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The Major TV Networks Crack Down — On Themselves — to Restrict Their News Coverage of Osama Bin Laden and Afghanistan

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The five major television news organizations reached a joint agreement yesterday to follow the suggestion of theWhite House and abridge any future videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden or his followers to remove language thegovernment considers inflammatory. The decision is the first time in memory that the networks had agreed to a jointarrangement to limit their prospective news coverage. It was described by one network executive as a “patriotic”decision that grew out of a conference call between the nation’s top television news executives and the White Housenational security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, yesterday morning.

The five news organizations, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, along with its subsidiary, MSNBC, the Cable News Networkand the Fox News Channel all had broadcast, an unedited taped message from Osama bin Laden on Sunday. On Tuesday, theall-news cable channels, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, also carried the complete speech of a spokesmen for Al Qaeda.

White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer indicated in his news briefing yesterday that Rice was primarily concernedthat terrorists could be using the broadcasts to send coded messages to other terrorists. Last month, Fleischergenerated concerns about the administration’s tolerance of dissent when he warned, “There are reminders to allAmericans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”

This decision comes against the backdrop of government unhappiness that the Voice of America, the U.S.-sponsoredbroadcaster, aired an excerpt of an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, in direct defiance of theState Department. In sharp contrast to the Clinton administration, the Bush White House has aggressively sought tokeep firm control on information, even on the most mundane of items. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, they havefurther tightened the reins. Censoring news is a common practice during wartime, but this call to news executivesraises the specter of restricting the flow of information from the source that Americans most frequently turnto—television.


  • Danny Schechter, founder and Executive Editor of Mediachannel.Org.
  • George Monbiot, columnist for the British paper The Guardian.

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