Idea Of The Day

Questions for Walter Isaacson


As you and I know, CNN has submitted six questions to Osama Bin Laden. Answers are pending. According to the news network chairman, Walter Isaacson, those answers will be broadcast only if Bin Laden’s words are germane to the current state of world affairs. “If he spews off just propaganda, there’s no reason for us to air it,” Isaacson says. “We’ll only report it if it is news.” Since anything Bin Laden says is likely to be considered newsworthy, you would be right to wonder what criteria Isaacson and his colleagues will employ to determine the nature of the broadcast. For example, Question 5asks Bin Laden if he has an arsenal of mass destruction: “In the past you have called on your followers to acquire weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Do you or any of your followers have any such weapons and, if so, will those weapons be used?”

If Bin Laden answers yes and yes (although he could be lying) but refuses to say when he plans to use those weapons, does CNN broadcast those answers, and if it decides not to, what if anything can they do to prevent the answers from being aired by someone else? In other words, how does CNN distinguish between news and propaganda when the news is propaganda and the propaganda news? And what right does a news organization have to censor itself—and blinker all of us—on grounds of national security? That, presumably, is a question for the state to answer, not a news organization. The alternative for CNN is to become a Ministry of Truth, which is surely not what Mr. Isaacson intends at