- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001


Media manipulation was at work again, this time in the form of a handwritten letter from Osama bin Laden on plain white paper.

Sent to the Arabic TV network Al Jazeera yesterday, it rallies Pakistani Muslims against a "Christian crusade" and was broadcast forthwith, complete with a zoom-in shot of bin Laden's signature.

For better or worse, the footage was quickly picked up by other networks, ensuring that millions were privy to its contents, including the phrase, "Muslims in Afghanistan are being subjected to killing and the Pakistani government is standing beneath the Christian banner."

CNN approached the letter with caution, framing it with such phrases as "believed to be authentic" and "said to be real." The report included file footage of bin Laden holding a microphone and an analyst saying that "the timing" of the letter was crucial and was part of bin Laden's agenda to alter the course of the war.

MSNBC attributed all its information to Al Jazeera, adding that the Qatar-based network "has become the main conduit for statements by bin Laden."

In a cloak-and-dagger twist, British Broadcasting Corp. offices in London were faxed a copy of the letter. Editors quickly traced the call, only to find it had originated from within the city itself, rather than from outside the country. "Osama bin Laden has apparently urged Pakistani Muslims to defend Islam," their report noted.

Such restraint among broadcasters has not always been the case. Video footage of bin Laden caused a recent dust-up in the broadening no-man's land between the media and government sources.

Three weeks ago, CNN and other networks annoyed Pentagon and White House officials after they broadcast a lengthy bin Laden video, rife with threats and fresh from Al Jazeera, said to have "links with the terrorist network al Qaeda," according to several press reports.

The footage initially was aired without review or editing, and repeated so often that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice called for some discretion.

The tape could be propaganda or could herald hidden messages for other terrorists, White house spokesman Ari Fleischer cautioned. In an unprecedented move, the networks banded together and vowed to pre-screen similar material in the future.

Meanwhile, the bin Laden letter continues to be broadcast but at least both print and broadcast media have made some effort to put it in context and to include those all-important phrases like "said to be" or "alleged."

The situation will require increased sensitivity. CNN itself has vowed not to become a "propaganda" tool for the Taliban. But it is a very tricky business.

"Do you get a sense that, because they are trying to give you a good propaganda show by taking you just to these civilian areas where there have been some injuries, that there is a sense of some erosion of confidence toward them?" a CNN host asked correspondent Nick Reynolds, who was part of a group escorted by the Taliban through Afghanistan on Wednesday.

"No," he replied. "I've asked several Taliban that question. They say, 'no.' They say that what people read of the Taliban and the Afghan mind-set is completely erroneous and wrong. That is one of the reasons they want to bring us into these areas. It's not just to show us the civilian casualties, but also to show us the mind-set."

Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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