Reporters want to be anywhere news is happening. Sometimes, they face great danger. In Iraq, for example, at least ten journalists have been killed so far.
But it doesn’t do much good to have a reporter somewhere if he/she can’t actually report what’s happening. That’s why Eason Jordan’s op-ed piece in the April 11 New York Times is such a shock and such a disappointment. Jordan is the chief news executive at CNN.
“Over the last dozen years,” he writes, “I made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders. Each time I visited, I became more distressed by what I saw and heard — awful things that could not be reported.” Jordan goes on to detail beatings he knew about and the torture of some Iraqi employees of CNN.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I worked for CNN for almost eight years. I greatly respect Eason Jordan, who is one of the hardest working journalists I’ve ever known. He’s put his life on the line to report from inside North Korea, and he spares no effort and no expense to make sure CNN is the first – and often the only – news outlet on the scene of breaking news.
It’s good that Jordan is concerned with protecting his employees. That's the right thing to do. But being in Baghdad isn’t dangerous merely for the foreign reporters. As Jordan writes, “We also had to worry that our reporting might endanger Iraqis not on our payroll. I knew that CNN could not report that Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, told me in 1995 that he intended to assassinate two of his brothers-in-law who had defected and also the man giving them asylum, King Hussein of Jordan.”
If that’s not a story, what is? The leader of one country is planning to kill the leader of another. CNN had the exclusive because of Jordan’s reporting. CNN suppressed it. That raises a key question: Why bother having journalists in place, if they can't report what they learn? The job of journalists is to cover news, not suppress it.
It’s a vicious cycle. In Jordan’s mind, what matters most is having journalists on the scene, even if they can’t truly report what they know. Once you’ve accepted that, you’ve accepted the concept of self-censorship, which Jordan is admitting CNN engaged in for at least 13 years.
It was misleading for all those years to have reporters in Baghdad, talking live on CNN about some of the things that were happening in Iraq. Viewers watching those reports would naturally assume the journalist was telling all he/she knew. This would create a false picture in the viewers’ mind that he was actually being fully informed from Iraq – when in fact the reporter was withholding a lot of newsworthy information.
It would have been better to withdraw the journalists at the first signs of danger, and fully report what happened. CNN would no longer have had a reporter in Baghdad. But an important story would have been told.
I often worked with reporters and producers in Baghdad, but I never knew that they were withholding information. We did know that the Iraqi Information Ministry assigned a “minder” to each foreign reporter, so of course we knew the reporter couldn’t completely speak his/her mind, even when speaking on live TV. But, if I had known the reporter was actively censoring a report for any reason, I would have argued against using it at all.
This is where Jordan and I fundamentally disagree. To him, it was critical to have a CNN presence in Iraq, no matter what. As a result, many things that CNN knew about went unreported.
It would have been better to have no journalists in Iraq, since they couldn’t tell us what was really happening, anyway. Viewers would have known there might be awful things going on in Baghdad. But suspecting and not seeing would have been better than seeing reporters, and not being told by them about the awful things happening beyond the cameras.
As Jordan admits, CNN wasn’t alone in its self-censorship. “Obviously, other news organizations were in the same bind we were when it came to reporting on their own workers,” he wrote. “Now that Saddam Hussein's regime is gone, I suspect we will hear many, many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis about the decades of torment.”
Indeed, we probably will. Sadly, we should have been hearing them all along, or hearing nothing at all. In this case, half a report is worse than none.