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Reporters on two rival cable news networks have clashed in recent days. At issue is whether Western journalists in Tripoli have become dupes of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports that the spat reveals the tricky choices involved in reporting on armed conflict and authoritarian regimes.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: U.K. missiles had hit a building at Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli on Sunday. Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin was reporting British tornado fighter jets had been prepared to launch an additional seven missiles at the site but cut the mission short.

JENNIFER GRIFFIN: Because of the presence of CNN crews, Reuters crews, as well as some civilians that had been brought essentially as human shields by the Ministry of Information to that compound.

FOLKENFLIK: Griffin was speaking to Fox News' Jon Scott. As she reported, Libyan Ministry of Information aides offered reporters the chance to see the damage.

GRIFFIN: This was, from their point of view, a propaganda opportunity to show that Gadhafi himself was being targeted, because his compound had been targeted. Some news crews decided to go. Others, including our Steve Harrigan, did not go to the compound. They were concerned that they could be used as human shields.

FOLKENFLIK: Propaganda, human shields - provocative terms.

CNN's Nic Robertson did a brief standup from that bombed site, though he told viewers on Monday he was hustled out of there, and that Fox's report stunk of hypocrisy.

NIC ROBERTSON: You know, when you come to somewhere like Libya, you expect lies and deceit from a dictatorship here. You don't expect it from the other journalists. Why do I say that? Because Fox News has said that they didn't send somebody on this trip last night, because they said it was a, quote and unquote, "propaganda" trip. They sent a member of their team.

FOLKENFLIK: Griffin made a correction, telling viewers she had not known Fox had sent a security guard with a camera to make sure the network didn't miss anything.

For most reporters in Tripoli, the choices aren't written in black and white. They're there at the pleasure of the regime and go out in public only with official minders.

Other reporters operate with more freedom in parts of the country held by anti- Gadhafi rebels.

John Maxwell Hamilton says reporting under such conditions can be valuable. Hamilton is a former foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and ABC Radio, and he says there's no evidence correspondents were duped.

JOHN MAXWELL HAMILTON: Sure, I guess, you know, the journalists can be taken to this place or that place and appear to be used, but on the other hand, they're trying desperately to find out as much as they possibly can.

FOLKENFLIK: Hamilton, now provost of Louisiana State University, is the author of "A History of American Foreign Reporting."

MAXWELL HAMILTON: Beginning of the century - 20th century, having a press pass was kind of like having a shield, right? You - it was a way to get into places and be taken care of. Today, press passes have become, really, targets.

FOLKENFLIK: Sometimes, reporters operating without permission are captured and detained. Four New York Times journalists were held by forces loyal to Gadhafi and physically abused for days before their release. Another 13 reporters are either being held or missing.

Here's Fox's Jennifer Griffin.

GRIFFIN: I feel that in this particular instance, given what the Libyan government had been doing at that compound in terms of shipping civilians in to protect Gadhafi's compound, it was a risk in going over there in terms of being used by them.

FOLKENFLIK: Griffin tells NPR she has great respect for CNN's Robertson.

GRIFFIN: My point was that by choosing to do that, they interrupted a rather significant military operation.

FOLKENFLIK: Griffin says Robertson took offense at what was, at its root, a news story about journalists' choices and their consequences.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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