Holding news until the time is right

October 2, 2006

It was a promotional gambit that deserves a spot in the permanent archives of media manipulation. Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, stands before the White House press corps alongside the president of the United States. A reporter asks Musharraf about a sensational claim he’s reported to have made: Soon after 9/11 a top U.S. official allegedly warned that Pakistan would be bombed “back to the Stone Age” if it didn’t join the U.S.-led fight against Al Qaeda and its Taliban patrons in neighboring Afghanistan.

Surely Musharraf would want to clarify a matter of such importance: Did the United States actually threaten its ally Pakistan — the world’s only nuclear-tipped Islamic nation — with war?

But Musharraf wouldn’t comment, and not for petty diplomatic reasons. The press conference was Friday, and the memoir in which he recounts this episode wouldn’t be published until that Monday. “I am launching my book on the 25th, and I am honor-bound to Simon & Schuster not to comment on the book before that day,” President Musharraf explained.

“In other words ‘Buy the book’ is what he’s saying,” President Bush explained.

Actually, honor notwithstanding, Musharraf wasn’t really waiting until Monday to talk. He had taped an interview with CBS News “60 Minutes” that was to air Sunday.

That’s why the reporters at Friday’s press conference knew about Musharraf’s allegation. Publicists for “60 Minutes” had stuck it in a press release the day before to drum up publicity for his TV interview, reasoning that the segment would otherwise have all the sizzling appeal of, well, an interview with the president of Pakistan. (Bush too said he learned of the post-9/11 tale from news reports spun out of the CBS press release.)

Musharraf was going to be on “60 Minutes” Sunday because the publisher of his memoir had arranged the appearance to promote the book. Not every publisher has that kind of juice, but since both Simon & Schuster and CBS News are owned by CBS Corp., the fix was in.

When I first heard all this, I wondered whether everybody had finally lost their minds. At a time when the Islamic world is awash in claims that terrorizing and murdering Muslims is official U.S. policy, the leader of the second-most populous Islamic nation on earth — a nuclear power, let’s remember — was saying the United States bullied his country in a way that was arrogant, insulting and dangerous.

Wasn’t that an allegation that needed to be addressed and fully explored at once, before it triggered rioting by tens of thousands of outraged faithful?

Instead, the people who had the story was locking it up for commercial reasons and prohibiting its principal source from talking (I won’t comment on Musharraf’s own preposterous lack of judgment). Then they released only enough to tantalize prospective customers, like some cheesy local news bulletin: “Flesh-eating monsters closing in! Details at 11!”

Ah, CBS, once the revered Tiffany Network. Nowadays CBS Corp. is keen to make its news operations an integrated part of its corporate activities, a practice once called corruption, now known as synergy.

Remember the Michael Jackson affair in 2003? Jackson had booked to do a CBS entertainment special when he was charged in one of his periodic legal set-to’s involving young boys. CBS, high-minded as ever, said it couldn’t possibly do the musical under that shadow, so Michael would just have to come clean. How? An interview on “60 Minutes.”

Now Jackson stood to lose millions if CBS scrubbed his musical, so he did the interview, which incidentally boosted ratings for “60 Minutes” 12 percent over its weekly average.

There, CBS used a softball interview on its premier news magazine to clear the way, profitably, for a troubled entertainment project. In the 2003 affair of Jessica Lynch, the GI initially touted as a hero rescued in a daring raid in Iraq, the parent company threw offers of talk shows, a book deal and a TV movie at the young girl — which may explain why, when the inglorious truth about her wartime experience came to light, it was no thanks to CBS News.

The fact is that newsgathering confers responsibilities, and although news is a business, it is not just a business, because news is vastly more than a commodity to be sold, bartered, leveraged, synergized. It touches lives, moves people, provokes events. True, treating news as a commodity can make money, but it’s the rest of us who pay.

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