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Was CNN Justified in Withholding Reports of Iraqi Atrocities to Save Innocents’ Lives? - 2003-04-17


CNN’s slogan is “The Most Trusted Name in News.” However, after last week’s opinion piece in The New York Times newspaper, many question whether this is still the case.

The op-ed written by Eason Jordan, CNN’s chief news executive, admits that over the last 12 years CNN held back certain stories because reporting them would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis.

Although critics acknowledge the network was in a tough position, that doesn’t excuse what they call irresponsible journalism. Franklin Foer, associate editor at The New Republic magazine, wrote an article last October called “How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media.”

In his article, Mr. Foer outlined how the Iraqis were “masters of the Orwellian pantomime that promotes their distorted reality. And the Iraqi regime has found an audience for these displays in an unlikely place: the U.S. media.” Nobody covered the Iraqi propaganda better, says Mr. Foer, than CNN in Baghdad.

“When I asked CNN about its coverage of Iraq last October, they told me that they were giving their viewers a full picture of what was going on within Iraq. And I got no sense from talking to Eason Jordan that there were any stories that they were omitting for any reason whatsoever,” Mr. Foer says. “He actually went so far as to challenge me to come up with big things that CNN was omitting from their coverage. And of course, if I’d had his op-ed at hand, I would have been able to read him back a rather long list of stories that CNN was sitting on.”

“I think that it was a serious breach of journalism, and more importantly, it was symptomatic of the approach to journalism that CNN takes when dealing with dictatorships like the Baathist one in Iraq,” Mr. Foer says. “I think that there’s an astonishing willingness for CNN and for other Western news organizations to make certain journalistic sacrifices in order to obtain access in these sorts of regimes.”

In response, Mr. Jordan says despite these omissions, CNN’s coverage of the Iraqi regime over the past 12 years has been accurate.

“The critics are not looking at the evidence which is clear and readily available as far as CNN reporting for many years, and quite often, on the brutality of the regime, on the human rights record of the regime,” he says. “CNN had the most contentious relationship of any news organization in the world when it came to Iraq. Iraqi officials hated CNN. They accused me of being a CIA Station Chief for Baghdad. The expelled our correspondents. They banned more than a dozen of our correspondents, and they threatened to assassinate our staff. I don’t know how that would suggest that somehow CNN was kow-towing, or cowering to the Baghdad regime.”

Mr. Jordan goes on to note that CNN reported on Iraq in the face of unrelenting pressure from the regime.

“We reported from Northern Iraq under threat of assassination. An Iraqi official threatened to kill our journalists if they went to the North. We defied the threat. We went anyway. We did it at the risk of losing our access in Baghdad. We did it at the risk of the lives of our journalists in Northern Iraq, but we did it anyway because we were not going to cower in the face of those threats,” Mr. Jordan says.

Mr. Foer and other critics say Eason Jordan was right to worry about the safety of his reporters and staff. However, Mr. Foer says there was an alternative.

“He does have a point in that by operating within Iraq, CNN was putting itself in a horrible position where their employees were threatened with their lives,” he says. “And to me, when you’re in a situation like that where you can’t speak the truth because you’re afraid of the physical consequences of it, it seems to me that’s a good reason to pick up your stakes and move your tent somewhere else where you can report more honestly.”

Was the reporting out of Baghdad accurate? Jonathan Last, online editor at The Weekly Standard magazine, while sympathetic to the very difficult situation that CNN found itself in, says he’s not sure the reporting inside Iraq was worth the moral and ethical cost.

“This is a case where it looks to me as if CNN’s good reporting on Iraq - almost none of it came from inside of Iraq. When they covered Saddam Hussein’s election, CNN reported that ‘his 100% victory was a message of defiance to the U.S. president George Bush.’ I don't know how helpful that is as reporting and whether or not that was worth the cost,” he says.

“It seems to me as if the real breach of journalism here was not simply pulling out. It seems that CNN was interested in staying there not because of any great stories they were getting but because they probably wanted to be there in case a really big story broke. That’s ambitious, and I think that their ambition here might have gotten in the way of good ethics,” Mr. Last says.

Many American and other Western news organizations have to deal with governments and leaders who are not keen on having reporters and news organizations in their country. Bob Steele, director of the Ethics Program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says news chiefs are confronted with tough choices.

“It’s an exceptionally hard decision. I do believe that many other news organizations have faced this and continue to face this over time when they have to negotiate with leaders who in fact may not be reasonable in the way in which they approach human rights and human lives,” he says. “What’s perhaps the most troubling in this situation is that this holding back of stories occurred over a very long period of time, as Jordan said in his op-ed piece - a dozen years. Twelve years is an awful long time to be sitting on certain stories.”

Mr. Steele says so much is involved in reporting from repressive regimes that organizations like CNN should have a systematic way of dealing with controversial cases.

“The decision-making process is so important in cases like this, journalistically and ethically. And I hope that’s a lesson that all other news organizations here in the United States and around the world take seriously,” he says. “When you decide you’re going to withhold something that is otherwise meaningfully reported, you have to have a substantive, meaningful decision-making process within your news organization involving lots of voices, including contrarians who would challenge you to make sure that your decision is in fact ethically justifiable.”

CNN has not said how many people were involved in the decision to withhold stories. But Mr. Jordan emphasizes that it was just a handful of reports.

“CNN is fully committed to full disclosure, but in these cases if I had told these particular stories publicly, there was no doubt in my mind that innocent people would be killed. So there were a handful of stories that we held back, while in the broader context certainly not holding back in the least in reporting on the brutality of the regime,” CNN’s Jordan says.

With the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, more and more Iraqis are speaking up about abuses they suffered. Now they can be reported without fear of reprisal.

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