Last month, CNN reporter Nic Robertson returned from Afghanistan with 64 al Qaeda videotapes containing hundreds of hours of instructional and archival footage never meant for Western eyes. Having secured the cache of al Qaeda videotapes, the network went from being the conduit for news to being the news itself.
Originally, CNN basked in the glow of being recognized for airing exclusive footage. As CNN anchor Carol Lin pointed out, "The al Qaeda tapes have caused quite a buzz in media circles (CNN, August 20). But the tone of the reporting about CNN quickly soured, as there were conflicting reports about whether the network had paid for the tapes. After initial reports quoted CNN officials as saying no money had changed hands, CNN did an about-face.
CNN clarified that no money had been paid to the tipster who led Roberson to the person in possession of the tapes, but the reporter did pay the source that supplied the tapes. The Washington Post (August 21) noted that as a result of the awkward turn of events, CNN "saw the focus of discussion shift from the tapes themselves to the question of whether the cable network had deliberately misled The New York Times and the Associated Press on the issue of payment."
In clarifying its position, CNN stressed that no payment was made to al Qaeda and that payment for rare or unique footage is a common practice for news organizations. But the reporting on CNN had turned from glowing to mixed. Some third parties supported CNN's contention that paying for footage is not a breach of ethics. Barbara Cochran, the president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, told USA Today (August 21), "In instances where something is newsworthy and couldn't be obtained otherwise, it's not unheard of."
Others might have agreed with this, but were less forgiving about how forthcoming CNN had originally been. The Associated Press (August 20) quoted an ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research center, saying: "The viewer deserves to know if money changed hands, how much money it was, and who got the money. They deserve to know how often sources are paid. It casts doubt on the credibility of the source if he or she was paid. Others questioned how CNN could be so sure that the money didn't reach al Qaeda operatives.
As for reaction to the video coverage itself, a few analysts remarked that the West already knew much of what was conveyed on the tapes, but the tapes were remarkable for the powerful impact of their imagery. Media critic Howard Kurtz told CNN (August 20), "The power of television is the power to show images. Merely reading about the fact that al Qaeda, for example, was testing chemical weapons on animals would not carry the emotional punch that seeing the terrible things inflicted on these dogs does."
But Kurtz and others also criticized CNN for overhyping the tapes and repeatedly showing the images of the dying dogs. Rival network Fox News (August 20) recognized that Kurtz was a respected authority as a media critic. Contributor Fred Barnes remarked, "If (Kurtz) is saying that CNN hyped the story, I think it's pretty clear that CNN hyped the story."
For CNN, the tapes were a coup that brought it recognition, but the network is probably wishing it could have changed a few of the ways it handled bringing them to the public's attention.
Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.