WikiLeaks not like Pentagon Papers

I am a rabid supporter of the First Amendment. For 40 years in the broadcast news business and half a dozen teaching, I have exercised that right and taught it with vigor. But this “right” of free speech carries with it some obligations, which news organizations have ignored in the handling of the so-called WikiLeaks.

In October 1993, CNN was carrying live the second attempted Moscow coup: tanks firing on the Russian White House and the parliament building, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank waving the Russian flag. The third day, our attention was diverted when a team of American forces launched a raid on the headquarters of war lord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The raid resulted in two Black Hawk helicopters being shot down, and 19 U.S. soldiers killed. Aided labeled captured pilot Michael Durant a prisoner of war. The reaction by the American public was extraordinary. Citizens jammed the Capitol’s phone lines, angrily asking their representatives why Americans were dying and in Somalia, of all places.

No one had video of the raid aftermath, until the day after when CNN’s international desk advised CNN management that we were about to get a video feed from a freelance cameraman, as well as an interview with the “POW.” Then-CNN President Tom Johnson called in Ed Turner, head of news gathering, and me as head of production and programming.

We watched the feed with graphic scenes of dead American soldiers whose bodies were being mutilated by the locals, burned-out helicopters, and destroyed huts and buildings. One shot was of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a rope tied to his ankle. Finally came the “interview” with Michael Durant, the captured pilot. His interviewers were unseen. The soldier was in apparent shock, his clothes dirty and torn, and his bruised face revealing what he had been through. At one point, the camera pulled back, showing us his left leg at a grotesque angle, obviously a compound fracture. He stated his name, his rank, his hometown and gave a clearly forced statement about killing innocent civilians and following orders.

We discussed if we should use any of the video or the interview and, if so, how much. The concern was the potential impact on U.S. foreign policy. Johnson had been a White House Fellow in the mid ’60s and had a good idea how this story, now reinforced by pictures, might be received by Congress and the White House. The discussion became animated with options of airing all or none of the footage voiced.

Johnson’s final decision was that 30 seconds of video and a short sound bite from the interview would air, and I was to oversee the editing and scripting. Only one 2 1/2-second shot from a distance of a dead, unidentifiable American was used in the edited video. The script emphasized that we did not know the conditions under which the interview was conducted.

At noon, all the CNN networks were told to begin airing the material at 3 p.m., only once each hour and only in its entirety using the approved script. This would be the case for one 24-hour news cycle with any subsequent use to be approved by managers.

Come noon, Johnson called the White House press office and told them what we had and that we would start airing it in three hours. He offered to air an on-camera statement by a White House spokesman every time the story was used on all CNN networks, or read a White House statement at each airing. The White House declined. The same offer was made to the Pentagon after we were assured that there was a soldier named Michael Durant on this mission. They also declined, and we proceeded.

That, to me, is textbook for handling a story that could have U.S. policy repercussions. It doesn’t appear to me that the national media gave the same consideration in their decision to disseminate the WikiLeaks.

The publication of WikiLeaks by Julian Assange on his Web site would have had limited exposure. But when one mainstream media outlet picked up the leaked communications, all others followed suit and the world looked at the U.S. in a different light, no doubt a more negative one.

Did all news organizations that broadcast or published these leaks go through the process, the filtering, the discussion among senior staffers about whether this story met the criteria as worthy? Analogies to the leak of the Pentagon Papers in the ’70s are being used. This looks like an attempt to rationalize broadcast or publication of the WikiLeaks.

But the Pentagon Papers revealed an inept military. This information was absolutely beneficial to lawmakers and citizens alike to make sure the same mistakes are not repeated. Of what benefit to the U.S. government or to our citizenry are these embarrassing leaks?

I expect to hear from former or current colleagues taking me to task on behalf of the First Amendment. As I teach my students, ours is not a business of black or white; it’s a business of shades of grey.

Bob Furnad of Conyers is a former executive vice president/senior executive producer at CNN and an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism.