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Outside Voices: Craig Crawford -- Is Press Cowed By Terror Warnings?

Each week we invite someone from the outside to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we invited Craig Crawford, columnist for Congressional Quarterly, on-air analyst for MSNBC, CNBC and CBS' "Early Show" and author of a new book titled, "Attack The Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against The Media." As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Craig's take:

Pardon my skepticism at the breathless warnings on Thursday of yet another "specific threat" to our safety – in this case, the danger to New York City subway riders. This one could be quite real, and I don't necessarily quarrel with that.

But I worry at how the news media seems to feel forced to take these dire warnings at face value despite the pattern of politicians provoking these episodes at suspiciously opportune moments. Most memorable was the time last summer when we heard warnings of terror attacks on the East Coast – announced just as the Democrats wrapped up their national convention in Boston and sent presidential nominee John Kerry on the road for what they hoped would be a high-profile launch of his general election campaign.

It later turned out that the terror alert that overshadowed Kerry's launch was based on outdated intelligence, raising suspicion that it was done for political reasons and had little to do with public safety.

Yesterday we heard about possible attacks in New York just hours after the President delivered a tough-talking speech about the dangers we face from terrorists. And the subway story stepped on breaking news that White House political boss Karl Rove would again testify to a Grand Jury. How convenient!

No one can prove whether there is political meddling in terror alerting -- although former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge seemed to suggest the possibility months after he left office, indicating that he believed the White House sometimes got too involved in micro-managing the alert system.

Whatever the truth, the public should give the news media more running room to critically question the motivation and timing of these alerts. Yet there is a sense among many in the news profession that doing so would open them up to attack. At least in the first wave of coverage of these announcements, the news reports tend to be as breathless and ominous as the politicians delivering them.

Sure, we don't want to discount a threat that might be real and leave citizens vulnerable to danger. But there is also danger in the potential abuse of terror warnings and the crying-wolf syndrome that might set in, causing Americans to tune out alerts when they most need to be heard. Look at the demise of the color-coded alert system. It was basically scrapped because the public came to regard it as overused and silly, just more fodder for late-night comics.

The news media should be aggressive and skeptical from the outset about the possibility of manipulation in these moments, so that public officials are not tempted to play games with terror threats as yet another news management tool.

Instead, we have an environment that spooks reporters and their bosses off this trail, especially when the alerts are first announced, because they know that the politicians will attack them for being callous, or worse, treasonous.

But if the public stops buying politically-motivated attacks on the media, we could do our job and the truth might have a better chance.

I wrote about this phenomenon in my new book (insert shameless plug): "Attack The Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against The Media." In a subchapter entitled "Let Us Be Rude Again," I ask news consumers to stop holding it against us when we pursue an unpopular line of questions. And I urge news bosses to stay strong when faced with the need to report stories that might stoke public anger at the media. Letting politicians bully us from doing our job does not serve the public. It only serves the politicians.

Even more disturbing to me in yesterday's subway warning was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's comment that a news outlet had gotten the story two days earlier but agreed to withhold releasing it until the government gave the green light. Perhaps Bloomberg's position on this will turn out to be credible, but his claim that the extra time was needed for law enforcement to handle this threat seems worth questioning.

The result was that a news media outlet was persuaded to join a conspiracy of silence until the government was ready to announce the news, which happened to coincide with White House strategy for Bush's speech and also just so happened to serve as a neat distraction from Rove's latest bad news.

Perhaps there was nothing nefarious going on in this case. But as things stand, it is very difficult for the media to initially explore these specific threats to make sure we are not being duped. I don't see how that makes us any safer.

-- Craig Crawford

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