Monday, April 21, 2003

Face to face (sort of) with Eason Jordan. CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan and I appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources yesterday. We didn't debate each other directly -- rather, host Howard Kurtz interviewed Jordan in studio, and then asked me to comment from my perch in Boston. You can read the transcript here.

I thought Jordan's most interesting comments involved what he called the "hypocrisy" of other media in condemning CNN's dealings with the regime of Saddam Hussein while keeping quiet about their own dealings. At one point Jordan said:

There were many journalists who knew stories like this. I encourage you and everyone to read the New York Times today. John Burns has a diary, a Baghdad diary in the New York Times that is fascinating, it's very compelling, and it's all true about what compromises journalists had to make in Baghdad in order to stay there and not to put innocent lives at risk.

Burns's front-page "Baghdad Diary" in Sunday's Times, headlined "Last Days of a Brutal Regime," is indeed "fascinating" and "compelling," the sort of gripping account that he (and the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid) have justly become known for during the war in Iraq.

Among other things, Burns reveals that he spent the final days of the regime skulking around stairwells and staying in other reporters' hotel rooms to prevent the authorities from following through on a threat to haul him away, never to be seen again.

Here's the section of Burns's piece that Jordan was talking about:

A tacit understanding, accepted by many visiting journalists, was that there were aspects of Mr. Hussein's Iraq that could be mentioned only obliquely. First among these was the personality of Mr. Hussein himself, and the fact that he was widely despised and feared by Iraqis, something that was obvious to any visitor ready to listen to the furtive whispers in which this hatred was commonly expressed.

The terror that was the most pervasive aspect of society under Mr. Hussein was another topic that was largely taboo. Every interview conducted by television reporters, and most print journalists, was monitored; any Iraqi voicing an opinion other than those approved by the state would be vulnerable to arrest, torture and execution. But these were facts rarely mentioned by many reporters.

Some reporters bought expensive gifts for senior ministry officials, submitted copies of their stories to show they were friendly to Iraq, or invited key officials like Uday al-Ta'ee, director general of information, for dinners at the expensive restaurants favored by Mr. Hussein's elite.

On the editorial page of today's Times, Ethan Bronner writes with considerable sophistication and nuance about the terrible conflicts that journalists face in covering a regime such as Saddam's. Bronner writes of the Jordan affair:

The controversy has highlighted an uncomfortable reality. Covering totalitarian states forces a journalist to act in compromising ways. Anyone who has reported from such countries knows that it is one of the most challenging tasks a journalist faces, involving daily calculations over access, honesty, freedom of movement and fear of reprisal. Some governments assume a foreign journalist is a spy. The way they treat you forces you to act like one.

Bronner seemingly defends Jordan in writing: "It's easy to say Mr. Jordan and CNN made the wrong choice. It certainly allows for a comforting moral clarity." Yet he also follows that by saying, "And it may be that they stepped over a line in pandering to Iraqi officials." Earlier in the piece Bronner asserts: "Mr. Jordan's confession did not inspire confidence."

Bronner, I think, gets at the heart of the problem. Yes, media insiders understand that compromises must be made in order to cover the news in a horrible place such as Iraq. (Something they could and should do a much better job of explaining to the public they are supposedly serving.)

But Eason Jordan, in his 13 trips to Iraq, did far more than decide what to cover and what to set aside for another day. By his own account, he was dragged against his will into life-and-death decision-making. I'm glad he's decided to come clean, but he still hasn't convinced me that he did the right thing in not ordering CNN to pull out of Iraq.

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