- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - The tensions and calculations involved in covering a war zone spilled out Tuesday in an unusual dispute between rival American television networks over a trip to assess damage to an attack on Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Libya.

CNN’s Nic Robertson angrily denied a Fox News Channel report that he and other journalists were used by the Libyan government as human shields against further attacks against Gadhafi. Fox stood by its report on Tuesday and criticized CNN for taking things personally.

The Libyan government had offered to escort international journalists to Gadhafi’s compound after an allied attack. Such government invitations can be common in war zones and are usually done for propaganda purposes; a journalist needs to weigh in individual circumstances whether they are worth the time spent and can provide interesting pictures or details.

It was complicated in this case by reports over the weekend that the government had brought civilians into the compound to make a decision to bomb more difficult.

Jerome Delay, an Associated Press photographer who went on the trip, said he and some other journalists discussed the risk involved. He decided to go, in part because he convinced Libyan authorities that it needed to be a quick trip for the images to be seen.

“If we turn down the little access we have, then we might as well pack our bags and go home and get out of the business altogether,” Delay said.

Michael Clemente, Fox News senior vice president for news, said the invitation was about the Libyans trying to show off their assets.

“It’s a propaganda trip,” he said. “We know it. We know it’s some pictures. No one has said, ‘Thank God someone did see it and called off this mission.’”

On Monday, Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin reported the British military had to call off an attack on the Libyan leader’s compound because journalists were there. She mentioned that CNN and Reuters had gone on the trip and said Fox reporter Steve Harrigan did not go because of the concern about being used as a human shield.

A few hours later, Robertson said on CNN that the allegation was “outrageous and absolutely hypocritical.” He said that the reporters spent roughly 30 minutes at the compound, and that he was pushed back into the bus to return to his hotel while trying to do a report.

“When you come to somewhere like Libya you expect lies and deceit from a dictator,” he said. “You don’t expect it from a fellow journalist.”

Later Tuesday, Griffin called in to Greta Van Susteren’s program on Fox to apologize for not noting that although Harrigan did not go on the trip, he had sent a Fox security official along with a camera to record the damage.

Fox later said that Harrigan turned down the trip because he thought it was merely propaganda, not because of concern over being a human shield, a difference Griffin described as “splitting hairs.”

Griffin, in an interview, said she would have done the same story about the military attack being called off even if she knew Fox had been along for it, and would have mentioned Fox’s participation.

“It was not personal,” she said. “I did not make this personal. Nic Robertson decided to make this personal when he started attacking Steve Harrigan.”

CNN spokeswoman Barbara Levin denied the dispute was personal.