Faced with tough choices, CNN made wrong ones

April 18, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - CNN's chief news executive, Eason Jordan, shocked and awed a lot of people when he confessed that his network suppressed stories of Iraqi brutality.

He also appears to have gratified a lot of fans of the Fox News Channel, CNN's biggest competitor.

I can tell by my e-mail and snail mail. I recently had the audacity to write unkind things about the tendency of Fox's anchors to embrace the language of the Bush White House, like "homicide bomber" instead of "suicide bomber" and "the war to liberate Iraq" instead of "an invasion" to topple the regime.

So it was with unmitigated glee that Fox fans sent me copies of Mr. Jordan's op-ed piece from the April 11 New York Times, along with messages along the lines of, "What do you have to say about this, wise guy?"

I say this: Journalists make judgment calls every day, especially when they work in places where government thugs routinely terrorize the populace. CNN made the wrong call in Baghdad, in my opinion. Repeatedly.

But, hey, if my choices were limited to one channel that sucks up to Saddam Hussein and another that sucks up to the White House, I'd ask for more choices.

Fortunately, we do have more choices, and as choices go, CNN appears to have made some very wrong ones.

Mr. Jordan acknowledged that he sat on some stories about truly horrendous atrocities by the Iraqi regime out of concern, he says, for Iraqis who were sources or who were working for the network.

Among other disclosures, Mr. Jordan revealed that Mr. Hussein's people beat and used electroshock torture on an Iraqi CNN cameraman in the mid-1990s for refusing to say that Mr. Jordan worked for the CIA.

An aide to Mr. Hussein's son Uday explained to Mr. Jordan that Mr. Hussein's henchmen had ripped out his front teeth with pliers and told him never to wear dentures, "so he would always remember the price to be paid for upsetting his boss." (Mr. Jordan did not reveal what the aide's offense might have been.)

None of these inside stories, among other scoops, was reported by CNN for fear that their sources would be executed, Mr. Jordan says. After a wide variety of critics accused him of sucking up to Mr. Hussein to keep his bureau open, Mr. Jordan pointed out that Iraq actually expelled the network a half-dozen times, precisely because the regime was unhappy with CNN's reporting. The most recent expulsion came at the beginning of this war.

Still, CNN was able to reopen its bureaus partly because Mr. Jordan made 13 trips to Baghdad over the last dozen years to lobby the Iraqi government to keep the bureaus open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders.

CNN could have refused to work under such tight government restrictions. Or its correspondents could have broadcast their stories with some sort of visible or spoken disclaimer such as, "This report is filed under the watchful eye of government censors."

Such a move might have gotten them kicked out, but their credibility would have stayed intact. CNN reporters could have roamed about more independently outside the country, talking to refugees and defectors, and the Hussein regime once again would have exposed itself for the tyrannical swamp it was.

Instead, it appears that none of the scoops CNN reported out of Baghdad over the past decade was bigger than the ones it was sitting on.

We usually like to think there's a clear line between legitimate cooperation with government authorities and selling out to their propaganda machines. But, in the mad rush to be first with the best access to the hottest story, that line can become quite blurred in some people's minds, regardless of their political persuasion.

"After this huge admission by Eason Jordan ... ," Rush Limbaugh bellowed, "I don't know how anybody can look at CNN and watch what they report without asking, `What are they not telling us?'"

Note to Mr. Limbaugh: That's OK, pal. A lot of people wonder what you're not telling us, too, but you've survived.

And so will CNN, I suspect. Mr. Jordan did the wrong thing. CNN probably will go out of its way now to show how well it can do the right thing. Its credibility as "the most trusted name" in cable news, to quote its ads, is at stake.

We can expect Fox's anchor stars, by contrast, to remain the bold cheerleaders for the establishment they've been in the past. As long as their ratings hold up, I expect them to be as "fair and balanced" as they always have been.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.