Media Skeptical About Latest Terror Alerts

By: Seth Sutel, AP Business Writer

(AP) As warnings about terrorist attacks stream out of Washington, news media are growing more skeptical of what motivates the alerts and concerned about striking a balanced tone that won’t needlessly scare their audiences.

There is still disagreement about the reasons behind the recent surge in terrorism warnings from government officials, which got into high gear Sunday when Vice President Dick Cheney said the chance of more al-Qaida attacks against U.S. targets is “almost a certainty.”

What is clear is that the daily barrage of warnings since then has caused intense debate in many newsrooms over how to handle the stories. News executives are trying to balance the need to convey vital information to the public while also presenting the warnings with the appropriate tone and context.

Paul Slavin, the executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” said the timing of Cheney’s remarks on Sunday was “too coincidental” with the emergence of questions over what the White House knew about threats of attacks before Sept. 11. As a result, “we applied a more rigorous political analysis to the story,” he said.

John McWethy, ABC’s national security correspondent, told viewers in Tuesday’s broadcast that “the Bush administration, burned by accusations that it failed to tell all it knew about terrorist threats, has now decided the public must be told more … even if there is not much new to tell.”

Still, news outlets are evaluating each warning of possible attacks on its own merits, and some are less certain of the political motivations behind the sudden surge in warnings.

“There are people who say the government is putting this out there to put reporters off the path of asking what they knew before 9-11,” says Jim Murphy, executive producer of CBS’ “Evening News.” “Are they doing it definitely? I don’t know. They also could be disturbed by the information they have and feel compelled to share it with the public.”

Several warnings from senior administration officials have received wide attention in the past few days, particularly FBI Director Robert Mueller’s statement Monday that walk-up suicide bombings like those in the Middle East are bound to be tried in America.

But when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that terrorists would “inevitably” get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and use them, it didn’t create quite as big of a stir, partly since it came on the heels of so many other nonspecific warnings.

Ward Bushee, editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, played the Rumsfeld story inside the paper.

“On day three or four of these announcements that massive destruction could happen, it’s no longer all that surprising given all the other voices in administration,” Bushee said. “Our readers want to be informed but not overly alarmed. There is a new reality out there that terrorist threats may occur with regularity.”

It’s an awkward place for journalists to be — demanding more information from government officials about terrorism warnings just at the time that skepticism is rising about the administration’s motives for doing so.

For Tim McGuire, editor of the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and the outgoing president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the role of news outlets is clear. “I think there will be a lot of second-guessing about the government’s approach, but it’s our job to put it out there,” he said.

“It would be dishonest not to report prominently what the government reports,” McGuire said. “What you’re seeing right now is the evolution of a communications policy, and this is not any time for the press to be superimposing its judgments about the legitimacy of threats.”

Bill Wheatley, executive vice president of NBC News, says every warning gets a thorough examination. “There’s more deliberation in our news meetings about what government officials are saying, what it’s based on, and whether it’s fact or opinion,” Wheatley said. “We’ve talked about this a lot in the past few days.”

Tim Franklin, editor of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, played a story about a threat to his city’s water supply inside the paper because the details were “incredibly thin.”

“It’s not my place to say the government is overcompensating, though they do seem to be covering themselves by revealing a lot more information about threats to the public,” Franklin said. “But pretty soon numbness is going to set in, if it hasn’t already.”

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