Media Companies Apologize Amidst War Sensitivities

By: David Bauder, AP Television Writer

(AP) Sorry no longer seems to be the hardest word for the media to say.

Rupert Murdoch and ABC News chief David Westin were the latest to apologize this past week for things written or said in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Murdoch expressed regrets to CNN international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who had complained about a column in the Murdoch-owned New York Post. Columnist Andrea Peyser had referred to Amanpour as the “CNN war slut.”

Westin apologized for telling a group of Columbia University students that he had no opinion on whether the Pentagon was a legitimate target for terrorists. He said that an academic point he had been trying to make about the impartiality of journalists had gone wrong.

The episodes point to a continued skittishness among people in the media about their roles in the post-Sept. 11 world.

“It used to be that journalists never apologized,” said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington think tank.

Others joining the mea culpa parade:

— Reuters apologized for insensitivity after an internal memo said “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The memo was written to defend the news service’s policy of avoiding the word “terrorist” in copy so as to appear unbiased. That policy has stayed in place.

The Oneida (N.Y.) Daily Dispatch retracted an editorial that quoted a Pakistani saying Jews were to blame for the terrorist attacks. “We understand that readers of the editorial found it offensive, poorly reasoned and based on flawed facts,” the newspaper later said. “We agree.”

— The editor of the Grants Pass (Ore.) Daily Courier apologized after columnist Dan Guthrie wrote that President Bush was “hiding in a Nebraska hole” immediately following the terrorist attacks.

— The city editor of the Texas City Sun in Texas was fired after he wrote that Bush was “hiding underground in Nebraska” the day of the attacks. Tom Gutting’s column was “so offensive to me personally that I had a hard time getting all the way through it,” Publisher Les Daughtry Jr. wrote in a front-page apology.

“You can’t have your news agency look like it’s trashing the government when it’s under attack,” said Belle Adler, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

Both Guthrie and Gutting were fired, although their bosses denied it was because of what they had written.

All of the episodes come in an atmosphere of heightened sensitivity relating to the war on terrorism.

No apology was involved, but CNN illustrated the new atmosphere recently when its executives reminded staffers to mention the terrorist attacks whenever the network showed bomb damage in Afghanistan. They didn’t want the network appearing too sympathetic to the Taliban.

“As with everyone else, journalists have had their innocence shattered,” Lichter said. “It’s easy to be iconoclastic when you didn’t have to think the war was coming home, or when you didn’t have to take sides as a patriot. The whole notion of dispassionate journalists gets shaken up when people are dying around you.”

Dan Rather cried about the attacks on David Letterman’s talk show, Tom Brokaw brandished his Cipro. Geraldo Rivera, in quitting his talk show last week to become a war correspondent, said he was “itching for justice, or maybe just revenge.”

All of it is difficult to imagine in the world prior to the attacks.

“Patriotism is a very complicated concept and the role of a journalist is a complex one,” said Bob Steele, director of ethics at The Poynter Institute, a journalism research center. “Blending these two can be problematic.”

The result can be missteps and apologies. Northeastern’s Adler worries that some in the media are becoming too cautious.

Many media organizations are owned by large corporations that don’t want to risk offending someone for fear of cutting into profits, she said. President Bush’s high approval ratings don’t go unnoticed.

“They’re walking a tightrope of trying to be news people and trying to look like they’re in tune with their viewers or readers,” she said.

Not everyone backs down from controversy. “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher said he should have been more specific when his reference to past U.S. military actions as cowardly caused advertisers to abandon his ABC show. But he defended his right to criticize even during wartime, and ABC has supported him.

Lichter said he would not be surprised to see more of these episodes.

“The ground is shifting beneath everybody’s feet,” he said. “You have to be careful about what you say because everybody is interpreting everything in this new context.”

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