A report Monday on the conflict in Libya by Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin sparked a brief spat between two leading cable news channels, but it also revealed the tricky choices involved in reporting on armed rebellion and authoritarian regimes.
On Sunday, missiles launched on Tripoli from U.K. submarines struck a building in the compound of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Griffin, who covers national security issues and the Pentagon, was reporting in concert with a colleague at Fox's British sister station, Sky News.
British Tornado fighter jets had been prepared to launch an additional seven missiles at the site Sunday, but they cut the mission short because, Griffin told viewers Monday, "of the presence of CNN crews [and] Reuters crews — as well as some civilians that had been brought essentially as human shields by the Ministry of Information to that compound."
Griffin based her reporting on "British sources." She also said this was, for the Libyan government, a "propaganda opportunity to show that Gadhafi himself was being targeted."
"Others, including our Steve Harrigan, did not go to the compound, because they were concerned they could be used as human shields," Griffin told Fox News anchor Jon Scott. She added that Pentagon sources told her there was significant consternation at the idea that the presence of reporters would stymie a military operation.
To CNN's Nic Robertson, who did a brief standup from that bombed site, the terms "propaganda" and "human shields" proved provocative.
Later Monday, Robertson told viewers that he had been hustled off the site quickly — meaning too quickly to be a shield — and that Fox's report reeked of hypocrisy.
"You know, when you come to somewhere like Libya, you expect lies and deceit from a dictatorship here," Robertson told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "You don't expect it from the other journalists. Why do I say that? Because Fox News has said they didn't send somebody on this trip last night, because they said it was a quote unquote propaganda trip. They sent a member of their team."
That team member was not a reporter or cameraman, but a security guard kitted out with a camera.
Robertson also took a potshot at Fox's Harrigan, who has been reporting from Tripoli. Robertson said he had seen Harrigan more often at breakfast than out in the field and that the security guard had told colleagues he was surprised by Harrigan's absence.
Griffin made a correction, telling viewers she had not known Fox had sent the security guard with a camera to make sure the network didn't miss anything. But she said she stood by her reporting. (Disclosure: Griffin is married to an NPR editor, Greg Myre.)
Robertson declined to comment further. For his part, Harrigan released a written statement to NPR through a spokeswoman: "It's unfathomable that a journalist could go on the air, without getting his facts straight, and attack another journalist while in a war zone. Our security guard made it very clear to me that he never even spoke to Robertson about why Fox reporters were not going on the trip."
For most reporters in Tripoli, choices aren't in written black and white. They're there at the pleasure of the regime and venture out in public only with official minders.
"It's a common practice, whether in Iraq or Libya," says Griffin, a veteran foreign reporter who has been stationed in Cyprus, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and South Africa. "Sometimes it's the only way to get around a city. There are benefits. I get that."
In this instance, Griffin says, "given what the Libyan government had been doing at that compound, in terms of shipping civilians to protect Gadhafi's compound, it was a risk in going over there in terms of being used by them."
NPR's David Greene was among the reporters who visited the site at the compound and filed stories. Other reporters operate with more freedom in parts of the country held by anti-Gadhafi rebels.
But John Maxwell Hamilton, a former foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and ABC Radio, says reporting even under such restrictive conditions can be valuable. Hamilton says he sees no evidence Western correspondents were duped.
"Sure, I guess the journalists can be taken to this place or that place and appear to be used," Hamilton says, "but on the other hand, they're trying desperately to find out as much as they possibly can."
In addition, journalists in Tripoli are in place to report if the rebellion starts to regain momentum or Gadhafi's regime should fall. He says all journalists in Libya, including CNN's Robertson and Fox's Harrigan, should be celebrated for doing such an increasingly dangerous job.
"At the beginning of the 20th century, having a press pass was kind of like having a shield. It was a way to get into places and be taken care of," says Hamilton, now provost of Louisiana State University and the author of Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting.
"Today, press passes have become, really, targets. People are trying to shoot foreign correspondents — particularly American foreign correspondents," he says.
Sometimes reporters operating outside official channels are captured and detained. Four New York Times journalists reporting in Libya were held by forces loyal to Gadhafi and physically abused for days before their release. An additional 13 reporters are either being held or are missing there.
Griffin tells NPR she has great respect for CNN's Robertson, but that she wanted to share with viewers the repercussions of the journalists' choices on Sunday: inadvertently interrupting "a rather significant military operation."