- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

On Media

Along with terrorism, one of the Pentagon's biggest worries yesterday was a USA Today headline that read, "Rumsfeld: Bin Laden may get away."

The accompanying story stated, "Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday that American forces might not catch terrorist Osama bin Laden."

Those 22 words hit the media marketplace like a bomb, scattering flak everywhere. Print, Internet and broadcast reports spun the provocative phrases like Gospel, implying that the military had all but given up on finding bin Laden.

"Mr Rumsfeld appears to have wandered off his script," the BBC noted.

The secretary went on a distinct cleanup mission.

"How likely do you think it is that the U.S. may never get bin Laden?" a reporter asked in a press briefing yesterday.

"I think that was a headline in USA Today, as opposed to a quote from Rumsfeld," Mr. Rumsfeld replied, later adding, "You know I think we're in one of those semantic discussions with USA Today."

The secretary then assured reporters that bin Laden was on the Pentagon hit list, repeating "we expect to get him" three times in the course of the briefing. Meanwhile, both the Pentagon and USA Today yesterday released the actual transcript of the 50-minute interview between Mr. Rumsfeld and the paper's editorial board Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the paper said that editors stood by the story and the headline. "The story speaks for itself," she said.

But what did it say? The genesis of the story and headline is complex. According to the transcript, which can be found at the paper's Web site (www.usatoday.com), a reporter asked Mr. Rumsfeld if he was "confident" of achieving the goal of getting bin Laden "dead or alive."

Mr. Rumsfeld replied, "Well, it is a very difficult thing to do. It's a big world. There are lots of countries. He's got a lot of money, he's got a lot of people who support him, and I just don't know whether we'll be successful. Clearly, it would be highly desirable to find him and stop him and his key people. And there are a lot of them. We're not looking for one person, we're looking for a whole crowd. And that's our intent and our intention. How can anyone know what the outcome's going to be till you get there?"

Did Mr. Rumsfeld clearly state that bin Laden would get away? No, though he acknowledged there was no guarantee that the terrorist would be caught. His comments and the paper's subsequent interpretation reflect both the fluid, sometimes emotional, nature of live press briefings and the unconventional side of the war on terrorism.

The Pentagon has already cautioned journalists in recent days that this is not a sequential, made-for-TV conflict with talking points, but a work in progress. Comments from spokesmen are therefore not an exact science. They still get used, however.

"It is not unethical to create a hard headline from a soft quote," observed Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "It is a method of unspinning an official statement. Plus, USA Today clearly did not put quotes around that headline. It was a paraphrase."

The headline which flirted with sensationalism took on a life of its own once other news organizations ran with it, particularly brief broadcast reports. Mr. Felling remains philosophical about it all.

"You can't control the assumptions readers or viewers make from the headline, particularly if it reflects the sentiment of the story," he said.

Meanwhile yesterday, ABC had a different sort of problem with truth in its anthrax reporting.

The network suspended weekend anchorwoman Carole Simpson for two weeks with pay for spreading false information about the anthrax attack on ABC that sickened a 7-month-old boy.

According to USA Today, Miss Simpson told a gathering of media women that colleague Cokie Roberts had received a suspicious letter from Trenton, N.J. Although ABC was investigating a suspicious letter in its Washington bureau, it did not originate from Trenton.

ABC executives were also upset that Miss Simpson revealed details about the infant, including that the baby's mother worked for her. Miss Simpson, in a statement issued yesterday, said she regretted the mistake about the Trenton postmark.

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

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