CNN's Access of Evil
The network of record covered Saddam's repression with propaganda.
BY FRANKLIN FOER
Monday, April 14, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT
As Baghdad fell last week, CNN announced that it too had been liberated. On the New York Times' op-ed page on Friday, Eason Jordan, the network's news chief, admitted that his organization had learned some "awful things" about the Baathist regime--murders, tortures, assassination plots--that it simply could not broadcast earlier. Reporting these stories, Mr. Jordan wrote, "would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."
Of course, Mr. Jordan may feel he deserves a pinch of credit for coming clean like this. But this admission shouldn't get him any ethical journalism trophies. For a long time, CNN denied that its coverage skimped on truth. While I researched a story on CNN's Iraq coverage for the New Republic last October, Mr. Jordan told me flatly that his network gave "a full picture of the regime." In our conversation, he challenged me to find instances of CNN neglecting stories about Saddam's horrors. If only I'd had his Times op-ed!
Would that this were an outbreak of honesty, however belated. But it isn't. If it were, Mr. Jordan wouldn't be portraying CNN as Saddam's victim. He'd be apologizing for its cooperation with Iraq's erstwhile information ministry--and admitting that CNN policy hinders truthful coverage of dictatorships. For CNN, the highest prize is "access," to score live camera feeds from a story's epicenter. Dictatorships understand this hunger, and also that it provides blackmail opportunities. In exchange for CNN bureaus, dictatorships require adherence to their own rules of reportage. They create conditions where CNN--and other U.S. media--can do little more than toe the regime's line.
The Iraq example is the telling one. Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf has turned into an international joke, but the operation of his ministry was a model of totalitarian efficiency. The ministry compiled dossiers on U.S. journalists. It refused to issue visas to anyone potentially hostile--which meant that it didn't issue visas to reporters who strayed from al-Sahhaf's talking points. CNN correspondents Wolf Blitzer, Christiane Amanpour and Richard Roth, to name a few, were banned for critical reporting. It didn't take much to get on this list. A reporter who referred to "Saddam" (not "President Saddam Hussein") was shut out for "disrespect." If you didn't cover agitprop, like Saddam's 100% victory in October's referendum, the ministry made it clear that you were out.
Leaving, however, might have been preferable to staying under these conditions. Upon arrival in Iraq, journalists contended with constant surveillance. Minders obstructed their every move, dictated camera angles, and prevented unauthorized interviews. When the regime worried that it had lost control of a journalist, it resorted to more heavy-handed methods. Information ministry officials would wake journalists in the dead of night, drive them to government buildings, and denounce them as CIA plants. The French documentary filmmaker Joel Soler described to me how his minder took him to a hospital to ostensibly examine the effects of sanctions, but then called in a nurse with a long needle "for a series of blood tests." Only Mr. Soler's screaming prevented an uninvited jab.
With so little prospect for reporting the truth, you'd think that CNN and other networks would have stopped sending correspondents into Iraq. But the opposite occurred. Each time the regime threatened to pull the plug, network execs set out to assiduously reassure them. Mr. Jordan made 13 of these trips.
To be fair, CNN was not the only organization to play this game. But as the network of record, soi-disant, they have a longer trail than most. It makes rich reading to return to transcripts and compare the CNN version of Iraq with the reality that has emerged. For nearly a decade, the network gave credulous treatment to orchestrated anti-U.S. protests. When Saddam won his most recent "election," CNN's Baghdad reporter Jane Arraf treated the event as meaningful: "The point is that this really is a huge show of support" and "a vote of defiance against the United States." After Saddam granted amnesty to prisoners in October, she reported, this "really does diffuse one of the strongest criticisms over the past decades of Iraq's human-rights records."
For long stretches, Ms. Arraf was American TV's only Baghdad correspondent. Her work was often filled with such parrotings of the Baathist line. On the Gulf War's 10th anniversary, she told viewers, "At 63, [Saddam] mocks rumors he is ill. Not just standing tall but building up. As soon as the dust settled from the Gulf War, and the bodies were buried, Iraq began rebuilding." She said little about human-rights violations, violent oppression, or festering resentment towards Saddam. Scouring her oeuvre, it is nearly impossible to find anything on these defining features of the Baathist epoch.
Reading Mr. Jordan now, you get the impression that CNN had no ethical option other than to soft-pedal. But there were alternatives. CNN could have abandoned Baghdad. Not only would they have stopped recycling lies, they could have focused more intently on obtaining the truth about Saddam. They could have diverted resources to Kurdistan and Jordan (the country), where recently arrived Iraqis could speak without fear of death. They could have exploited exile groups with underground contacts.
There's another reason why Mr. Jordan doesn't deserve applause. He says nothing about the lessons of Baghdad. After all, the network still sends correspondents to such countries as Cuba, Burma and Syria, ruled by dictators who impose media "guidelines." Even if CNN ignores the moral costs of working with such regimes, it should at least pay attention to the practical costs. These governments only cooperate with CNN because it suits their short-term interests. They don't reward loyalty. It wasn't surprising, then, that the Information Ministry booted CNN from Baghdad in the war's first days. In a way CNN's absence at this pivotal moment provides a small measure of justice: The network couldn't use its own cameras to cover the fall of a regime that it had treated with such astonishing respect.
Mr. Foer, an associate editor of The New Republic, is the author of "Soccer Explains the World," to be published soon by HarperCollins.