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Posted: December 10, 2010 12:30 a.m.

First Amendment responsibilities

I am a rabid supporter of the First Amendment. For 40 years in the broadcast news biz and half a dozen teaching, I have exercised that right and taught it with vigor. But this "right" of free speech carries with it some obligations.

In October 1993, CNN was carrying live the second attempted Moscow coup: tanks firing on the Russian White House and the parliament building and Russian President Boris Yelstin on top of a tank waving the Russian flag. The third day, our attention was diverted when a team of Army Rangers, Special Ops personnel and Navy Seals launched a raid on the headquarters of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu, Somalia.

When Aidid cut off food supply lines to his enemies, a severe famine set in. NBC news showed video of starving infants with distended belies and flies on their swollen lips. The U.S. sent in troops to open the supply lines.

The raid resulted in two Blackhawk helicopters being shot down, and 19 soldiers killed. Aidid labeled captured Army Ranger Michael Durant a prisoner of war.

No one had video of the raid aftermath, until the day after the raid when CNN’s International Desk advised CNN management that we were about to get a video feed from a free-lance cameraman, as well as an interview with the "POW."

Then CNN President Tom Johnson called in Ed Turner, head of news gathering, and me as head of production and programming.

We watched the feed with graphic scenes of dead American soldiers whose bodies were being mutilated by the locals, burned-out helicopters, and destroyed huts and buildings. One shot was of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a rope tied to his ankle. Finally came the "interview" with Durant, the captured Ranger.

His interviewers were unseen. The soldier was in apparent shock, his clothes dirty and torn, and his bruised face revealed what he had been through. At one point, the camera pulled back, showing his left leg at a grotesque angle, obviously a compound fracture. He stated his name, his rank, his hometown and gave a clearly forced statement about killing innocent civilians and following orders.

We discussed whether we should use any of the video or the interview, and if so, how much. The concern was the potential impact on U.S. foreign policy. Johnson had been a White House Fellow in the mid ’60s and had a pretty good idea how this story, now reinforced by pictures, might be received by the executive and legislative bodies of our government. The discussion became quite animated with options of airing all or none being voiced.

Johnson’s final decision was that 30 seconds of video and a short sound bite from the interview would air, and I was to oversee the editing and scripting. Only one, two-and-one-half second shot from a distance of a dead, unidentifiable American was used in the edited video. The script emphasized that we did not know the conditions under which the interview was conducted. At noon, all the CNN networks (CNN, CNN International, CNN Headline News, CNN En Espanol and CNN Radio) were told to begin airing the material at 3 p.m., only once each hour and only in its entirety, using the approved script. This would be the case for one 24-hour news cycle with any subsequent use to be approved by upper management.

Johnson called the White House press office and told them what we had and that we would start airing it in three hours. He offered to air an on-camera statement by a White House spokesman every time the story was used on all CNN nets, or read a White House statement at each airing. The White House declined. The same offer was made to the Pentagon after we were assured that there was an Army Ranger named Michael Durant on this mission who matched the description of the person in the interview. They also declined, and we proceeded.

That is text book for handling a story that could have U.S. policy repercussions. It doesn’t appear to me that the national media gave the same consideration in their decision on the WiKi leaks.

Another example of a story that involved the federal government. The June 1993 ATF raid on the Branch Dividians compound in Waco, Texas. After a live telephone interview with David Koresh, the Waco cult leader, the FBI called CNN asking us to re-establish phone contact with Koresh with them listening in. If the FBI felt it served their purpose, they would enter into the conversation, off the air of course.

We declined, since this would make CNN a part of the story and that was not our mission, that is, to be an independent observed/reporter of facts, filtering out the minor or non-essential and accurately reflecting both sides of a story.

As the standoff dragged on for days, we put a live camera with a night-scope lens aimed at the compound to be in position should any action take place at night. The FBI objected, stating that it could endanger the lives of agents if any action was taken. We considered their concern privately and agreed, advising the newsroom supervising producer that no video from that camera was to be used until we could, with certainty, know it would not effect the outcome of the story. CNN was the last network on the air the early morning that the FBI raid ended the siege…our promise to ourselves fulfilled.

Thanks to a super hacker with a huge, hungry ego in need of feeding, we have government communications that embarrass this county broadcast and published by all. The publication of the so-called WiKi leaks by Julian Assange on his Web site would have had limited exposure. But when one mainstream media picked up the leaked communications, all others followed suit and the world looked at the U.S. in a different light, no doubt a more negative one.

Did all news organs that broadcast/published these leaks go through the process… the filtering… the discussion/arguments among senior staffers as to whether this story met the criteria as worthy? Analogies to the leak of the Pentagon Papers in the ’70s are being used. This looks like an attempt to rationalize broadcast or publication of the WiKi leaks. But let me suggest that the Pentagon Papers revealed an inept military. That information was absolutely beneficial to lawmakers and citizens alike to make sure the same mistakes were not repeated.

Of what benefit to the U.S. government or to our citizenry are these embarrassing leaks?

I expect to hear from colleagues taking me to task on behalf of the First Amendment. As I teach my students, ours is not a business of black or white; it’s a business of shades of gray.

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