A gray F-14 Navy Tomcat suddenly swooped close to an intruder aircraft flying over US ships near Lebanon. The fighter delivered a clear warning: Leave at once. The intruder, which was photographing the American fleet and noting its position, was no spy plane. It was an airplane hired by CBS-TV. Later, the CBS film of United States ships less than 30 miles off Beirut was broadcast on the evening news during a report on the recent hostage crisis.
Anyone with a TV could learn that the Navy had dispatched the carrier Nimitz with more than 90 warplanes aboard to Lebanon's coast. Also in the fleet, CBS reported, was a three-ship amphibious task force with tanks, helicopters, and 1,800 marines aboard.
Such reporting of the supercharged atmosphere in Lebanon during the past two weeks has again raised questions about the role of the news media during emergencies.
Do the media only cover the news, or do they also make it? Do they act responsibly? Do they help to solve crises, or make them worse? Do they give away national secrets in their scramble for ratings and circulation? Were they endangering the lives of hostages?
Government officials and scholars are raising such questions. There is agreement that in a nation with a free press, there are no easy answers. News cannot be suppressed.
The White House, however, was seriously concerned about TV coverage during the crisis, especially the broadcasting of interviews with the hostages. The interviews were strong theater, but federal officials worried that they were ``terribly harmful'' to negotiations.
On Friday, the White House let its concern be known, but the interviews, orchestrated by the Shiites in Lebanon, continued. Tom Shales, TV critic for the Washington Post, noted sarcastically on Saturday:
``You have to wonder if the networks will be sorry to see this hostage crisis end. They're having such an exciting time with it; they're getting such good stuff out of Beirut. The networks are wearing the hostages like charms on a bracelet. Whenever the terrorists make them available . . . , the networks greet them with open arms and . . . microphones.''
All this has made the media, in an age of instant communications, a major player that can influence events as readily as presidents and kings.
Terrorism expert Robert H. Kupperman of the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies says this is terribly important today, because the world has entered a period of ``low-intensity conflict.'' America, including its media, seems ill-equipped for this new form of combat, in which ``you don't measure each side's prowess by counting flotillas or divisions or nuclear weapons.''
In this new warfare, terrorists seek a ``world stage'' to gain their ends, says Dr. Kupperman, and the media readily provide it. The whole crisis in Beirut took on a ``soap-opera character,'' something like ``Dynasty'' or ``Dallas,'' even though it was something that was ``tragic and deeply important.''
A number of scholars see two potential problems with news reporting:
Saturation coverage, which elevates national emotions to crisis levels.
Disclosure of troop movements and other military preparedness.
Ray Cline, a former deputy director of central intelligence, says the more important factor is the huge volume of coverage, and the strong feeling that generates in this country.
``The media saturate people so much with data, events, pictures, the human side of the situation, that it does raise emotion to a very high pitch. This tends to play into the hands of the terrorists, because that's what they want,'' he says.
``The terrorists want people to feel they are very powerful, they are in control of the situation. Those pictures of shooting at the photographers on the airport over there and of the triumphant Shiites marching around with anti-US signs are part of their program. In other words, the media do help the terrorists establish the mood and the fear that they want to establish.''
Kupperman makes similar points. The terrorists skillfully used public opinion, he observes. ``Their objectives were theatrical. And we've met their objectives. They have won.'' Such coverage and emotion puts pressure on the White House to ``do something,'' even when it shouldn't.
Brookings Institution scholar William B. Quandt, a former member of the National Security Council, suggests that this artificial pressure may have affected the White House at the height of the crisis. It may be why officials there the other day spoke about blockading Lebanon or closing the Beirut airport.
``Quick solutions, quick results'' become a top priority at the White House, Dr. Quandt notes. Yet waiting may be a better strategy.
The other concern is a violation of national security. Some critics point to reporting about movement of an American antiterrorist team as one example of unnecessary detail.
For example, on June 14, early in the hostage crisis, ABC-TV reported:
``US intelligence sources say that . . . groups of military counterterrorist specialists were being assembled at Fort Bragg, N.C., and elsewhere in the US for flights across the Atlantic. Government sources say the strategy is to get these secret commandos close enough to the hijacking so they can be used if the country where the plane is wants help.''
CBS sources say their network, unlike ABC, refrained for two days from broadcasting that information because of concerns about national security.
Says Kupperman: ``Some things just ought not be discussed. Details of intricate negotiations, details of the location of the military. The hostage-takers do listen.''
Quandt suggests that the sensitivity of such information depends on the event. This can be difficult for the news media to gauge. For example, if a crisis involves the Soviets, they almost certainly know what is going on. But he adds: ``In this case, where you are dealing with Shiites in Beirut, I think you could probably argue that they are not exquisitely well informed about what's going on. A bit of mystery and uncertainty might actually be of some advantage to the US.''
Network officials parry their critics by insisting that national interest is constantly weighed in their reporting. Richard Drayne, a spokesman for CBS-TV in Washington, says the network withheld some information throughout the hostage crisis.
The alternative to current policy, Mr. Drayne says, is that ``nobody learns anything about the crisis, and I think that is even more unsettling to the American people than trying to be judicious and use only the information you can safely use.''
An ABC-TV official, Joanna Bistany in New York, says ``there is certain information which we had in our possession which we knew would be dangerous to broadcast.'' The network voluntarily withheld it, she says.
Ms. Bistany suggests that some reporting is valuable to the government, such as an ABC interview with the TWA pilot, who confirmed that all the hostages had been removed from the plane. As for the ABC report on the antiterrorist team: ``The Pentagon told us. If they want to keep something secret, they do.''
On the other hand, Michael Burch, who just retired as the chief Pentagon spokesman, contends that some news organizations do their best to disclose ``advance contingency plans to rescue Americans.'' He complains: ``For the price of a 25-cent newspaper or a 19-inch television screen, these hijackers [had] a very sophisticated intelligence system.''