CNN taking heat for withholding news on Iraqi brutality

TV/RADIO COLUMN

April 16, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

In 1959, A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times was expelled from Poland for writing a series of stories that angered Wladyslaw Gomulka, then the country's Communist leader. But the risks were far greater for those on whom he relied for aid and tips.

"Every day in a Communist country there are stories that a reporter must sit on for a while," Rosenthal wrote in an essay that year. "These are the traceable stories and a Western reporter owes it to his friends, and his own ability to live with himself later, to try to avoid getting people into trouble. We go; they stay.

"But almost always it becomes possible to break a story eventually ... after having made decently sure that the trail of sources has become weak and diffuse."

Three decades later, that question of timing is haunting CNN. Eason Jordan, the cable network's chief news executive, last Friday triggered an outcry with a graphic account of Iraqi atrocities withheld by his network to protect the physical safety of sources and staffers.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Jordan uncorked these stories in dramatic fashion. In one incident, the Iraqi secret police abducted and tortured an Iraqi cameraman who was working for CNN. During another, one of Saddam Hussein's sons declared to the CNN executive that he would have two estranged brothers-in-law assassinated and the Jordanian king killed for harboring them.

A government official direly warned of "severest possible consequences" if CNN put reporters in the Kurdish-controlled north, and Kurdish leaders said they arrested several Iraqis intent on killing the journalists. None of these stories could be told, Jordan wrote, without imperiling the lives of their own employees or sources, though he warned King Hussein of the threat.

"As a reporter, you have to protect your sources," says Kevin Klose, the president of National Public Radio. People jeopardized their careers and safety just by meeting with Klose when he was a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post in the early 1980s, during Soviet rule.

When they wanted their stories told publicly, however, Klose said he felt obliged to do so. In one instance, a Ukrainian coal miner was seized by government agents and tortured with hallucinogenic drugs in a psychiatric ward after Klose interviewed him for a story on the clamp-down on trade union activists, Klose recalled.

Many journalists have condemned CNN and Jordan for failing to tell viewers of those episodes, which they say vividly demonstrate the brutality of Hussein's regime. Some critics work for competitors; some don't. Some are conservatives distrustful of CNN, some are not.

Mara Liaason of National Public Radio and Fox News Channel, a CNN rival, called Jordan's judgment "a deal with the devil, trading for access." Bill Kovach, the former New York Times reporter and editor who is now the head of the Committee for Concerned Journalists, told USA Today: "This seems to me to be allowing the ethics of other endeavors to trump the ethics of journalism: to seek the truth and make it available."

Columnist Eric Fetterman of The New York Post, a corporate sibling of Fox, wrote that Jordan's acknowledgement "wreaks incalculable damage on all journalists' ability to be trusted by the American people." In retrospect, The Washington Post editorialized, "some CNN reporting did seem deliberately unprovocative, given the true nature of the regime."

CNN has held a unique place among Western media outlets for its access in Baghdad; its bureau in the city was the only one maintained by a U.S. broadcaster over the past decade. Reporting from countries controlled by despots is a messy landscape riddled with trapdoors and quicksand. Articles and news stories can have lethal repercussions. As former CNN producer Robert Wiener wrote in his book on the Persian Gulf war, Live from Baghdad, CNN made complicated choices on the fly - compromises - in its pursuit of an interview with Hussein himself.

The crux of the problem remains: What's the point of having reporters based in the hottest spots on Earth if they can't report the news they uncover?

In an interview, Jordan said his controversial article was an effort to get some examples of Hussein's repression on the historical record without causing harm to innocent people.

Hussein's regime repeatedly forced the network's reporters from Baghdad for stories they put on the air, he notes. Despite the threat from the Iraqi Information Minister, CNN journalists have routinely reported from northern Iraq on activities of anti-Hussein Kurds. Last October, CNN ran footage taken by the network's camera crews of a rare protest by Iraqis, who were demanding information about their imprisoned relatives. It enraged the Iraqis, and led to the expulsion of CNN reporters. Staffers from ABC and NBC were also ejected.

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