Viewer discretion

CNN's al-Qaida tapes were grisly and important, and offered a promising look at what a news channel could actually be.

By Carina Chocano

Published August 23, 2002 9:13PM (EDT)

On Monday afternoon, CNN aired footage of chemical weapons being tested on dogs -- and not just any dogs, but cute puppies. The footage was just a small part of 250 hours of footage that made up al-Qaida's internal video records, 64 tapes of which were smuggled out of Afghanistan by CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson, and doled out over the course of the week on CNN. The tapes include how-to videos on home TNT preparation, SUV-ambushing, bridge-blasting, hostage-taking, hijacking and assassination. But the dog footage was presented as particularly troubling, and CNN displayed some extended hand-wringing over its decision to air the material. The video was preceded by repeated viewer discretion warnings, and was described as unsuitable for children and "some adults."

Just what type of adult this might be became clear when Wolf Blitzer read an e-mail from an angry viewer toward the end of his show. The viewer called the "Terror on Tape" footage, which he described as "four pictures of dogs being tortured in a gas chamber," "disgusting and inhumane." Blitzer thanked the viewer for his concern and added, "These tapes are not easy to watch, as we've been saying, but they are important for all of us to see if we want to better understand the terror threat all of us face."

A few hours later, on "Newsnight," Aaron Brown defended CNN's decision to air the unedited tapes on both grounds, saying, "The al-Qaida tapes are important. They are important because they tell us ... about the bin Laden operation and its ability wage a terror war ... which brings us to tonight's excerpt: the use of poison gas or some sort of agent and the test run on dogs that al-Qaida operatives performed." Brown was grave. "It is horrible," he said. "It is horrible that they did it. It is horrible to watch. And I do not blame any of you for turning away and tuning this out during that portion."

It's not hard to see why this footage was considered particularly disturbing; the dogs suffer and die as a stationary camera impassively records their ordeal. But considering that the dogs were ostensibly only for practice, it is a little harder to see why it might be considered more disturbing than the footage of an unseen al-Qaida member casually whipping up a batch of home-made TNT like some murderous Martha Stewart. Before airing the tapes again, Brown went on to explain the reasoning behind CNN's decision. "They are an enemy and we need to understand them, how they think, what they are capable of," he said. Then he voiced a particularly surprising qualifier: "I know some of you think we are running this stuff simply because we believe we will get good ratings. You are wrong. I find them so repulsive I rather suspect many of you will not watch them at all."

It seems unlikely that we need reminding of what "they are capable of" after what we saw, without preamble, last September. So it's both understandable and absurd that we would find this material upsetting. But Brown's preemptive defense makes sense in light of recent ratings-war hi-jinks, as well as ongoing debates about when material is newsworthy and when it is exploitative. Earlier in the summer, the Boston Phoenix was criticized for its decision to run stills from a video of Daniel Pearl's videotaped murder, and just this week wondered "Where are the media ethicists now that the network is aggressively promoting these videos and airing them under the title "Terror on Tape"?" -- bizarrely suggesting that footage of dying dogs, however brutal, is somehow comparable to images of a man's brutal slaying.

Earlier this week, it was reported that NBC has hired a psychiatrist to advise the network on how to handle Sept. 11 coverage -- after that same psychiatrist had warned the network that watching images of the World Trade Center collapse could have a negative effect on children. And, for the first anniversary coverage, ABC News has lifted a ban on video replays of the planes striking the World Trade Center. It imposed the ban a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Naturally, each one of these cases is different, and to agree with a media outlet's decision to go forward with presenting one bit of material is not necessarily to agree with all of them. But, as is becoming increasingly common, technology keeps leaping ahead of any agreed-upon ethical guidelines for dealing with the issues it raises.

The al-Qaida tapes -- a library of material that has been anecdotally, and probably not un-ironically, referred to as "Al Qaeda Productions" -- attest to the media-savviness of the organization. In this respect, al-Qaida is no different from anybody else in the world when it comes to being media-ready. The existence of the tapes alone, not to mention their apparent broadcast-ready quality, almost obviates the question of whether they should be aired simply by being so news footage-like.(Look for a Don DeLillo novel on the subject in stores soon, or, for that matter, already.)

The bigger question seems to be, when deciding what types of images are fit for public viewing, what kinds of distinctions, if any, should be made?

"There aren't any clear rules or dividing lines that can apply in all cases, so it falls into this messy ground of public judgment," says Jay Rosen, a New York University professor and press critic who focuses on the media's role in democracy. "Judgment about what's fit for public viewing is inherently difficult, culture-bound and what academics would call 'contestable.' In situations like that [footage of the dogs being poisoned], what's relevant to me is not 'Did they get criticism?' You should get criticism. What I would look for is how public and open, clear, thoughtful and deliberative are they in explaining their thinking on this question, and listening to the way others think of it and really tuning in to the feelings people have on the subject. And do they get better at making these decisions? Do they consult a wider range of people?"

Ratings stunt or not, Fox still won the day, numbers-wise. But ratings are only one way to look at the success of a news organization. "There is also another competition that goes on, on another level," says Rosen, "and it's a competition for prestige, credibility, influence, trust, image, brand, all these things that are absolutely crucial. Anybody who can only reckon with one and not the other isn't really thinking very carefully about it." That, of course, also influences advertisers, who are as concerned about aligning their brands with a respectable product as they are in reaching a big audience.

If Brown's lengthy preamble to the tapes was evidence of anything, it was of the extent of the careful thinking that went into this decision and perhaps a hyper-awareness of the media climate in which they are being presented. Variety's take the following day focused on the aspect of the story of most interest to Variety, but the trade's choice of words in describing the news network's exclusive was both apt and telling: "CNN upped the ante in the cable news war Monday, bombarding the airwaves with graphic video footage purportedly of Al Qaeda terrorist camps." And CNN could clearly see this sort of thing coming. Shortly before the running the tape, after what had already been a lengthy warning and justification, Brown added "And one more time. OK, this stuff is very difficult to watch. This is not hype, this is not a trick to get to you watch. This is tough stuff."

Brown's anti-hype, of course, had the opposite effect -- there's nothing like someone telling you not to look to make you look -- but CNN's meta-presentation of the tapes is interesting precisely because of the contrast it strikes with Fox. While Fox seems to have no problem making its ideological tendencies known, CNN seems reticent to compete on ideological grounds. "So," as Rosen says, "it has this problem of how to compete. It competes on other levels, like programming, promotion, faces, stars" -- and, with Brown's show in particular, by experimenting with traditional notions of authority and credibility.

Brown's anchor mensch delivery does seem at times to be a deliberate move away from the well-worn, all-knowing, authoritative anchor role. He seems comfortable watching events unfold along with viewers, reacting to them as they happen, and occasionally changing his thinking. Sometimes, you can see the wheels churning. After watching the tapes, Brown reacted with a shake of the head and a sigh, like someone who probably had just seen the tapes.

In fact, he reacted just like the viewers who were watching it for the first time at home (although he admitted to have seen the tape many times before). It was hard not to get swept up in feelings about what he was going through, as he said, "Well, you know, I don't know precisely to react. I've seen this stuff now a number of times over the last several days. And the truth is, it is no less sickening the tenth time than it was the first time. I can't imagine how you're reacting to it ... the worst is over, OK."

Struggling to make sense of it all live, Brown is experimenting with a different type of authority, as he assures us of the "goodness" and "smartness" of team CNN. It's not the solid, and by today's standards, rigid delivery of Walter Cronkite. "That part of Brown's show is saying something different to the audience," Rosen adds. "That we aren't able always to tell you like it is, we're figuring it out. That's not the standard promotional claim of a newscast. It's 'ABC: Uniquely qualified to bring you the world.' Not, 'ABC: We figure it out.' That's not the rhetoric of news. So this is a different rhetoric.

"I have no idea whether it's going to work," he says.

But in this case of the al-Qaida tapes, it surely did.

And perhaps providing a forum for people who aren't quite sure how to feel about something is a service a 24-hour-news network is uniquely qualified to provide. It's surely a refreshing change of pace from CNN's foes' approach -- one they've tried hard to mimic (here and here) -- where opinions are presented to them for consumption on the hour in as loud, flashy and incoherent a forum as possible. It's also a tougher choice; many viewers probably find it more comforting to watch a "news" show that validates their opinions than to watch a show where the newsman isn't afraid to waffle on a subject. Waffling, after all, is a sign of deliberation, reflection and consideration. But it's also a sign of indecision, and that can be unnerving.

"Traditionally, it's thought you're credible if you're detached," says Rosen. "Brown says 'I'm credible because I'm affected by this.'"

With Brown, authenticity often trumps authority, and this can make the bombast and bluster of other commentators seem narrow by contrast. This type of approach to news presenting predates Sept. 11, of course, and seems more likely to appeal to a younger viewing generation that was raised on television and has a more rarefied taste for what seems authentic.

Perhaps that formula will prove successful against the candy-colored sets and choreographed bluster of Fox -- if it works. But as Rosen says, "It's a very tricky thing, because it can become phony in a second."

Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

MORE FROM Carina Chocano

Related Topics ------------------------------------------