/ 1 January 2002

CNN and CBS admit paying for al-Qaida video cache

CNN and CBS both paid for videotapes that depict al-Qaida poison gas experiments, but insisted – without naming their sources – that the money didn’t go to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organisation.

CNN began showing its video, from a cache of 64 al-Qaida tapes taken from Afghanistan, on Sunday night, and CBS followed with similar material the following morning.

CNN, which is continuing to air fresh material from the cache, at first said it had not paid for the tapes. On Tuesday, blaming internal miscommunication, the network said it had paid in the ”low five figures.” CNN anchor Aaron Brown said Tuesday night that the network paid about $30 000.

CBS paid a ”very nominal, very standard” fee for its tapes, said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage. She wouldn’t say how much.

Most television networks occasionally pay for newsworthy video they can’t obtain elsewhere. For example, many paid for pictures after September 11 that showed planes flying into the World Trade Center from different angles.

A journalism ethics expert suggested that, in this case, the networks should be more forthcoming about their arrangements.

”The viewer deserves to know, if money changed hands, how much money it was and who got the money,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research centre.

”They deserve to know how often sources are paid. It casts doubt on the credibility of the source if the source was paid.”

Both news organisations said they checked carefully to make sure the material was legitimate, and said giving more information could put their personnel in Afghanistan at risk. Both networks are concerned about local people learning their staffers have access to large sums of money.

CNN has said its reporter, Nic Robertson, was tipped off about the tapes by a longtime source and travelled 17 hours to get them. CNN said it paid someone who had access to the tapes, not the longtime source.

”We’re certain it was not an al-Qaida source,” representative Christa Robinson said. ”But we’re not going to reveal our sources.” CBS would not even reveal which staff member acquired its tapes (reporter Mark Phillips narrated the network’s first report).

McGinnis said she didn’t know whether it was from the same cache of material found by CNN.

Asked how CBS, and viewers could be sure the money didn’t find its way to al-Qaida, she said, ”I just am. You have to trust me.”

Making sure the terrorists didn’t profit ”was a very big deal” to CBS, she said.

CBS, which believed it had an exclusive on the tapes, rushed its reports to the air Monday after learning CNN had gained the advantage the night before.

CNN said it had received more than 100 viewer complaints about its Monday report, which showed pictures of a dog being poisoned to death. Brown opened his show Monday night with what CNN said was a response to e-mailed criticism.

”I know some of you think we are running this stuff simply because we believe we will get good ratings,” Brown said.

”You are wrong. I find them so repulsive I rather suspect many of you will not watch them at all. So it can’t be ratings.”

CNN believed it important to show what al-Qaida was capable of, he said. ”By sanitising them they also would have had less impact, and impact matters,” he said.

Brown’s Sunday night news show, where the tapes first were shown, drew 635 000 viewers, up from the typical Sunday night average of 558 000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. On Monday, CNN averaged 502 000 viewers, down slightly from the

507 000 average of the previous three Mondays. – Sapa-AP