Robert Fisk: How the news will be censored in this war
A new CNN system of 'script approval' suggests the Pentagon will have nothing to worry about
25 February 2003
Already, the American press is expressing its approval of the coverage of American forces which the US military intends to allow its reporters in the next Gulf war. The boys from CNN, CBS, ABC and The New York Times will be "embedded" among the US marines and infantry. The degree of censorship hasn't quite been worked out. But it doesn't matter how much the Pentagon cuts from the reporters' dispatches. A new CNN system of "script approval" – the iniquitous instruction to reporters that they have to send all their copy to anonymous officials in Atlanta to ensure it is suitably sanitised – suggests that the Pentagon and the Department of State have nothing to worry about. Nor do the Israelis.
Indeed, reading a new CNN document, "Reminder of Script Approval Policy", fairly takes the breath away. "All reporters preparing package scripts must submit the scripts for approval," it says. "Packages may not be edited until the scripts are approved... All packages originating outside Washington, LA (Los Angeles) or NY (New York), including all international bureaus, must come to the ROW in Atlanta for approval."
The date of this extraordinary message is 27 January. The "ROW" is the row of script editors in Atlanta who can insist on changes or "balances" in the reporter's dispatch. "A script is not approved for air unless it is properly marked approved by an authorised manager and duped (duplicated) to burcopy (bureau copy)... When a script is updated it must be re-approved, preferably by the originating approving authority."
Note the key words here: "approved" and "authorised". CNN's man or woman in Kuwait or Baghdad – or Jerusalem or Ramallah – may know the background to his or her story; indeed, they will know far more about it than the "authorities" in Atlanta. But CNN's chiefs will decide the spin of the story.
CNN, of course, is not alone in this paranoid form of reporting. Other US networks operate equally anti-journalistic systems. And it's not the fault of the reporters. CNN's teams may use clichis and don military costumes – you will see them do this in the next war – but they try to get something of the truth out. Next time, though, they're going to have even less chance.
Just where this awful system leads is evident from an intriguing exchange last year between CNN's reporter in the occupied West Bank town of Ramallah, and Eason Jordan, one of CNN's top honchos in Atlanta.
The journalist's first complaint was about a story by the reporter Michael Holmes on the Red Crescent ambulance drivers who are repeatedly shot at by Israeli troops. "We risked our lives and went out with ambulance drivers... for a whole day. We have also witnessed ambulances from our window being shot at by Israeli soldiers... The story received approval from Mike Shoulder. The story ran twice and then Rick Davis (a CNN executive) killed it. The reason was we did not have an Israeli army response, even though we stated in our story that Israel believes that Palestinians are smuggling weapons and wanted people in the ambulances."
The Israelis refused to give CNN an interview, only a written statement. This statement was then written into the CNN script. But again it was rejected by Davis in Atlanta. Only when, after three days, the Israeli army gave CNN an interview did Holmes's story run – but then with the dishonest inclusion of a line that said the ambulances were shot in "crossfire" (ie that Palestinians also shot at their own ambulances).
The reporter's complaint was all too obvious. "Since when do we hold a story hostage to the whims of governments and armies?We were told by Rick that if we do not get an Israeli on-camera we would not air the package. This means that governments and armies are indirectly censoring us and we are playing directly into their own hands."
The relevance of this is all too obvious in the next Gulf War. We are going to have to see a US army officer denying everything the Iraqis say if any report from Iraq is to get on air. Take another of the Ramallah correspondent's complaints last year. In a package on the damage to Ramallah after Israel's massive incursion last April, "we had already mentioned right at the top of our piece that Israel says it is doing all these incursions because it wants to crack down on the infrastructure of terror. However, obviously that was not enough. We were made by the ROW (in Atlanta) to repeat this same idea three times in one piece, just to make sure that we keep justifying the Israeli actions..."
But the system of "script approval" that has so marred CNN's coverage has got worse. In a further and even more sinister message dated 31 January this year, CNN staff are told that a new computerised system of script approval will allow "authorised script approvers to mark scripts (ie reports) in a clear and standard manner. Script EPs (executive producers) will click on the coloured APPROVED button to turn it from red (unapproved) to green (approved). When someone makes a change in the script after approval, the button will turn yellow." Someone? Who is this someone? CNN's reporters aren't told.
But when we recall that CNN revealed after the 1991 Gulf War that it had allowed Pentagon "trainees" into the CNN newsroom in Atlanta, I have my suspicions.