Midnight Confession

How CNN Captured John Walker

Since it first aired on December 19, CNN's hospital-bed interview with "American Taliban" John Walker has been heavily hyped, but no one has pointed out what it truly displays: the power of media to indict a man more efficiently than any prosecutor.

Bush has yet to announce this man's crime, but the world has already decided he's guilty. He hasn't talked to a lawyer, but he's already a scapegoat who can be spit upon and molded into anything you want him to be. Welcome to the latest weapon in the war on terror: the media tribunal.

Of course, a cable channel is not a court of law, but CNN seems to have leaped at the opportunity to prosecute a symbolic prisoner of war. Even though Walker was being pumped with morphine and did not consent to be interviewed, CNN edited and broadcast the footage as if it were a confession that would be admissible in court. Even after a Larry King guest criticized the tape as "inflammatory" and "prejudicial," CNN kept playing snippets for days, inviting pundits to convict Walker hypothetically.

At the same time, certain unsavory aspects of the story have been downplayed. For example, CNN shows from the night of December 19 offered many interesting details about the Walker tape. But on the Lexis-Nexis database, which carries CNN transcripts, the December 19 transcripts of Larry King Live and NewsNight With Aaron Brown are conspicuously missing. A fluke?

December 19 was the night Aaron Brown interviewed Robert Pelton, the man who shot the tape of Walker on his hospital bed. (ABC and CBS have paid fees in the five-figure range for other Walker tapes.) Pelton has been called a CNN contributor, but he thinks of himself as an author of adventure books, not a journalist. Late in November, Pelton told Brown, he had been staying with special forces troops in the home of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. (Dostum is the Mazar-i-Sharif strongman who was appointed deputy defense minister of Afghanistan last week. The New York Post calls him a "ruthless warlord." As an adventure writer, Pelton gets to hang out with people like that.)

"I was staying in [Dostum's] house, and he actually brought the prisoners that came out of the bunker to me so I could meet them," Pelton said in another interview. That's when he stumbled across a young American prisoner who was tired, hungry, and suffering from hypothermia. It seems unlikely that Walker had any idea he was about to be detained by U.S. troops or that his words would be broadcast by CNN as potential evidence of treason.

Pelton has said that Walker was "dazed and confused" and "didn't even know where he was." "When I initially talked to him," he told Brown, "he was very hostile, but I suggested to the special forces medic I had brought that we get him upstairs. He was administered an IV of Hespan [a blood expander], and once that took effect, he started to wake up. I explained who I was, and we began talking."

It's hard to tell, but it seems Pelton offered treatment as a way to get his subject to talk. Pelton told Brown that the special forces medic took care of Walker so "he could stay alive and . . . so they could get more information from him." Indeed, one might call this a coerced confession, based on what Newsweek's Colin Soloway said on the December 19 edition of Larry King Live. According to Soloway, Pelton told Walker, "Look, if you don't talk to us, you know, we may leave you, and you could die here."

There's been little talk about the propriety of interviewing someone under the influence of morphine, although in a court of law, narcotics would tend to undercut a witness's testimony. As Dana Dillon of the Heritage Foundation said on CNN's Q&A, "Admittedly, he was under drugs and delusional at the time he was being interviewed, so maybe not everything he said was correct."

Without seeing the unedited tape, it's impossible to know whether this was a voluntary interview or a coerced interrogation. But there is no indication of Walker's giving consent in the interview transcript posted on CNN's Web site, and CNN must have known this scoop was a little fishy. Consider the official disclaimer that CNN anchors repeat whenever the tape is broadcast.

"By the way," Larry King introduced his version of the disclaimer on December 19, "initially, Walker expressed reluctance to be taped. But with the camera rolling and the lights on, he did tell the story." Walker "initially said he didn't want to be videotaped," Brown repeated later that night. "But he was well aware the camera was there, the lights were on, and he talked." In other words, hey, he was hostile, but once we gave him the morphine, he just talked and talked!

Of course, the infotainment industry doesn't care much about technical issues like obtaining consent and drugging witnesses. After all, this guy is a gold mine! Now that his face is ubiquitous, Walker has become human Silly PuttyMonica Lewinsky and Richard Jewell rolled into one, a blank screen on which to project our fantasies, an icon who can be blamed for anything whatsoever. While the government has yet to produce evidence of a crime, Walker has become an odd combination of arch-enemy and adolescent superhero. Literary agents are said to have descended on Marin County, hoping to buy the rights to his life story.

Who is John Walker really? Depends on where you're coming from. For Court TV anchor Nancy Grace: "He was the crown jewel for the Taliban!" and for that, he should fry. For The New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum, he's a poseur who was "sucked in by the cult of authenticity." For the National Review's Rob Long, he's "a child of hot tubs, massage therapy, cultural relativism, amicable divorce, racial guilt, vegan diets, Chardonnay anti-Americanism, and 'Teach Peace' bumper stickers"—i.e., all that's wrong with liberal parents. Even The New York Times has piled on. A December 21 editorial pronounced Walker guilty of a mind-set that describes many a young Times writer: a search for enlightenment "coupled with unspeakable arrogance."

Is it possible that Walker is just a suburban kid who studied Islam and got caught up in something amazing, sitting under the Afghan moon at night? No doubt he has a dramatic story to tell. But after the way CNN helped the U.S. government demonize him, it will be a long time before Walker gets to tell the story his way, if ever.

Days after CNN broadcast the tape, Pelton was apparently having second thoughts. "I wasn't trying to muckrake or set him up in any way," Pelton told CNN's Howard Kurtz. "He's actually a very gentle, sort of unassuming person. He's not a militant person at all."

Pelton's penance did not stop there. "He didn't seem like a very bellicose person," he told Matt Lauer on December 26. "He was very sensitive. I mean, his whole concern was more the moral and religious . . . and not the fighting part. . . . This guy struck me as a guy that should be going to poetry readings."

In short, it's time for the media to stop treating Walker like a traitor.


ccotts@villagevoice.com

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