panel Sept. 15.

Sep. 22, 2004 — Shielding government documents from the public is counterproductive in the fight against terrorism, broadcasters and secrecy experts told the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security Sept. 15. The broadcasters sharply criticized what they say is the government’s tendency to guard documents.

“The Department of Homeland Security is ‘oversecretfying’, Frank Sesno, professor and senior fellow with the Critical Infrastructure Protection Project at George Mason University, told the House panel.

In the fight against terrorism, “the relaying of information between the government and the news media is an important key,” said Scott Armstrong, director of Information and Trust. The relationship between the government and the news media is frequently strained when many documents from the Department of Homeland Security are stamped “Official Use Only,” he said.

Broadcasting news about terror events results in more people searching for suspects, several broadcasters told the committee. “For example, information about the Chevrolet Caprice, which was key evidence in the Washington, D.C., sniper attacks, was withheld from the public which caused more unnecessary deaths. When the key evidence was finally made public, the sniper was finally caught shortly after,” Sesno said.

Barbara Cochran, president of Radio-Television News Directors Association, told the committee that the more information given to journalists by the government, the better the coverage will be. “Journalists will not cover stories well in a vacuum,” she said.

The broadcasters conceded that they could have done a better job covering the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“You have to make sure the news media, fire and police departments and the government know their flaws,” said Gregory Caputo, news director of television station WGN in Chicago.

“The journalists know the price they have to pay if they don’t do their job,” Sesno said. He stressed that all news media stations should run terrorism drills so the news media will know what to do.

“Post 9/11, it was very difficult for writers to try to explain what the risk terms meant,” Robert Long, vice president and news director of television station KNBC in Los Angeles, Calif., explained.

“We failed to get the message out about 9/11 and homeland security issues because we wanted to give the government the benefit-of-the-doubt,” Kalb said.

But Sesno said the media is not fully to blame for reporting problems in the wake of the terrorist attacks. “It is not just the media who is to be blamed for not using the information on terror wisely, the government needs to do something with the information also!” Sesno said.

Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) responded: “We’re trying!”

Marvin Kalb, senior fellow with the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, rhetorically asked the committee several questions to illustrate the dilemma facing journalists.

“Can journalists be neutral with the war on terrorism? Was CNN being wrong for being human?” Should reporters tip off to the government when terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has asked a reporter to do an interview with him or her?” Kalb said.

Caputo, the Chicago news director, said the danger of the government hiding too much information is a misinformed public. Seventy-five percent of Americans supported going to war because they believed Saddam Hussein was connected to the Sept. 11 attacks; now just 42 percent believe the two are linked, Caputo said. “There is one-side to the story that is coming from government officials. People came to the conclusion from what they thought they heard,” he said.


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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