What was CNN protecting when it sat on news of Saddam’s brutality?

May 5. 2003

In an extraordinary confession last month, CNN’s news chief wrote that during his dozen visits to Baghad since the first Gulf War he personally learned of savagery inflicted on ordinary Iraqis — among them his own employees — that CNN did not report for fear of reprisals against innocents.

Eason Jordan titled his The New York Times disclosure, “The News We Kept to Ourselves.” He said an Iraqi CNN employee was tortured so that he might denounce Jordan as a CIA agent, and a Kuwaiti source was butchered. He recounted a session he had with Uday, Saddam’s psychopathic son, who vowed to murder King Hussain of Jordan and two fugitive sons-in-law of Saddam the king was harboring. CNN reported none of that.

Jordan’s column touched off a squall of controversy. Sympathizers, among them journalists with experience in squalid police states like Saddam’s, said that soft-pedaling distasteful realities has long been the price of access. They argued that the partial truths they relate are preferable to the informational void we’d otherwise have.

Others wondered just how much CNN was prepared to swallow to keep the Baghdad bureau open. It was a jewel in the network’s crown since 1991, when CNN alone among Western networks kept reporting from the ravaged capital.

Was news chief Jordan worried about protecting the innocent — or protecting CNN’s franchise, however hobbled the reporting? Was CNN’s silence, as the Washington Times asserted, part of a “propaganda-for-profits deal with Saddam?”

The portrait of Saddam’s Iraq that emerged from Jordan’s account goes way beyond the odd sadistic encounter. It was a land of capricious terror where speaking to a journalist invited torture, dismemberment, death or all three, if the subsequent report displeased somebody. Even escorts and translators might be punished.

The issue here isn’t the depravity of Saddam’s Iraq. It’s whether the accommodations CNN made to stay there so compromised its operations that its reporting was fatally corrupted: Jordan’s staff, he told The Washington Post, wouldn’t “report anything that jeopardized people’s lives.” What was left? Did CNN suppress the most fundamental truths about the regime? Was that equivalent to CBS retaining its Berlin bureau in 1943 in exchange for silence on the Holocaust?

Why didn’t CNN simply shutter its bureau and redouble its reporting on Iraq from unhindered vantage points in neighboring countries?

Jordan insists CNN did fine, and notes that its bureau was shut a half-dozen times and 10 correspondents either expelled or refused entry.

Maybe. But he also assured Poynter Institute ethicist Bob Steele that the cases in his column were the only horror stories he held back.

That is nonsense. If those were the only atrocities CNN’s staff knew about they weren’t looking very hard. Since CNN wouldn’t air what its chief already knew, its reporters would hardly go digging for more. Plainly, CNN decided it couldn’t report torture safely — safely for its staff and sources, safely for its corporate presence.

And were omissions the only issue, or did CNN shill for Saddam? A harsh appraisal in The New Republic last fall accused the network of fawning. Saddam’s 100 percent sweep in a manifestly bogus election was “a vote of defiance against the United States.” A report on Saddam’s birthday declared him “more than a symbol, a powerful force who has survived three major U.S.-led attacks since the Gulf War … Not just standing tall but building up.”

So what if Saddam bullied the world’s most powerful news network into subservience. Did it matter? Who knows. But perhaps, had Saddam’s image been more clearly exposed as ruthless and homicidal, his luster in the Arab streets would have been dimmed, diplomatic pressures on him intensified — and the recent war averted.

For the news audience, a more enduring question concerns the unacknowledged compromises journalists make, routinely and invisibly — with sources, publicists, apparatchiks, whose connivance is indispensable to the news process, and whose approval has indisputably more impact than the public’s.

To what degree are you, as reader or viewer, the person to whom the news is truly intended — or are you eavesdropping on another transaction? When does news become currency, with the news organization purchasing what it needs with generous and judicious reporting?

The notion of programming as payment isn’t new. Marshall McLuhan suggested TV shows are the payoff viewers get for watching advertisements.

For a TV journalist, the public is vague and amorphous: Viewers won’t scrutinize every reference to Saddam to determine if it’s respectful. But censors will. Their jobs — and perhaps their lives — depend on it.

So when do they become the primary audience for which the message is crafted?

Unfortunately, the conditions under which CNN operated in Iraq aren’t so different, in their essentials, from those that many reporters face. So they tailor their reporting to sustain their access to the sources they need.

The public is wedded to the absurd belief that journalists pillage their sources. Reporters are far more likely to coddle, flatter and pander to them. Even when they’re monsters.

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