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[casi] A new CNN system of 'script approval'

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Published on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 by the <A 

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

by Robert Fisk

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 sanitized– 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 authorized 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 "authorized". 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 clichés 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" (i.e. 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 computerized system of script approval
will allow "authorized script approvers to mark scripts (i.e. reports) in a
clear and standard manner. Script EPs (executive producers) will click on the
colored 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

© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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