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Press: The Price of Exclusivity

5 minute read

Did the network yield too much for its embassy interview?

The young Iranian’s name (Behzadnia) was difficult to pronounce, so American journalists called him Yellow Jack et, after the color of his windbreaker. He approached the representatives of ABC, CBS and NBC in Tehran with a tantalizing prospect: an interview with one of the hostages at the U.S. embassy. But there were catches. The networks would have to submit their questions in advance, broadcast the program live (to prevent any editing) in prime time, and allow Iranian students to make statements and ask questions of their own.

All three networks found the conditions unacceptable. They continued bargaining, but only NBC was able to work out a deal: a taped interview in prime time using an Iranian camera crew and resident NBC Correspondents Fred Francis and George Lewis. A student spokesman who called herself Mary would make unedited opening and closing statements, but the newsmen did not have to clear their questions in advance. Said Tehran Bureau Chief Walter Millis: “That way we could control the interview, and if it really went off the wall, we could kill it.”

That drastic step hardly proved necessary. Sitting between a portrait of the Ayatullah Khomeini and an anti-Shah poster, Marine Corporal William Gallegos seemed fit and lucid. His remarks were excerpted on the evening news and aired in full during a half-hour special later that night. He said that, among other things, none of the 30 or so hostages he saw regularly had been mistreated or brainwashed. The six minutes of propaganda from “Mary,” which would have cost a political candidate $32,000 at that hour, were rambling restatements of the students’ positions. The broadcast produced front-page headlines across the country, but the substance of the interview was soon overtaken by controversy over whether NBC had let itself become a propaganda tool of the terrorists.

The broadcast was denounced by House Speaker Tip O’Neill as “regrettable and dangerous,” and Congressman Robert Bauman of Maryland said NBC deserved the “Benedict Arnold award for journalism.” NBC Washington Correspondent Ford Rowan accused his employer of “irresponsible journalism” and resigned in protest. The Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor questioned NBC’s news judgment. CBS and ABC up braided NBC for violating a standard TV news canon against awarding terrorists an unedited platform for their views. “That is a right we don’t even give the President of the United States,” insisted CBS News President Bill Leonard. Said ABC News President Roone Arledge: “It was not television’s proudest moment.”

The criticisms capped weeks of growing unease in the U.S. over the press’s role in Tehran. American officials and many viewers and readers have concluded that the demonstrations outside the embassy were largely for the benefit of television cameras. Iranian authorities have given frequent interviews to journalists, but have spurned contacts with the State Department. U.S. officials complain that some journalists are trying to pin the Iranians down on such delicate questions as whether the hostages will be tried or executed. Iran, meanwhile, was becoming less hospitable to journalists who cling to Western notions of objectivity. The government expelled at gunpoint A.P. Cor respondent Alex Efty for his apparently correct account of factional strife in Tabriz, and Khomeini’s Islamic Republican Party scheduled a weekend march against the “Zionist and imperialist press.”

To NBC’s credit, Anchorman John Chancellor carefully outlined the circumstances of its Gallegos interview at the beginning of the broadcast and listed at the end a number of questions that were left unanswered, like the condition of the 20 hostages Gallegos does not see daily. With those caveats in mind, NBC officials asserted, viewers could make reasoned judgments about what was truth and what was propaganda. A number of other journalists agreed, including editorialists for the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. “Everybody who is raising hell is underestimating the intel-ligence of the American public,” said William Arthur, executive director of the National News Council. PBS Correspondent Bill Moyers argued that the Gallegos interview was little different from any other: “In every television interview, there is a subtle transaction in which each party gives something to get something. In NBC’s case, the transaction was explicit.”

It was a transaction NBC News President William Small defended: “The broadcast was an important contribution to the understanding of what is happening in Iran. The alternative is to hide in formation. That is not what a free press is all about.” Editorialized the New York Times: “Those covering Iran have been under pressure from two sets of would-be official editors, Iranian and American … The lesson is the same as always: The only duty the media can effectively perform is their own.”

But many colleagues are worried about the precedent set by the NBC interview. In Tehran, ABC and CBS correspondents say they fully expect that their rival will be singled out for most-favored-network status. “There are a lot of goodies coming up—Christmas messages from the hostages, that sort of thing,” said one competitor in Tehran. “NBC is in the catbird seat after that interview.” Some print journalists were equally upset. Fumed Ray Moseley, the Chicago Tribune’s man in Iran: “Now the kids will think they can dictate terms to all of us.”

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