I don't know how long 30 seconds of videotape is. A foot? Two feet? It can't be much. And yet that's all it took for CNN, in one of the most outrageously irresponsible editorial decisions of our time, to sentence an entire nation to death.
We all saw the pictures. About an hour after the bombing, CNN -- using videotape purchased from the two largest news video production houses, APTN and Reuters -- broadcast scenes of Palestinians, mainly children, celebrating the attack on America.
The montage lasts exactly 30 seconds. There are five scenes in the sequence. They are, as follows:
1) A shot of a white station-wagon taxi pulling away from a storefront. The taxi pulls away to reveal a group of Palestinians in the Arab section of Jerusalem standing in front of the store. Though the taxi driver appears to be smiling, no one else is celebrating in the picture. The shot lasts about six and a half seconds.
2) The longest shot of the sequence. It features a group of children, two of whom take turns appearing directly in front of the camera, apparently shouting "Allah Akhbar!" and waving the Palestinian flag. The second child has a distinctly irrational, intoxicated gleam in his eye. This sequence lasts just over ten seconds.
3) The third shot, the shortest, shows a Palestinian man extending a plate with a pastry to an unseen person. There is a smile on his face. If this shot were broadcast at any time other than in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it would be appear absolutely meaningless. But in the context, it -- and in particular the vaguely satisfied smile of the cafe worker -- comes across as fraught with meaning. This shot lasts about as long as it takes the man to walk some six feet to deliver the pastry -- about four seconds.
4) The second-longest shot. A matronly woman in glasses and a shawl, seemingly in her fifties, is beaming and pumping her two upraised hands in celebration. All around her, children are jumping up and down and cheering. The shot lasts about seven seconds.
5) The last shot. A white van containing three men in the passenger seat is honking its horn and moving through the street. All around the van, children are cheering. One jumps on the hood of the van, then jumps off.
My very first thought, when I saw those scenes, was that the shots were fakes. I had a very strong suspicion that the footage was old. This was not paranoia. It was a logical inference, based upon the circumstances surrounding the airing of the sequence.
As it turns out, the pictures were real. Despite rumors to the contrary that have been flying around the internet, these celebrations really did occur, and they really were captured by Western news agencies.
But the reasons reporters like myself were forced to independently confirm that fact (I went so far as to call the APTN bureau in Jerusalem, and contact the press watchdog agency FAIR, which had also inquired about the footage) were the same reasons that made this sequence so shockingly irresponsible. If CNN had not so far overstepped its bounds in running this sequence in the manner that it did, there would have been no reason to suspect the footage's authenticity. If they had even in been in the ballpark of journalistic ethics, there couldn't have been any questions at all.
The television news business carries with it a set of ethical problems that are a world apart from the concerns of print journalists. Because they are so routinely ignored, few people -- particularly people whose only relation to TV news is as a consumer -- are even aware of them. They mainly involve problems of attribution and context. Very often, they're exactly the opposite of the problems one encounters in print journalism.
Anyone who has worked as a print journalist knows he has certain advantages over the television reporter. A print journalist can walk around in the middle of a news event and not be observed. Because he's not operating a camera or concentrating on the logistical problem of getting someone to go on the air, he usually has much more time to simply watch and digest what is happening in front of him. A print journalist can recall something from memory, whereas in television, memory is useless.