BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last Sunday CNN began showing some of the Al Qaeda tapes it had recently acquired from an unnamed source. They show terrorists making do-it-yourself TNT bombs, offering instruction in ambushing and kidnapping, and testing poison gas on a dog. By Monday, ABC and NBC were running CNN's footage, and CBS was running some tapes it itself had purchased. Al Qaeda video, once discouraged on TV news by the Bush administration, was suddenly screened around the clock.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It's horrible stuff. Horrible. CNN news anchor Aaron Brown said that himself after presenting a long and thoughtful explanation for the decision to run the videos at all. Brown said: "Could we have edited the tapes differently? Yes, absolutely. They would have been less sickening. But by sanitizing them they also would have had less impact and the impact matters. And one more thing on this before we move on, and this may sound self-serving -- it is a risk we have to take. I know some of you think we're running this stuff simply because we believe we'll get good ratings. You are wrong. I find them so repulsive I rather suspect many of you will not watch them at all." That preamble diffused much of the criticism CNN surely anticipated, but some questions remain, and I'm pleased to say Aaron Brown has agreed to consider them. Welcome to the show.
AARON BROWN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So first I have to ask: if showing these tapes isn't at least in part about ratings, why spread them out over a series of reports over an entire week? Why not do a one day special edition? Why run the disturbing clips again and again?
AARON BROWN: Let me make two points about it. The, the piece I wrote that you quote on Monday, I was talking about, specifically about the gassing of the dog and the reaction of some people that it was-- essentially the equivalent of, of running a train wreck. It's the kind of thing that people can't somehow resist watching. And I found it and I find it still kind of ridiculous to think that we would put something like that on simply because we thought we could get great ratings out of watching a dog tortured. And, and so that's what the piece referred to. It is, it would be incredibly disingenuous to suggest that we are not in the business of having people watch us. Of course we want people to watch us. So no one should think what I was saying is we're not trying to get people to watch; we are. But what we weren't trying to do is put on the most disgusting piece of tape we could find in hopes that we would find the lowest common denominator viewer to watch us -- somebody who simply wanted to watch a dog die!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You told us on Monday also that out of a concern for public safety CNN had shown the tapes to appropriate government authorities. Did CNN share the tapes with the government before airing them or after?
AARON BROWN: Both.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And did the government express an opinion about the contents of the tape or CNN's decision to air them?
AARON BROWN: I am unaware that anyone in government said to us we should not run the tapes. I, I do not know that that happened. I have no reason to believe that that happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:White House press secretary Ari Fleischer --CNN played this clip on Monday night -- said that the tapes were "just one more troublesome sign about the type of enemy we face and why it's important for us to pursue this war on terror." It seems the government isn't displeased with the running of these tapes. The Bush administration has had strong views all along about which Al Qaeda tapes are meant for public consumption and which aren't. By airing these tapes, isn't there a danger that CNN is playing into a government agenda to promote support for the war -- that there is a whiff of propaganda about some of this?
AARON BROWN: We have been criticized by people who see this as Al Qaeda propaganda -- that by showing the tapes we have made the terrorist organization seem more frightening than it already is. And I suppose there are also people who will say that by airing the tapes we are playing into the government's agenda. In an odd way both might be true but neither is the point, and I, I can't honestly control, nor do I think I'm expected to, people's reaction to the tape if they play into some political agenda or another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Despite your efforts on Tuesday night's show to explain CNN's decision to pay for the tapes, a lot has been made of why CNN failed to initially disclose the fact that it paid for the tapes and why CNN still won't disclose who it paid for the tapes. We know we don't want to endanger the lives of any reporters, but there are many people who feel that the provenance of the tapes allows people to judge its credibility better.
AARON BROWN: It was, it was not a simple transaction. It's not a transaction I'm going to talk about. And that's just not a risk that we can take.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about the mixup over whether or not CNN paid for the tape?
AARON BROWN:I'm not clear, honestly, on how the mixup occurred in the Monday New York Times piece, but I have no question, you know, Judith is a terrific reporter and I'm sure she heard it the way she heard it. I tried to give it a context that it is not especially unusual for us or any news organization to buy video; we paid a whole lot more for video of the trade center towers being hit, for example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Yes, and it's certainly quite routine for news organizations to pay for tapes or photographs to illustrate a story, but of course when they pay for interviews, that's called "checkbook journalism" because the cash incentive could affect what the subject says. But in this case, the video is like the interview subject -- it is the story, which is why without revealing anything that would endanger anybody's life or work the provenance of the tape, the credibility of the tape, hinges on the source.
AARON BROWN: I, I would beg to differ on the question of the credibility of the tapes. The tapes themselves speak very loudly on their own, and they don't need, I don't believe, any more sourcing. It's very clear what they are. I don't think anybody disputes the credibility of those tapes; the legitimacy of those tapes. So what we come down to is a discussion, a kind of inside-baseball discussion about how we got them, how the transaction was made, how many people were involved, where the money went -- that sort of thing. And while we are incredibly confident that the money certainly did not end up in the hands of "bad boys," we just -- we can't talk about it! It's just something we will not talk about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Aaron Brown, thank you very much.
AARON BROWN: You're very welcome. It's nice to talk to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: CNN News Night Anchor Aaron Brown.
"Original music for On the Media"
by Ben Allison