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Profile: Mara Liasson

Mara Liasson was a participant or observer in the following events:

Walter Isaacson.Walter Isaacson. [Source: Amazon (.com)]CNN chairman Walter Isaacson orders his staff to balance the network’s coverage of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11. Isaacson says it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.” In an internal memo to his international correspondents, he writes: “As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people.” [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 10/31/2001] Inside sources later say that CNN is bowing to pressure from certain segments of its viewing audience. [Toronto Star, 9/8/2002]
Suggested Endings Reiterate Pentagon Statements - In a corollary memo, CNN’s head of standards and practices, Rick Davis, writes: “As we get enterprising reports from our correspondents or Al Jazeera inside Afghanistan, we must continue to make sure that we do not inadvertently seem to be reporting uncritically from the perspective or vantage of the Taliban. Also, given the enormity of the toll on innocent human lives in the US, we must remain careful not to focus excessively on the casualties and hardships in Afghanistan that will inevitably be a part of this war, or to forget that it is the Taliban leadership that is responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in.” Davis orders CNN reports from Afghanistan to end with a formulaic reminder, such as the following: “We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this, that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan continues to harbor terrorists who have praised the September 11 attacks that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the US.” Another suggested ending: “The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban regime continues to harbor terrorists who are connected to the September 11 attacks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the US.” If relevant to the piece, the correspondent can end with the reminder that “the Pentagon has stressed that the Taliban continues to harbor the terrorists and the Taliban forces are reported to be hiding in populated areas and using civilians as human shields.” Davis concludes, “Even though it may start sounding rote, it is important that we make this point each time.” Isaacson tells reporters: “I want to make sure we’re not used as a propaganda platform. We’re entering a period in which there’s a lot more reporting and video from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. You want to make sure people understand that when they see civilian suffering there, it’s in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States.” Presenters on CNN International are not subject to the edict. [Guardian, 11/1/2001]
Correspondents Fear 'Pro-American Stamp' on CNN Reporting - Some CNN correspondents worry that the network will put an overtly “pro-American stamp” on their reports; CNN executives worry that images showing misdirected US missile attacks landing on residential areas or Red Cross warehouses could be manipulated before they come out of Afghanistan. Some have criticized network coverage of the destruction rained on Afghan cities, towns, and villages by errant US bombs, while others say such coverage is necessary to present more than one side of the issue. CNN, like other American networks, airs hours of coverage every day of President Bush and his top officials. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 10/31/2001; Guardian, 11/1/2001] In 2002, then-CNN foreign correspondent Anthony Collings will say that “the Pentagon must surely have been pleased to learn that whenever its planes killed the wrong Afghans, CNN would quickly provide PR damage control.” [Toronto Star, 9/8/2002]
Some Pundits Agree with CNN's Position - Fox News anchor Brit Hume agrees that stories of casualties should not be emphasized, explaining, “Civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war.” National Public Radio White House correspondent Mara Liasson agrees with Hume, noting, “War is about killing people; civilian casualties are unavoidable.” [Bob Zelnick, 3/22/2003]
Other Networks Not Following Suit - Other US news networks do not follow CNN’s lead. Jim Murphy, executive producer of the CBS Evening News, says: “I wouldn’t order anybody to do anything like that. Our reporters are smart enough to know it has to be put in context.” NBC News vice president Bill Wheatley adds, “I’d give the American public more credit, frankly.” In Britain, the BBC has no plans to put any such reminders on its broadcasts, but a spokeswoman for that network says, “Correspondents may or may not decide to put in this sort of detail in their reports to put things in context.” [Guardian, 11/1/2001]
Issue Not Relevant if Good Journalistic Standards Observed - In 2003, veteran foreign correspondent Robert Zelnick will write that the entire issue should have been moot, as long as reporters and networks followed strong standards of journalism. It is newsworthy in a tactical, a psychological, and a propagandistic sense to report civilian casualties, Zelnick will observe, especially when the targeting of civilians is deliberate. He cites examples of media coverage in Korea, Kosovo, and especially Vietnam, that galvanized public debate on those wars. “[N]o reasonable case can be made for temporizing reports of the war’s impact on the civilians that US forces were fighting to ‘save,’” he will write. On the other side, he will cite the US invasion of Panama in 1989, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and Israel’s ongoing battles with the Palestinians as examples of wars fought with little US media coverage of civilian casualties; as a result, relatively few Americans raised objections or expressed doubts about those military actions. [Bob Zelnick, 3/22/2003]

Entity Tags: Brit Hume, Al Jazeera, Anthony Collings, Bill Wheatley, US Department of Defense, Walter Isaacson, Rick Davis, Robert Zelnick, CNN, Mara Liasson, Jim Murphy

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, War in Afghanistan

Bill Sammon.Bill Sammon. [Source: Mediaite (.com)]Bill Sammon, the Washington managing editor for Fox News, sends an internal email instructing his journalists and producers not to use the commonly accepted phrase “public option” to describe a proposed government-run health insurance agency. The so-called “public option” is shorthand for a proposed health insurance plan offered by the federal government primarily for uninsured citizens who have trouble affording private health care coverage. Instead, Sammon requires reporters and news anchors to use terms such as “government option”—terms identified by Republican pollster Frank Luntz as being more negative and more likely to turn viewers away from supporting such an effort. (Ironically, a month ago, Sammon sent an email reminding his staff that Fox News “reports” the news as it happens, and that their function is that of “dispassionate observers”—see September 12, 2009). The liberal news watchdog Web site Media Matters will compile a number of instances from “straight news” broadcasts on Fox News that seem to follow Sammon’s instructions, particularly on the network’s evening flagship news program, Special Report with Bret Baier. Inside sources will tell Media Matters reporter Ben Dimiero that Sammon regularly uses his position as managing editor to “slant” Fox News’s “neutral” news coverage to the right. Dimiero will write, “Sammon’s ‘government option’ email is the clearest evidence yet that Sammon is aggressively pushing Fox’s reporting to the right—in this case by issuing written orders to his staff.” In August 2009, Luntz appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News opinion show, and told Hannity to use the term “government option” instead of “public option.” Luntz explained that “if you call it a ‘public option,’ the American people are split,” but “if you call it the ‘government option,’ the public is overwhelmingly against it.” He went on to say that the program would be “sponsored by the government,” and falsely told Hannity that such a program would be “paid for by the government.” Hannity told Luntz that “it’s a great point, and from now on, I’m going to call it the government option.” The night before Sammon’s email, Baier used both “public option” and “government option” in describing a proposed inclusion by Senate Democrats, as did correspondent Shannon Bream. The next morning, Sammon sends his email, which is titled “[F]riendly reminder: let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option,’” and reading in part, “Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option,’ whenever possible. When it is necessary to use the term ‘public option’ (which is, after all, firmly ensconced in the nation’s lexicon), use the qualifier ‘so-called,’ as in ‘the so-called public option.’ Here’s another way to phrase it: ‘The public option, which is the government-run plan.’ When newsmakers and sources use the term ‘public option’ in our stories, there’s not a lot we can do about it, since quotes are of course sacrosanct.” Fox News’s senior vice president for news, Michael Clemente, concurs in a follow-up email and tells news staff that he prefers Sammon’s phrasing “[t]he public option, which is the government-run plan.” After Sammon’s and Clemente’s emails, Baier and others will no longer use the phrase “public option” without using Sammon’s qualifiers. Dimiero will write that Sammon’s title wording of a “friendly reminder” indicates that similar instructions had been issued previously. Indeed, during a September 3, 2009 broadcast, Baier repeatedly interrupted his guest, NPR’s Mara Liasson, to “correct” her phrasing of “public option” as the “government-run option of health insurance.” Liasson, along with conservative guests Charles Krauthammer and Steve Hayes, agreed to use Baier’s phrasing. And during Baier’s broadcast, on-screen chyrons described the idea as “Government Option.” Dimiero will write: “Fox executives regularly defend the network by claiming that the right-wing propaganda on Hannity and its other opinion shows is entirely separate from its news programming, which they insist is objective. But Sammon’s email gives credence to allegations that news from Fox’s Washington bureau is being deliberately distorted to benefit conservatives and the Republican Party.” Sammon will tell media reporter Howard Kurtz that he prefers the phrasing “government option” because it is “a more neutral term,” and the phrase “public option” is “vague, bland,” and “undescriptive.” He will deny any knowledge of “what the Republicans were pushing.” [Media Matters, 12/9/2010]

Entity Tags: Fox News, Bill Sammon, Ben Dimiero, Steve Hayes, Charles Krauthammer, Shannon Bream, Michael Clemente, Frank Luntz, Bret Baier, Sean Hannity, Mara Liasson, Media Matters, Howard Kurtz

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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