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U.S. Media and Coverage of Terrorism Stories


Two stories involving the American government's efforts to fight terrorism broke almost simultaneously late last week. The first disclosed the existence of a vast secret program to track confidential financial transactions. In the second, seven men were charged in Florida for what federal authorities called a home-grown terrorist plot to strike targets there and in Chicago.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, different kinds of media outlets treated the two stories in very different ways.


So what was the big news late last week? Depends where you got it.

Let's start with CNN, in a typical moment from anchor Daryn Kagan.

(Soundbite of CNN)

Ms. DARYN KAGAN (CNN News Anchor): Okay, two news conferences expected to begin any minute. We have Chicago, which has the Sears Tower, which...

FOLKENFLIK: And here was anchor Martha MacCallum on Fox News Channel.

(Soundbite of Fox News)

Ms. MARTHA MACCALLUM (Fox News Anchor): All right, we're just getting word, one of the suspects from the Florida seven terrorist groups suspected...

FOLKENFLIK: In fact, all three major American cable news networks gave the arrests nearly wall-to-wall coverage. Pretty scant attention was given to the subject that dominated Friday's front pages, at the nation's leading newspapers. And that's this revelation: U.S. Treasury officials had secretly relied on sweeping subpoenas to sift through the millions of records processed by an international banking group called SWIFT.

The records are considered confidential, but the government invoked its authority to combat terror to get access to them. But there aren't a lot of pictures in a story about bank records, especially compared to the Miami arrests.

Jonathan Klein, the President of CNN's American channel, knows that better than most.

Mr. JONATHAN KLEIN (CNN): The raid on the warehouse at least gives you a physical location and, you know, neighborhood residents who can comment. And it's got the drama of sudden, unexpected arrests.

FOLKENFLIK: Klein says both stories deserve coverage, and both are getting it. But he says television demands visual elements, particularly in breaking news.

Mr. KLEIN: In the helter skelter of cable news, you're certainly, you know, you're going to go with the story that you can get on the air and cover as thoroughly as you can. And just try to, you know, keep paying attention to the other one as it develops.

FOLKENFLIK: On the print side, no regrets for going in exactly the opposite direction. On Friday morning, the Washington Post ran the bank record story on page one, and the Miami arrests on page 26, the very back page of the front section.

Phil Bennett is the Post's Managing Editor.

Mr. PHIL BENNETT (Washington Post): Sometimes we submit those to a pretty vigorous discussion among editors, and in this case, in part because of the hour, but also just because the difference in the stories, it was a pretty quick decision.

FOLKENFLIK: Bennett says he gave little thought when both stories broke Thursday night to more prominent placement for the article about the Miami arrests.

Mr. BENNETT: There are elements of it that make it a very attractive and even sexy story, that tend to diminish the more you dig into the available facts.

FOLKENFLIK: Bennett and other editors note the men who were arrested had no actual ties to al-Qaida, despite their apparent sympathies. And agents did not find any weapons. One official called their plan aspirational, not operational.

A day later, Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, couldn't even remember where his paper ran the story about the Miami suspects.

Mr. DOYLE MCMANUS (Los Angeles Times): Shoot, I forgot! Isn't that awful?

FOLKENFLIK: McManus's reporters were working feverishly last week to break the banking story, but the New York Times beat the L.A. Times to the punch.

On Friday, Treasury Secretary John Snow said the paper should have listened to the government's warnings and withheld the story.

Mr. JOHN SNOW (U.S. Treasury Secretary): What the disclosures do is fundamentally degrade, undermine and degrade, an important source of information, make that source of information less useful. And again, let me say the only beneficiaries of that are the terrorists.

FOLKENFLIK: Cable television covered the development, but not in the same depth.

Martha MacCallum of FOX News said on the air one viewer feels the papers got it wrong.

Ms. MACCALLUM: I just want to share with you, we asked our viewers which of these big stories today they thought was more important to the war on terror, and Richard Wilson(ph), of Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he believes that the Miami Seven is definitely more important, but he says liberal newspapers do not like to see the success that's going on in the war on terror.

FOLKENFLIK: But newspaper editors defend their coverage by saying they're providing a check on the Bush administration's aggressive pursuit of previously private information.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.