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Terror Indictments
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    Terror Indictments

    Balance sometimes lacking in TV's Al-Arian coverage

    By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 21, 2003


    For some news outlets, the Thursday arrest of suspended University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian seemed like confirmation of suspicions they had been airing for years.

    And few commentators were quicker to speak to the issue than Fox News Channel personality Bill O'Reilly.

    "He used his office and stationery to raise money for this Islamic Jihad, and you guys in Florida are paying his salary," O'Reilly said during an interview Thursday with area Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13.

    A September 2001 interview with Al-Arian conducted by O'Reilly -- he told the professor then, "If I was the FBI, I'd follow you wherever you go" -- is credited with spurring the hate mail and death threats that pushed the college to suspend the professor. On Thursday, O'Reilly criticized USF administrators for not moving more aggressively to fire Al-Arian.

    "I have no use for (Judy) Genshaft, the president of USF; I think she's a coward," he said. "Miss Genshaft should step down. She's an embarrassment to your community. . . . (She) should have been out front, she should have led (the push) for an investigation."

    Several local TV outlets had footage of Al-Arian's early morning arrest, tipped in advance to the planned police action.

    "I think it's a matter of who's got veteran reporters in the field and who hasn't," said Phil Metlin, vice president of news at WTVT, who did not say how the station learned of the impending arrest.

    As TV outlets Thursday afternoon raced to cover the fallout, they faced the challenge of how to handle reporting charges from the government that, while serious, have not yet been proven in court.

    NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 covered the issue most aggressively Thursday, devoting a large chunk of its early evening newscasts to reports on the issue. The stories included information on how sister publication the Tampa Tribune (both the newspaper and station are owned by Media General) published a series of articles in the mid '90s alleging Al-Arian raised money for terrorist groups.

    Though its evening newscasts were more balanced, WFLA anchors made comments during its midday coverage that seemed to assume charges made in the indictment were true. Al-Arian has in the past accused the government of overstating evidence.

    "Whatever happens, at the end of this case, people will be asking, "How did this association (with USF) occur?' " said WFLA anchor Bill Ratliff, during the channel's noontime coverage of a Washington news conference by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. "How, for heaven's sakes, was the University of South Florida a chosen place for these people to light?"

    Similarly, on Fox News Channel, anchors continually touted O'Reilly's interview with Al-Arian. "Is Bill O'Reilly going to be called into court?" Fox News anchor David Asman asked incredulously.

    "If the professor, for example, were to deny that he was the one that went on the air with Bill, then they'll put Bill in the courtroom," answered Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge who serves as an analyst for Fox News. (He did point out, seconds earlier, that Al-Arian remains innocent until proven guilty.)

    Local cable newschannel Bay News 9 balanced talk of the charges' seriousness with a quick interview with Al-Arian attorney Robert McGee, reminding viewers the charges must be proven in court.

    As the day wore on, cable news outlets based their midday talk segments on the issue, including CNN's Talkback Live and MSNBC's Buchanan & Press.

    "Would the attorney general bring charges against Mr. Al-Arian that he could not substantiate, when if it were so proven, he would wind up with egg all over his face?" Pat Buchanan asked a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations on MSNBC.

    "Let's see the evidence," countered Ibrahim Cooper of CAIR. "Let's see it in open court."

    -- Times staff writer Charlotte Sutton contributed to this report.

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