- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

On Media

Last week, Osama; this week, John: Another pivotal videotape has surfaced in the media version of the war on terrorism, as grimy, grimacing John Walker has his moment on camera.

CNN first aired the exclusive 17-minute interview with the American Taliban member Wednesday night, quickly inspiring two schools of thought among viewers and journalists alike. There are those who fret over Mr. Walker's rights, and those who would see him shot at sunrise.

Meanwhile, CNN has replayed the tape in bits and pieces ever since, schooling viewers on the finer points of the terms "battlefield prisoner," "prisoner of war" and "enemy belligerent," among other things.

The Walker tape is part of a distinct new genre. With its lousy audio and unpredictable camera angles, the footage epitomizes a kind of studied, theatrical combat journalism that has come to provide an effective foil for talking heads inside a studio.

There is clattering, coughing and the incongruous vision of young Walker, a California boy with perfect white teeth, speaking in a faint Arabic accent. Juxtaposed against the drone of commentary and analyses, such imagery is a boon to news channels with much time to fill.

But this tape is not breaking news; it is almost 4 weeks old, in fact. Its genesis is not entirely clear.

In an interview from London yesterday, correspondent Robert Pelton provided a limited explanation of how he got the interview.

"I met him Monday, November 26, around midnight. I had been at the fort that day and I was staying with [Northern Alliance commander] General Dostum," Mr. Pelton said, adding that the officer "actually brought the prisoners to me" in a truck.

"Then one of his people ran back and said there was American in the hospital, so I went upstairs, grabbed a Special Forces medic, and he took his kit bag and we ran down there and then began talking to him."

The tape was not available, a CNN spokeswoman said, until Mr. Pelton left Afghanistan and arrived in London two days ago.

Whatever the reasons for the delay in broadcast, CNN made the utmost of the video. Yesterday, a multi-split screen simultaneously revealed interview footage, two legal analysts, a synopsis of Walker's comments plus the instant e-mailed reactions of viewers.

While military lawyer David Shelton wondered if the young man's disposition would boil down to "an argument between the liberal left and the conservative right," an anonymous viewer cut to the chase:

"He still supports the jihad. He's a traitor," read the statement.

The video like the Osama bin Laden home movies a week ago inspired strong reactions elsewhere.

"This guy deserves a lot more than a shave and a haircut. You have to try to overcome your desire to strap him on a cruise missile and fire him at Tora Bora," Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said after he saw the tape.

Ironically, this is the second "exclusive" John Walker videotape touted by the broadcast media. On Dec. 12, CBS laid claim to the footage of CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann who was killed in a prisoner uprising near Mazar-e-Sharif hours later questioning Walker.

"Walker is heard," CBS said at the time. "In an exclusive video, American Taliban John Walker speaks."

The Fox News Channel, meanwhile, simply calls Walker "Taliban John."

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