April 11, 2003

Thirteen Years Later, CNN's...

Thirteen Years Later, CNN's Baghdad Bureau Finally Tells the Truth: Eason Jordan, chief news executive of CNN, explains in today's New York Times what it's like to suppress "awful things that could not be reported," in the name of keeping your bureau open inside a dictatorship. Conclusion:

I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me. Now that Saddam Hussein's regime is gone, I suspect we will hear many, many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis about the decades of torment. At last, these stories can be told freely.
This is appalling, though no surprise. The embarrassing Peter Arnett interview on Iraq TV was just a brief public glimpse on what has been a nasty little private "secret" for years -- that "news bureaus" in Baghdad and other totalitarian capitals (Havana, to name one) are actually propaganda huts, churning out what CNN producers call "sanctions coverage" (pieces on the awful humanitarian toll of international economic sanctions), while refusing to report the awful truth. It is possible, though intensely difficult, to do honest journalism in such circumstances. But with this column, I think we have the final proof that CNN will not be the news organization to rise to that challenge. Shame.

Posted by at April 11, 2003 12:52 AM
Comments

Wow. What a bombshell!

I think what is scary though is that so many of the "kook" factions of the left (as well as some paleocons) and citizens of other countries actually believed Saddam was "popular" with his own people and that claims of torture etc were greatly exaggerated.

Posted by: brandon adamson at April 11, 2003 01:50 AM

1. CNN should have stopped hiring locals.

2. CNN's coverage was compromised. They didn't tell us for years.

3. Matt is spot-on when he writes that "'news bureaus' in Baghdad and other totalitarian capitals (Havana, to name one) are actually propaganda huts, churning out what CNN producers call 'sanctions coverage' (pieces on the awful humanitarian toll of international economic sanctions), while refusing to report the awful truth." When are we going to hear the truth about Castro?

4. CNN is arrogant thinking that everyone will buy into the view Eason Jordan is trying to sell.

Posted by: Don'tknow at April 11, 2003 04:36 AM

Thanks for blogging this, Matt.

Doesn't this story, in all probability, go beyond CNN? Even NPR, who has no profit motive, had reporters in Baghdad. They had to collaborate in the same way, didn't they? Would it have been too much to ask that they simply say: "Due to the Iraqi regime's threats to international press workers, we cannot in good conscience report from Baghdad?" You mention Peter Arnett. I think it's worth noting that during that interview he PRAISED Baghdad for its many years of cooperation with the international press?

Jesus this makes me sick.

Posted by: Matt J. at April 11, 2003 06:56 AM

Between GWI and II we had a pretty major change - the worldwide adoption of the internet, which has had its little impact on a couple of things.

The hope is that even as major news outlets are politically compromised (by hostile factions, as with CNN, or by their own volition, as in the case of FOX), and radio is devoured by Clear Channel, the internet will provide a veritable "world wide web" of journalists. Seriously, I wonder how tight even the cruelest dictator's grasp is in the internet age.

Posted by: kriston at April 11, 2003 07:59 AM

I don't think that news bureaus are propaganda huts by definition. When I visited Havana, for example, I was pretty sure that Reuters & BBC were doing honest work in difficult circumstances. But the pressures are enormous (including the pressure to pay bribes -- see the L.A. Times story about the *$200,000* doled out by news organizations to the outgoing Saddamites) ... and only the most disciplined news companies do it right.

Posted by: Matt Welch at April 11, 2003 09:09 AM

What else are they afraid to tell us the truth about.

FLOOD THE ZONE on this.

Posted by: blaster at April 11, 2003 09:45 AM

I think it's important to have western journalists in totalitarian capitols where possible, but the honest thing to do is include in every filed story -- this story approved by censors, or our reporters are limited by government censors in what they can tell you.

Not only would this put the stories in a more honest and ethical context, it would also be a constant reminder of what a free press really is and what it means.

Posted by: Howard Owens at April 11, 2003 10:39 AM

You know, I don't think journalism schools mention Walter Duranty much. And while it's good to protect locals from retaliation, was there REALLY no way to write about the repression and horror?

Posted by: Kate at April 11, 2003 10:41 AM

Howard -- I agree with you 100%. Just a little truth in advertising. Even during the march to Baghdad, I thought the reporters filing from the capital mentioned their muzzled circumstances far too infrequently.

Posted by: Matt Welch at April 11, 2003 10:49 AM

Truth in Advertising:

During this war, there have been BBC reporters in Baghdad, and those embedded with the Allied forces.

The BBC reporters blog:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/world/2003/reporters_log/default.stm

has a disclaimer at the bottom:

Reporters with the US and British military are restricted in what they can say about precise locations or military plans.

Nice, huh?

Posted by: Matt at April 11, 2003 11:38 AM

Matt -- Yeah, that is nice. Strange, that I remember hearing more about the embeds' limitations than the Palestine Hotel restrictions ... though it is entirely possible that my memory is selective & inaccurate.

Posted by: Matt Welch at April 11, 2003 11:50 AM


"We don't report. You can't decide."

K

Posted by: Ken at April 11, 2003 12:24 PM

I don't get cable, so all I've seen is the networks and BBC. When the Beeb goes to their Baghdad correspondents, they usually say a disclaimer first.

Posted by: Lonewacko at April 11, 2003 12:46 PM

On his terrific blog, Dr. Frank asked: "Is it really true that among CNN producers there's a term of art for propogating totalitarianism-friendly news content ("sanctions coverage")?"

The answer: Yes. Or at least, that's what one CNN producer, who had done a lot of work in Iraq, told me in Havana.

Posted by: Matt Welch at April 11, 2003 01:12 PM

Matt, what exactly would *you* have done. Quoting from the editorial:"The secret police terrorized Iraqis working for international press services who were courageous enough to try to provide accurate reporting. Some vanished, never to be heard from again. Others disappeared and then surfaced later with whispered tales of being hauled off and tortured in unimaginable ways."

While I think it is indeed terrible that these things happened, the reality is that there were lives at stake, those of CNN's employees and their families.

Just what would *you* have done to protect the safety of your employees if you were Eason Jordan?

Do you think that CNN should not have had any presence in Iraq, yielding even less information about what went on there?

Posted by: Bob Monsour at April 11, 2003 02:43 PM

Bob -- At minimum, I would have tacked on a routine disclaimer to every report emanating from Baghdad (or Havana, or wherever else similar compromises are being made), saying that the reporting you are seeing is being chosen on a basis other than our usual news judgment. That may sound awkward, but it has the virtue of being true, and I think that viewers woul>

Indeed, TNR had the goods on this story. I quote:

One TV reporter who glimpsed the operation four years ago describes the listeners transcribing the tapes by hand, with passages critical of the regime written in red. The ministry stores the transcripts in files, which are pulled out and analyzed when journalists apply for visas.

Definitely worth a read: TNR story.

Posted by: Joel at April 13, 2003 08:50 PM

I don't get it with all this bitching about CNN not "teling the truth". Who honestly can say that they never heard reports on CNN of how bad Saddam was and the evil his regime did? That they chose not to report certain information is nothing new for any news agency in the world. Every news organization (yes, even in the free press) makes decisions everyday as to what they will and will not report. CNN may have not told the whole story, but they told the story. Everyone is pissing and moaning like CNN was reporting like the Iraqi Info Minister and saying, no new here, everything is just ducky. That is false. CNN has reported the evil out of Iraq for more than a decade. That they chose to sit on aspects of stories that could get innocent employees killed is nothing new for any news organization. Pull your heads out folks. Do you think FOX doesn't supress stories? They do if it will make Democarats look good or Republicans look bad. Happens everyday on FOX. Watch their "fair and balanced" reporting and then watch the rest of the story on the other news outlets.

Posted by: BigDogDaddy at April 13, 2003 09:34 PM

Richard, so you can't be a little pregnant? Then I guess it was OK for Geraldo to be honest to his journalism and report troop movements instead of accept US military censorship. You can ride with us as long as you say and show what we want. Don't tell the whole truth though, you might get someone killed. I guess those embedded journalists were just as bad as CNN by not telling the whole truth as they knew it and fearing punishment if they broke the censors rules.

Posted by: BigDogDaddy at April 13, 2003 09:40 PM

Trying to think of what CNN should have done, besides pulling out of Baghdad altogether, is probabaly useless. Even a disclaimer would (might) have cost them access.
The question is what to do now?
The answer is, it seems to me, is to be enormously sceptical about reporting from any unfree country, by any network.
Just presume they are under pressure which affects what they say. What you do with that is up to you, but it should be taken as a fact of life.
I also agree that the horrors of the Saddaam regime were not exactly secret. That CNN said little or nothing about them didn't make much difference, except that it was difficult to put the horrors in the faces of the anti-war types. They could always sneer at the provenance of the information and get out of the difficulty that way.
Were the majors more forthright, the arguments would have been more difficult for the antis, although not a single one of them would have changed his/her point of view. The horrors were simply irrelevant to them. They knew the horrors impressed us, so they had to duck the argument. It would have been more difficult if the horrors had been explained by the majors, but the only practical effect would have been a little satisfaction at watching them ramp up their hypocrisy.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at April 14, 2003 08:16 AM

Look at it this way. CNN came forward and told what was up when they felt they could. They could have kept their mouths shut and saved themselves all of the armchair quarterback criticism. It took a lot of guts to be honest about why they held back on reporting aspects of individual stories. CNN has not put a gloss on IRAQ for the last decade. They've been reporting the same information that all the other print, radio and TV outlets have been reporting. Stop, clear your mind and think about this to help put it in perspective. Almost every news outlet from many countries has an embedded journalist traveling with a military unit. The field commander has full censorship rights over what that journalist can and cannot say. They can't show dead or wounded American soldiers. They can't report anything negative. They can't even show you dead or wounded enemy soldiers. They can't show actual combat, just a tank or two firing on a position so far from the camera that all you can see is a puff of smoke when it is hit. They are free to show any Iraqis welcoming the troops or destroying Saddam's image. The news media (including FOX) has agreed to not even show caskets coming off of planes. The government has promised up close access......as long as you show and tell the story we want seen and heard. If you don't play by their rules, you get the boot like Geraldo did. Now you have no access and can't report anything, not even PART of the story. AND THE MEDIA BOUGHT IT!!! That is censorship and propaganda. However, at some point after the fact, these embedded journalist will come home and just like CNN, they will tell you the rest of the story that they couldn't before. When it is SAFE to do so. Thapril 14, 2003 11:31 AM

BigDogDaddy:

I'm curious, is there a difference between journalism in wartime and in peacetime? Should there be?

Saddam Hussein's rules were not imposed after UNSC 1441 was passed. No, those rules were in place when CNN opened its Baghdad office. So, unless you're arguing that Iraq has been in a state of war since the beginning of CNN coverage, that's a big difference.

Second, CNN, and others, made very clear what the USG's ground rules were---including not showing dead US soldiers. I don't recall a single disclaimer about coverage from Iraq being censored. Keep in mind, too, that many items were not shown, not b/c of USG censorship, but broadcasting decisions in the US. They COULD have shown the al-Jazeera footage of the kid w/ his head blown open---last I checked, no USG censor prevented anyone from broadcasting that. (Or is 9-11 footage not shown by Ashcroft fiat.)

Third, CNN, and others, have alternative coverage for a democracy. In tracking the war, did we know how many US soldiers died, on a day-by-day, darn near minute-by-minute basis? Yes. From the field, from "CNN HQ in Atlanta," from the other networks, from foreign coverage. If you watched it on the blogs and Internet, you had one heckuva range of options. Are you really going to try and argue that you could achieve a similar level of situational awareness in Iraq?!??

Fourth, w/ the war winding down, do you think there'll be coverage of most of the aspects you listed as off-limits? Do you think that any bodies coming home to Dover AFB WON'T be shown b/c the GOVERNMENT is preventing it? What would it have taken for Iraq to loosen up? Ooops, never mind, the events in Baghdad already answer THAT question. But one had a set time-frame---the duratino of hostilities. What do you think Iraq's deal was?

Fifth and finally, at the end of the day, you didn't have to join the pool. Yeah, you wouldn't get nice military sound-bites, and you wouldn't be embedded. But it sure looked to me like there were journalists running around (at some risk to themselves) in Kuwait and, once the war began, in Iraq. What was the likely US response if you were caught? Being shot by the grunts? Or, at worst, being escorted outta country. What, according to Jordan, would've been the consequences of "not cooperating" w/ the Iraqis? Still wanna think of them as comparable?

The idea that Iraq and the US military are somehow equate-able, especially in wartime, in their treatment of the press is simply mind-boggling.

Posted by: Dean at April 14, 2003 05:35 PM
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gDaddy:

I'm curious, is there a difference between journalism in wartime and in peacetime? Should there be?

Saddam Hussein's rules were not imposed after UNSC 1441 was passed. No, those rules were in place when CNN opened its Baghdad office. So, unless you're arguing that Iraq has been in a state of war since the beginning of CNN coverage, that's a big difference.

Second, CNN, and others, made very clear what the USG's ground rules were---including not showing dead US soldiers. I don't recall a single disclaimer about coverage from Iraq being censored. Keep in mind, too, that many items were not shown, not b/c of USG censorship, but broadcasting decisions in the US. They COULD have shown the al-Jazeera footage of the kid w/ his head blown open---last I checked, no USG censor prevented anyone from broadcasting that. (Or is 9-11 footage not shown by Ashcroft fiat.)

Third, CNN, and others, have alternative coverage for a democracy. In tracking the war, did we know how many US soldiers died, on a day-by-day, darn near minute-by-minute basis? Yes. From the field, from "CNN HQ in Atlanta," from the other networks, from foreign coverage. If you watched it on the blogs and Internet, you had one heckuva range of options. Are you really going to try and argue that you could achieve a similar level of situational awareness in Iraq?!??

Fourth, w/ the war winding down, do you think there'll be coverage of most of the aspects you listed as off-limits? Do you think that any bodies coming home to Dover AFB WON'T be shown b/c the GOVERNMENT is preventing it? What would it have taken for Iraq to loosen up? Ooops, never mind, the events in Baghdad already answer THAT question. But one had a set time-frame---the duratino of hostilities. What do you think Iraq's deal was?

Fifth and finally, at the end of the day, you didn't have to join the pool. Yeah, you wouldn't get nice military sound-bites, and you wouldn't be embedded. But it sure looked to me like there were journalists running around (at some risk to themselves) in Kuwait and, once the war began, in Iraq. What was the likely US response if you were caught? Being shot by the grunts? Or, at worst, being escorted outta country. What, according to Jordan, would've been the consequences of "not cooperating" w/ the Iraqis? Still wanna think of them as comparable?

The idea that Iraq and the US military are somehow equate-able, especially in wartime, in their treatment of the press is simply mind-boggling.

Posted by: Dean at April 14, 2003 05:35 PM
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