Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Eason Jordan defends his choice. CNN's Eason Jordan has written to Media Log to offer his side in the controversy over the op-ed piece that he wrote for the New York Times last Friday. Jordan writes:


While we probably will agree to disagree on some things about CNN's history in Iraq, I wanted you to know my side of the story. I shared this note with my CNN colleagues yesterday:

Since my op-ed piece in the New York Times Friday stirred a controversy, I want to share my thoughts with you about it. In the op-ed, I described how the Iraqi regime intimidated, tortured, and killed people who helped CNN over the years. It was a tough piece to write. But I felt strongly the stories needed to be told as soon as telling them would not automatically result in the killing of innocent colleagues, friends, and acquaintances -- most of them Iraqis.

Some critics complain that the op-ed piece proves CNN withheld vital information from the public and kowtowed to the Saddam Hussein regime to maintain a CNN reporting presence in Iraq. That is nonsense. No news organization in the world had a more contentious relationship with the Iraqi regime than CNN. The Iraqi leadership was so displeased with CNN's Iraq reporting, CNN was expelled from Iraq six times -- five times in previous years and one more time on day three of this Iraq war. Those expulsions lasted as long as six months at a time. CNN's Baghdad bureau chief, Jane Arraf, was banned from the country in response to her reporting on an unprecedented public protest demanding to know what happened to Iraqis who vanished years earlier after being abducted by Iraqi secret police. Christiane Amanpour, Wolf Blitzer, Aaron Brown, Brent Sadler, Nic Robertson, Rym Brahimi, Sheila MacVicar, Ben Wedeman, and Richard Roth were among the other CNN correspondents and anchors banned from Iraq. If CNN were trying to kowtow and maintain its Baghdad presence at any cost, would CNN's reporting have produced a contentious relationship, expulsions, and bannings? No. CNN kept pushing for access in Iraq, while never compromising its journalistic standards in doing so. Withholding information that would get innocent people killed was the right thing to do, not a journalistic sin.

Did CNN report on the brutality of the regime? Yes, as best we could, mostly from outside Iraq, where people in the know could speak more freely than people inside Iraq. In Saddam's Iraq, no one was foolish enough to speak on camera or on the record about the brutality of the regime because anyone doing so would be effectively signing his or her death warrant. So we reported on Iraq's human rights record from outside Iraq and featured many interviews with Iraqi defectors who described the regime's brutality in graphic detail. When an Iraqi official, Abbas al-Janabi, defected after his teeth were yanked out with pliers by Uday Saddam Hussein's henchmen, I worked to ensure the defector gave his first TV interview to CNN. He did. I also personally asked Tariq Aziz in a live TV interview during one of our World Report Conferences to defend his country's dreadful human rights record. Other CNNers over the years also put tough questions to Iraqi officials.

Some critics say if I had told my Iraq horror stories sooner, I would have saved thousands of lives. How they come to that conclusion, I don't know. Iraq's human rights record and the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime were well known before I wrote my op-ed piece. The only sure thing that would have happened if I told those stories sooner is the regime would have tracked down and killed the innocent people who told me those stories. Critics say I could have told the stories without identifying Iraqis by name. But the Iraqi secret police surely knew everyone I met in Iraq and would have had no trouble identifying who told me the stories. No doubt those people would be dead today if I spoke sooner.

A number of people have told me CNN should have closed its Baghdad bureau, helped everyone who told me the horror stories flee Iraq, with me thereafter telling those stories publicly long before now. While that is a noble thought, doing so was not a viable option. Iraqis (and their families) who told me those stories in some cases could not, and in other cases would not, leave their country simply for the sake of CNN being able to share their stories with the world. Incidentally, there are countless such horror stories in Iraq. I knew just a few of them. We will hear many more of them in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Knowing the personal stories I knew about the brutality of the regime, I had three options:

1. Never repeat such horror stories.

2. Tell the stories sooner and, as a result, see innocent people killed.

3. Tell the stories after the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime.

I chose option three and could never imagine doing anything else.

I chose to write the NY Times op-ed to provide a record of one person's experiences with the brutality of the Iraqi regime and to ensure we maintain CNN's long record of reporting on atrocities around the world, even if in these cases we could do so only years later to protect the lives of innocent people.


Jordan has obviously been anguished over this for some time. But I think a serious issue remains: by Jordan's own admission, CNN's reporting was compromised over the past decade because its top news executive knew terrible things about the regime of Saddam Hussein that he could not say.

What should he have done differently? Here's one possibility: he simply should have pulled CNN out of Iraq and explained that the regime was not allowing the network to report on the country fully and honestly.

At a time when Fox News and MSNBC have been all but marching into battle on behalf of the White House, CNN has been a sober and serious alternative. Unfortunately, we now know that CNN's reporting on Iraq has been compromised all along. Yes, CNN and the Iraqi government had contentious relations, and I don't doubt that CNN was as tough on the regime as Jordan dared. But at a certain point, ethics dictate that you seriously consider walking away.

The Washington Post today has a tough editorial on the choice Jordan made. Its conclusion is worth pondering:

It is difficult to make judgments in retrospect, but some CNN reporting did seem deliberately unprovocative, given the true nature of the regime. An election last autumn, which Saddam Hussein won with 100 percent of the votes, was interpreted as a "message of defiance to U.S. President George Bush," for example. If the network had also told its viewers that Mr. Jordan dealt with an Iraqi official whose teeth had been pried out for upsetting his boss, Uday Hussein, then those watching the electoral story might have felt differently about that report, about the election result and about a regime that terrified its citizens into proclaiming their unanimous support.

Justified or not, that is the perception that CNN is now going to have to overcome.

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