TCS Daily

Sins of Omission

By James K. Glassman - April 11, 2003 12:00 AM

I was shocked and disgusted by an op-ed piece I read today in the New York Times. No, it wasn't by Paul Krugman. It was far more serious: Eason Jordan, chief news executive at CNN, revealing what the headline called "The News We Kept to Ourselves."

The news concerned the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein's regime. For example:

"One Foreign Ministry officer told me of a colleague who, finding out his brother had been executed by the regime, was forced, as a test of loyalty, to write a letter of congratulations on the act to Saddam Hussein. An aide to Uday [Saddam's son] once told me why he had no front teeth: henchmen had ripped them out with pliers and told him never to wear dentures, so he would always remember the price to be paid for upsetting his boss."

And these were mild cases. In 13 trips to Baghdad, Jordan heard stories of electroshock torture, beatings and brutal murders. Almost certainly, other journalists, editors and news directors heard them, too. So why weren't these atrocities reported?

"Doing so," wrote Jordan, "would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."

That explanation just doesn't wash.

Clearly, there were ways to protect the identities of individual victims of the regime's brutality. And, clearly, by reporting the stories, CNN might finally have aroused the outrage of the world, which in turn would have brought Saddam's end closer - either through united, global pressure or through earlier military action.

It appears there is another, more troubling, reason Jordan decided not to report these hideous crimes until the regime was safely out of the way: CNN didn't want to lose its on-the-ground access to a big story.

Anyone who read Franklin Foer's excellent piece last October in The New Republic, would not have been shocked at Jordan's op-ed today. Foer uncovered Saddam's success at manipulating the U.S. media, especially CNN.

"Like their Soviet-bloc predecessors," he wrote, "the Iraqis have become masters of the Orwellian pantomime - the state-orchestrated anti-American rally, the state-led tours of alleged chemical weapons sites that turn out to be baby milk factories - that promotes their distorted reality. And the Iraqi regime has found an audience for these displays in an unlikely place: the U.S. media. It's not because American reporters have an ideological sympathy for Saddam Hussein; broadcasting his propaganda is simply the only way they can continue to work in Iraq."

As for CNN: Foer wrote six months ago that "nobody has schmoozed the [information] ministry harder than the head of CNN's News Group, Eason Jordan, who has traveled to Baghdad twelve times since the Gulf war. In part these trips...consist of network execs promising they will cover its propaganda."

The alternative is no access at all, writes Foer. Among the reporters banned by the regime at the time he wrote the article were Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour of CNN and Barbara Crossette of the New York Times. Crossette, now retired, had the temerity to file pieces in 1998 "belying Iraqi stories about the horrors of U.N. sanctions."

By contrast, Foer highlights Jane Arraf, CNN's Iraq correspondent for the past four years, "the dean of Western reporters" in the country. I had not read Foer's piece until today, but it goes a long way toward explaining why Arraf appeared, at least to me, to have leaned farthest to the Iraqi side of all U.S. journalists.

Foer wrote three months ago that "nobody better exemplifies [the] go-along-to-get-along reporting strategy...than Arraf. In a segment last month, answering viewer phone calls, Arraf rebutted the charge that Saddam's vanity construction projects have diverted money that could have been used to feed his starving people. Sanctions, she said, have 'tied his hands in some respects.' Later in the same segment, repeating Saddam's constant refrain, she told viewers, 'If there's been anything that's been essentially agreed over the last decade, it's been that the sanctions that are in place by the U.N. and U.S. haven't been working.'"

Foer's piece caused a small stir in journalistic circles, and shortly after it appeared, Bob Garfield interviewed Jordan on WNYC, a New York public-radio station. Garfield asked Jordan his response to the "charges that the Western press is appeasing the Iraqi regime in order to maintain its visas."

Jordan replied that Foer "doesn't have a clear understanding of the realities on the ground because CNN has demonstrated again and again that it has a spine; that it's prepared to be forthright."

What if there is another war? Garfield asked. "Are there decisions you'll make on the margins to be as certain as you possibly can that you will have a presence there?"

Jordan said that he was prepared to deal with a certain amount of censorship, but "we are not going to make journalistic compromises.... We want to be there...and operate as a responsible news organization."

And now, we learn from Jordan's own hand, that he indeed made compromises - severe compromises.

On his 13 trips, Iraqi officials "confided in me that Saddam Hussein was a maniac who had to be removed." Wasn't that news?

He learned that Kurdish officials had thwarted a plan for an armed attack by Iraqis on CNN's headquarters in the northern part of the country. Wasn't that news?

He talked to Iraqis who "whispered tales of being hauled off and tortured in unimaginable ways." He discovered that "secret police thugs brutalized even senior officials of the Information Ministry, just to keep them in line (one such official has long been missing all his fingernails)." Wasn't that news?

Perhaps Jordan and other journalists who suppressed the truth can take comfort that organizations like Human Rights Watch have reported tales of torture. And Jordan ends his Times piece with the story, previously reported, of a brave Kuwaiti woman named Asrar Qabandi, who was captured by Iraqi police just before the U.S. invasion 12 years ago. She was beaten daily for two months, with her father forced to watch. Then, "they smashed her skull and tore her body part limb by limb. A plastic bag containing her body parts was left on the doorstep of her family's home."

Yes, atrocities were reported. But not enough so as to have an effect on world opinion.

Those of us who did not live through the Nazi Holocaust find it hard to understand why so many who knew what was happening stayed silent for so long. They had many reasons.

In the case of Saddam - who tried his best to emulate Hitler and might have succeeded if a coalition of Americans, Brits, Australians and Poles had not put an end to his regime - some of the atrocities did come to light. But, again, not as many as were known.

The world most definitely was not outraged during the United Nations debates earlier this year. How would the public in France and Germany - people who certainly know the meaning of crimes against humanity - have reacted if CNN had reported courageously and completely the episodes that Jordan knew had occurred?

And so what if CNN had been thrown out of Iraq?

As Foer wrote, "There are alternatives to mindlessly reciting Baghdad's spin. Instead of desperately trying to keep their Baghdad offices open, the networks could scour Kurdistan and Jordan, where there are many recently arrived Iraqis who can talk freely. 'Amman is the place to find out what's really going on in Iraq,' says ex-CIA officer Robert Baer."

Foer also cites "Uncle Saddam," a documentary by Joel Soler, a sort of freedom-loving version of Michael Moore, director of "Roger and Me." Soler ingratiated himself with the Iraqi regime's inner circle and was allowed remarkable inside glimpses. The film, writes Foer, "shows Saddam to be a lunatic, devoid of morality or humanity." It includes a scene of Saddam's unique style of fishing: throwing grenades into a pond and sending aides to retrieve the kill. Soler didn't need a long-term relationship with Saddam.

But Jordan felt that CNN did. "There's an expectation that if anybody is in Iraq, it will be CNN," he told Foer.

That led Foer to conclude, "His answer reveals the fundamental attitude of most Western media: Access to Baghdad is an end in itself, regardless of the...moral caliber of the journalism such access produces."

The irony, of course, is that CNN did get kicked out Baghdad after the war began, but nevertheless acquitted itself well, using the resources of other media and reporting from surrounding nations. Perhaps if the network had been willing to lose access long before, a nation would have been liberated earlier and many, many lives would have been saved.

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