Guest Commentary: CNN’s Sad Confession

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Here’s a Washington Post headline I never expected to see: “CNN Executive Defends Silence on Known Iraqi Atrocities.”
I read CNN’s defense, as I guess most professional journalists did, and I thought about it and tried to put myself in CNN’s position. But no matter how I turned it over, I still felt the same: betrayed.
The job of a news organization, ultimately, is this: To get the news out, not to keep it in. That’s a different business, and not the one everyone associated with CNN.

Reading through the original New York Times op-ed piece on April 11 and all the subsequent defenses by Eason Jordan, CNN’s chief news executive, one has to feel a certain sympathy for CNN’s situation. In the article, Mr. Jordan details all manner of Iraqi regime horrors-from assassination plots to torture-that CNN knew about firsthand during the 1990s. He makes it clear that to report on them would have endangered the lives of his crews and the Iraqi civilians who helped them.
He and the CNN brass were faced with one of the hardest choices a news organization could face. Indeed, it was the sort of choice that defines the kind of company you are. And here’s how CNN chose: The first priority was sustaining CNN’s global access, and a very close second was watching out for its people.
These are both praiseworthy goals. But they relegated the actual reporting of the most crucial story CNN was covering in Iraq to a distant third priority.
Get Out of Baghdad
What should CNN have done? The growing chorus of press critics has already answered this one, but I can repeat it: Give up on Baghdad and report what was actually happening in Iraq. This is what a news organization should do.
The alternative is to stay, getting ever deeper into accommodations with Saddam Hussein’s thugs, and then wait for the U.S. military to liberate your news service and free your conscience to report what you know. This was CNN’s choice. And to the extent that its brand stood for objective, rigorous news reporting, it is now tarnished. Worse, many people around the world already believed TV news lies to them. This will seem to confirm it.
On Aug. 7, 2000, Mr. Jordan gave an interview to this publication in which he described in general terms all the horrors and threats CNN dealt with in Palestine, in North Korea and of course in Iraq. And he told us: “If truth in reporting reflects badly on any regime then that’s the way it’s going to be. We are not going to pull punches to please any leader or any regime on the planet.”
That sentiment is exactly right. That CNN actually was not living up to it makes me distrust all the other news it now reports about conditions in Cuba, Syria, Zimbabwe, North Korea and just about anywhere else where it operates outside a free society. Yes, I now believe CNN will definitely protect its people; I’m just not sure it will report the news.
David Klein served as editor of this publication for five years beginning in 1989. He is a former TV critic who was in Atlanta covering CNN the day it launched in 1980.