Investigation: Alexandre Levy and Francois Bugingo
New York - September 26 / October 2 2001
Observers cast doubt on the objectivity of the American press
Ten years after the Gulf War, a conflict the reality of which was largely hidden from the media, the US administration has launched a new series of military operations in reaction to the waves of terrorist attacks that stroked the East coast of the United States leaving nearly 6,000 dead. The daily New York Times noted, "This surge of national pride sweeping the country after the terrorist attacks on 11 September sparks the beginnings of new, more difficult debate over balance among national security, free speech and patriotism." The influential American newspaper said in an article on 28 September 2001 that the debate "is being played out on stages large and small", that press comments have on several occasions provoked the fury of the authorities, along with that of the American public, and have led to sanctions including pulling of programmes, withdrawal of advertising in the media and disavowal, even outright sacking of the journalists by their employers. This comes on top of a long list of constraints and more subtle pressure that American and foreign media, including the Internet, have been subjected to since 11 September.
Many journalists and foreign observers have already cast doubt on the objectivity and independence of the American press, particularly the TV channels, in this period of "war effort". In the same way, several voices have been raised within the United States warning the public about a decline in freedom of expression and opinion, freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, in exchange for tightening security. "We are facing an enemy which is exploiting what it is about our society that makes it strong and effective: freedom, openness and freedom of movement. We have to be sure that we remain an open society, in which individual freedoms are respected," said Strobe Talbott, former number two at the US State Department in the Clinton Administration. But these voices, drowned out in the climate of media coverage devoted to covering the aftermath of the attacks, the preparations and continuing US counter-attacks, remain in a minority. Even those who are critical appear weakened by the emotion produced by this dramatic terrorist act, the death of thousands of innocent people and the suffering of their bereaved families.
In the face of calls to national unity, US organisations traditionally devoted to defending individual freedoms, have been muted. They consider that it is still too soon, even inappropriate, to be raising the alarm over events considered largely ’secondary’. "The shock of 11 September seems to have stifled the most militant of people, giving way to a de facto tolerance towards tougher than usual stances on the part of the military and the judiciary," said journalist Sylvie Kauffman, former correspondent of the French daily Le Monde in New York, on 17 September 2001. In fact today, while countries throw themselves into a fresh military operation, the vigilance of organisations defending human rights and individual freedoms are all the more needed.
A number of regimes find the temptation too great to exploit the genuine emotion produced by these attacks on the United States on 11 September to restrict freedom of the press and more generally to silence domestic opposition under the cover of the struggle against terrorism. In countries such as Pakistan, Israel, Territories under Palestinian Authority or Liberia, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) has recorded several incidents of press freedom violations directly linked to the events in America. While avoiding all linkage with these regimes, RSF also makes public here a serious of episodes affecting press freedom in the United States between 11 September and 7 October 20001, the date of the American military counter-attack. Most of them have been reported and commented on by the American press or by specialist Internet sites. Are these incidents of censorship or self-censorship? Are we witnessing a deliberate policy on the part of the authorities or a choice made by the main media themselves? What do American and foreign journalists working in New York think? What about organisations that defend press freedom? To try to answer these questions, two representatives of RSF went to the United States and meet representatives of the media, human rights organisations and US press specialists.
The first suspect: internet
The unprecedented scale of the attacks on New York and Washington, and the presumed use by the terrorists of advanced computer technology, prompted fears among internet users of a tightening of web surveillance, as called for by the security services. A number of sources report that a few hours after the attacks on 12 September, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents turned up at the headquarters of the main internet providers (Hotmail, AOL, Earthlink, etc) to obtain information on possible email exchanges between the terrorists. Technicians working for these companies have said off the record to the American online magazine Wired that FBI agents wanted to install the electronic bugging system "Carnivore" (recently renamed DCS 1000) on the main computer of internet access providers based in the United States. "From Tuesday evening FBI agents showed up at our workplace wanting to set up their machines. They promised to pick up the tab for all the costs of installation and use". Another one working for Hotmail said that the FBI had asked for, and obtained, from company executives all information on accounts, whose names included the word Allah. All the major Internet access providers appear to have followed Hotmail’s example and fully collaborated with the American secret services.
Once installed at an Internet access provider Carnivore can record and save all information exchanged between users. Under strong critical pressure from defenders of individual freedoms in the United States, the system had never been used until now except with the advance agreement of a judge. The "Combating terrorism Act" voted through after a half-hour debate in the Senate on 13 September, barely two days after the attacks, exempts the security services from judicial approval for the use of Carnivore. To become law this act has still to be approved by a joint commission of members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
In the same vein, a number of US leaders have started attacking encryption. This procedure allows internet-users to enjoy confidentiality when exchanging information on the Internet with the use of encryption software. the best known being PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), which can be freely downloaded from a number of sites. Already last March the head of the FBI Louis Freeh said he was convinced that terrorist networks were using encryption. On 13 September the Republican senator Judd Gregg called in a speech to Congress for a worldwide ban on encryption software unless public authorities had been given the means to decode the messages. "One could fear that the authorities could take advantage of the emotion of the moment to achieve their objective: banning encryption" one American proponent of PGP told RSF. Other privacy protection militants such as John Gilmore of the American organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called for creation of more sites which would offer encryption software on open sale.
After the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 the FBI found plans for hijacking 11 planes on the portable computer of the person who carried out the attack. The FBI took ten months to decode the files, the majority of which had been encrypted with PGP software. Defenders of encryption say to this that intelligence has already shown its weakness in this area in as much as the terrorists appear to have already used methods that avoid electronic surveillance. The creator of PGP, David Zimmerman, who was nearly jailed in the United States during the 1980 for distributing his programme, has once again defended his position in a recent interview in the magazine Futur(e)s. "Whether it’s congress, or in the courts or in the columns of newspapers, the country has already debated this question over the last decade. And together we have decided that society has more to gain than to lose from effective encryption. It should not be forgotten that encryption has saved lives in the entire world. The system is used by human rights organisations worldwide and especially under dictatorships". (Quoted by the on-line magazine Transfert, 17 September 2001).
Television: From spontaneity to patriotic rigour
Filmed virtually live, the attack against the World Trade Center was at the same time tragic and spectacular, as if meant for television. "One should not forget that the terrorist target, Manhattan, is not only the financial heart but also the media capital of the country", an American journalist pointed out. Never has such an event been filmed and photographed live both by cameras and surveillance, by amateurs and professionals. In the first days access to the sites of the attacks was not controlled. Numerous photographers and cameramen took advantage of this by getting as close as possible to the points of impact. The United States being cut off from the rest of the world with the grounding of all flights, it was only American journalists and foreign correspondents posted to New York who covered the story. Not having necessarily experienced war or natural disasters, they admitted to having had "the shock of their lives" when they heard about the terrorist attacks and went to the World Trade Centre. Either originally from New York or having lived their for many years, they said with a good deal of emotion, that they had covered "the most important story of their careers". They did not hide their sympathy for Americans and in particular New Yorkers in this difficult period. "I reacted first as an adopted New Yorker rather than as a journalist" said Stéphanie Tremblay French programme co-ordinator for Radio Canada. "The terrorists had above all attacked my city and targeted my way of life." "I never thought I would cover such an event in my whole life time." said Don Emmert, head of photo for Agence France-Presse. "I am Canadian," said Marc Greenought, radio producer for English programmes on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), "but during these past days I have never felt so deeply American."
Everyone interviewed by RSF in New York said so: The American television networks were the first to cover the story and they were an excellent source of information in the first days. "We edited the first reports on the attack on the World Trade Center with our eyes fixed on the television screen," said Michel Moutot, Agence France-Presse bureau chief in New York. "The US television networks have matchless resources and they used them right away," he continued. Eric Leser, correspondent for the French daily Le Monde agreed. He told RSF how invaluable the live coverage on American television was to his work. The organisation Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), generally very critical of the major media in America, found that the coverage in the first days was acceptable overall. "We saw a new type of spontaneous and sincere journalism" said one of its organisers Steve Randell.
But just a week later, the tone and content on the American television networks changed. "I think the turning point was George W. Bush’s speech to Congress on the 20 September 2001, said Eric Leser. "Since then the media has taken on a strongly patriotic tone and news has lost out to propaganda." French journalists add that since then they have followed the television networks much less and used the internet, where there are a number of sites providing more critical news and different angles. Many foreign correspondents who spoke to RSF in New York said the same thing.
The RSF representatives noted the change of tone and feeling on the American networks that covered President Bush’s 20 September speech, in which he called for a "war against terrorism." The fate of the victims was relegated to second position and the networks devoted their airtime to hailing the country’s "new heroes": firefighters, police and military staff, politicians. And above all reflecting an image of a united and defiant nation, ready to wage war on those who have attacked it. "America’s new war" and "At war with terror" (CNN) or "America fights back or counter-attacks? (CBS) were the watchwords, henceforth always accompanied by the ubiquitous stars and stripes. "Broadcasts became all beating the drum and flags flying in the wind. It was no longer news," said another foreign correspondent Richard Hetu, a journalist with the Canadian daily La Presse. A French journalist, a Balkans specialist, who covered the NATO intervention in Serbia, agreed from New York that American television had "gone to war": " Instead of news broadcasts, Americans are watching advertising spots to the glory of their country," he said. In one example the 62 regional channels of the Sinclair Broadcast group have been carrying an advertisement on their web site: "Our team supports the action of President Bush and the leaders of our nation in putting an end to terrorism." continues the message, urging viewers who agree to send their views to the site.
Reflecting on the patriotic outbursts, Stéphanie Tremblay of Radio Canada said she was "not at all surprised by this aspect of coverage on the US networks. "I knew, however, that if I want to hear a more critical report that gave more space to the news itself, I would have to watch BBC or event TV 5," she said. Fellow journalist Chantal Lavigne, also acknowledged the American media’s desire to take part in the "war effort" said, "Most star television presenters have said that they were Americans before being journalists."
Journalists and media executives questioned by RSF, either strongly denied having produced propaganda or on the other hand, acknowledged and justified their decision. "The footage of the attack against the World Trade Center has no equivalent in the history of conflict," said Paul Khlebnikov, journalist with the influential economic magazine Forbes. "In the war of pictures the terrorists have made a decisive point. That is why the war that the United States is going to wage should not be just military and economic but also psychological, therefore media-driven. Killing Bin Laden will not be enough he will have to be cut down symbolically. Mr Khlebnikov said he was not worried by the bellicose and propagandist tone adopted by some of the US media. He attributes it to a "civic revival" shared by all Americans. "The first days there could have been a collapse in morale of Americans. Then as in times of war, there was a civic revival which was picked up in the press. And if the media has sometimes lacked objectivity it was not under official pressure. Objectivity in journalism does not man an absence of values. The media, overall, did excellent work. Television in particular was a triumph," he said.
Paul Khlebnikov is not the only one in the American press to take this position. Sandy Genelius, spokeswoman for the American TV network CBS News is satisfied, she says in an interview with RSF, with the comments she has read in the press about the work of the channel. "We haven’t sunk into propaganda like some", she says taking a swipe in passing at CBS’s main competitor Cable News Network International (CNN). The chairman of CNN Chris Cramer has been self-congratulatory about the work of his network from 18 September: "CNN has never failed to live up to the occasion (-) to supply balanced news. The 4,000 men and women of CNN have not escaped the shock and the horror of what has happened. However the coverage of the news that we gave the public and other media is testament to professionalism and integrity."
Missing images: censorship or "matter of taste"
Barely a week after the attacks, some European media chiefs, particularly French, have questioned the impartiality of the American TV networks, suspected of not showing "all the images", mainly those of the victims of the attacks. Then there have been criticisms of American authorities, accused of wanted to prevent some shots from the scene being taken and put out by the media. Robert Namias, head of information for the main private French television channel TF1 has several times condemned "filtering" which he considers a form of "censorship". "I strongly regret the censorship imposed on us by the United States, the journalist told the French daily Le Figaro on 26 September 2001. "The images that the French media paid for were filtered, treated and purified by the American authorities. How do you think we can do our job when we are denied access to information and surrounded by security forces? I did not want to show horrifying images but, to do the job properly, there should be a minimum knowledge." His opinion is shared, in varying degrees, by other French television bosses but not unanimously. "The horror of the two planes slamming into the towers. Wasn’t that enough? asks Hervé Brusini, head of national news on the public French channel France 3. His colleague on France 2 Oliver Mazerolle, considers that he would not have shown gory images but said the American channels balked at showing this type of image "for patriotic reasons". The French journalists all join however in condemning increasing difficulty in getting access to the World Trade Center site and the unwillingness of the authorities to allow journalists to move about freely within the security perimeter.
During their investigation in New York and Paris, the RSF representatives tried to find out more about the lack of images of the victims and the conditions of access to the World Trade Center site. Jim Rutenberg and Felicity Barringer, media specialists for the New York Times visited various television studios from 11 September onwards and questioned those in charge about their editorial choices. "Terrible pictures started arriving," they said. "There was blood, there were dismembered bodies." Despite the desire of some journalists to show these images, the head of MSNBC Erik Sorenson took the decision not to show them. "I think there are all sorts of ways to show the horror without descending into the gory," he said Some networks, like NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News did however broadcast footage of desperate people jumping from the blazing building. Only to regret it afterwards. "It was a bad decision, the pictures were really too disturbing", confessed Bill Wheatley, vice-president of NBC News. Those who decided not to show the film explained: " The question is are we just creating useless pain". Those, who like CBS, showed them, justify themselves too: "That’s terrorism. From one point of view you want to protect the viewer but in another way you want to show just what the terrorists have really done."
Michel Moutot of Agence France-Presse also remembers these deeply disturbing photos. "By their clothes one could easily recognise people who jumped from the windows". However he considered them to be "acceptable". In fact, several photos of this scene, taken by photographers from the major international agencies appeared during the course of the week in the American and European press. Editors who published the, like Glenn Guzzo of the daily Denver Post, spoke of the virulent objections from readers. "Haven’t you any feelings, any respect for the families who have lost their loved-ones?" one reader asked indignantly.
At this stage is strongly appears that a number of distressing photos were taken and used by the American media. It was they who decided, according to their own conscience, whether to use them or not. "It doesn’t look like the authorities were trying to control these pictures, given that that they didn’t even know how to protect the president," said one observer. "The refusal to show the horrifying pictures was an editorial decision by my colleaguesm,"adds Paul Khlebnikov of Forbes. "As citizens we had to ask ourselves the question: should one show bits of bodies in a period of mourning and national remembrance?" It was indeed an "editorial choice" said Sandy Genelius of CBS News to RSF. "We had sensitive film, we had gory images, but each time we asked ourselves: What more are we contributing to history by showing them? So we decided not to show the pictures just for the pleasure of demonstrating that we had them".
This sudden reticence of the part of the American media has interested a number of foreign observers. In an analytical piece headed "The faceless dead of the World Trade Center," the journalist Michel Guerin, specialist in images at the French daily Le Monde, stated the paradox: "5,500 people died or disappeared on the black day of 11 September...but practically no image of the bodies has been shown on the television or published in the press" (21 September 2001). "A decency of variable shape, says Dominique Wolton, head of research at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) quoted by the French daily Liberation (19 September 2001). "This should be a big lesson in decency to western media who don’t hesitate to show massacres when they happen in Rwanda..." he added. Others like the photo historian Marc Ferro do not find it surprising. "During wars you never show your own dead, only those of your adversaries. The Americans want to limit the images of the trauma they have suffered, of defeat, the affront and the mortification."
Sandy Genelius, spokeswoman for CBS News, to whom RSF put these questions, once again staunchly defended herself against applying double standards. "It’s not true that we used different standards. We applied the same rules when we filmed in Rwanda as at the World Trade Center."
An RSF representative also discussed this question with Tom Golstein, emeritus professor at the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism in south Manhattan. He considered that it was simply a "question of taste".
This opinion seems to be shared by a significant majority of American and even foreign journalists. Like Canadian journalist Marc Greenought of CBC, they did not hide their astonishment, even irritation at the criticism from the European media on the absence of more distressing and gory images of the World Trade Center victims and the restricted access to the site. "I do not understand," he told RSF. "As a journalist I had all the access I needed, the suffering, the emotion. No need to go searching for blood under the ruins for that."