Monday, April 14, 2003
Selling the truth for a dateline: There's been a lot of debate both in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media about CNN executive Eason Jordan's confession in Friday's New York Times that CNN had first-hand knowledge of the torture and brutality behind Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but kept quiet. CNN stayed silent for two reasons: First, to protect the lives of Iraqis who worked for CNN from Iraqi government reprisals, and; Second, to ensure that CNN would have an editorial presence in that country.
Some have made the case that Jordan did his best to protect Iraqi CNN employees from government reprisals. Blogger Andrew Hagen is one of those who made a thoughtful defense of Jordan's conduct.
The real crime was committed by the Iraqi regime, not CNN.
If CNN just pulled out of Baghdad, all of their Iraqi employees and family members would have likely been tortured or killed.
I concur that the Iraqi regime was the source of the real crime, but CNN put itself in a vulnerable position. It put itself in a position that its reporting could be controlled by the threat of violence.
Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (showing that "excellence" can have many different meanings) also supports Jordan's position.
"He wrote an extraordinary and sensible essay," Mr. Rosenstiel said. "He was weighing out his journalistic responsibility and his human responsibility. It's a difficult task, but it comes with the territory of an editor who is responsible for his people ? and the news."
Jordan was faced with a difficult decision -- and he made the wrong choice.
What Jordan should have done was close the Baghdad bureau and move his reporters to Kuwait or Jordan or some other adjacent country where they could report on what's happening in Iraq without a gun pointed at their heads. How much honest reporting can be done in a totalitarian regime with government minders watching your every move? CNN's reporting, and that of most other news organizations in Iraq, was a farce.
Blogger Rand Simberg pointed out that Jordan's confession on CNN's Iraq coverage, begged a question.
Now that we know how the game is played, please tell us why your reporting from Damascus, or Gaza, or the West Bank (as just three examples) should be given any credibility whatsoever. How much of Arafat and Assad's thuggish behavior have you been covering up? And if you now propose to tell us, why should we believe you?
In a just and rational world, this should be devastating for the network, but they'll probably get the usual pass.
Add into Simberg's mix Fidel Castro's Cuba and its recent under-covered show trials of pro-democracy advocates.
Sadly, CNN got itself into the position of having to worry about the fate of its native workers in Iraq because of the vain journalistic prestige a Baghdad dateline gave it. The desire for their own reporters to have the pictures, murals and statues of Saddam Hussein as scenery shots for their stand-ups put them in a position to be blackmailed.
"The most trusted name in news" is CNN's slogan. If that's true, what does that say about the rest of the news business?
*UPDATE* I should've checked The Wall Street Journal's opinion page before I posted.
Franklin Foer makes the following revelation:
Of course, Mr. Jordan may feel he deserves a pinch of credit for coming clean like this. But this admission shouldn't get him any ethical journalism trophies. For a long time, CNN denied that its coverage skimped on truth. While I researched a story on CNN's Iraq coverage for the New Republic last October, Mr. Jordan told me flatly that his network gave "a full picture of the regime." In our conversation, he challenged me to find instances of CNN neglecting stories about Saddam's horrors. If only I'd had his Times op-ed!
Would that this were an outbreak of honesty, however belated. But it isn't. If it were, Mr. Jordan wouldn't be portraying CNN as Saddam's victim. He'd be apologizing for its cooperation with Iraq's erstwhile information ministry--and admitting that CNN policy hinders truthful coverage of dictatorships. For CNN, the highest prize is "access," to score live camera feeds from a story's epicenter. Dictatorships understand this hunger, and also that it provides blackmail opportunities. In exchange for CNN bureaus, dictatorships require adherence to their own rules of reportage. They create conditions where CNN--and other U.S. media--can do little more than toe the regime's line.