CBS Should Not Have Shown Pearl Video

It sounds like a headline from a few months ago: "CBS Airs Pearl Video. Controversy Follows."

It is, in fact, a headline from a few days ago — from Tuesday, May 14, to be exact, when The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather aired about 30 seconds of a video made by Daniel Pearl's captors and eventual murderers, a video that is now being distributed on the Internet.

Said anchor Dan Rather, in explaining the CBS decision, "[we] brought you this report because, even in highly edited form, the video illustrates how far an enemy will go to spread its message of hate for the United States."

But this is where things start getting strange. CBS did present the video in "highly edited form," choosing an excerpt in which Pearl declared that he and his mother and father were Jewish, and went on to say the following: "We Americans cannot continue to bear the consequences of our government actions such as the unconditional support given to the state of Israel."

In other words, the video did not illustrate how far an enemy will go to spread its message of hate for the United States. Those segments of the tape, which apparently included Pearl's slaying, were edited out by CBS. And there was nothing new about the segments that did air; they were quoted many times by major media outlets when the tape was initially made, and reported on, last winter.

Ironically, if CBS had not edited the tape, had in fact shown its grislier moments, it would far more effectively, if tastelessly, have demonstrated "how far an enemy will go to spread its message of hate."

Why, then, did CBS choose to air the video? And why now, three months after Pearl's death, with the story having begun its drift into history and the passions it inflamed having cooled? It is a puzzle, one for which this writer has no answer.

Certainly the government did not want CBS to broadcast the tape; both Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Justice Department called the network, urging that the video not be shown.

And Daniel Pearl's widow Marianne did not want CBS to broadcast the tape. She said that while Rather "attempts to rationalize the network's heartless decision to air this despicable terrorist propaganda video, it is beyond our comprehension that any mother, wife, father or sister should have to relive this horrific tragedy and watch their loved one being repeatedly terrorized."

The decision cannot be defended, as journalistic decisions often are, sometimes spuriously, by claiming that the public's need to know was greater than the Pearl family's need for privacy and solace. Because the public already knew what was in the thirty seconds of footage that CBS ran; it already knew that Pearl had been forced to acknowledge his Jewishness and condemn American policy toward Israel. Although democracy places the needs of the many above the needs of the few, there was no need for the many in this case; those people watching The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather last Tuesday learned nothing they did not already know, or could not have known had they only been paying attention a few months ago.

It was the Pearl family that had the need, not the American viewing public, and CBS chose to disregard it.

One of the most frequent criticisms expressed in e-mails to Fox News Watch is that the media are insensitive: they do not take into account the feelings of those upon whom they report; it is the story that matters, not those who are telling it. Thanks to CBS's puzzling decision earlier this week, that criticism is even more valid now than it was before.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

Respond to the Writer