John Leo
John Burns, the great New York Times reporter, offers us a brutally blunt assessment of how badly Western correspondents covered Saddam Hussein's regime. His report, excerpted by The Wall Street Journal and Editor & Publisher, is spreading rapidly on the Internet and is bound to have an impact on the public's already low respect for most journalists.

The compulsively candid Burns, until recently the New York Times bureau chief in Iraq, wrote his comments for the new book "Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq" (The Lyons Press), a collection of first-person accounts by journalists in Iraq.

Burns, who has covered China, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Bosnia, says the terror of Saddam Hussein's Iraq was unmatched anywhere in the world, except perhaps by North Korea today. Iraq was a vast slaughterhouse, he says, but most Western reporters worked hard to keep the news from getting out because they were afraid of losing access or getting expelled from Iraq. The monstrous savagery of life under Saddam -- the vast tortures and up to a million dead -- was "the essential truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents," he writes.

Burns laid some of this out earlier in the Times -- the bribes and gifts from journalists to Saddam's henchmen, with reporters turning over copies of their stories to show how friendly they were to the regime. "A rigorous system for controlling and monitoring Western journalists has been in place in Iraq for decades, based on a wafer-thin facade of civility," he wrote in the Times last April 20.

In his "Embedded" article, Burns is more caustic about the payoffs by journalists. He says big shots at the information ministry took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from TV reporters, "who then behaved as if they were in Belgium." Will these unnamed TV reporters be called to account?

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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