The Trouble With Sitting on the Story

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Tell people you write for a big media organization, and one of the first things they do is ask you for the news. No, not the news you published in your rag last week — the real news. The stuff you can't tell everyone. When's the war going to start? Who's gay in Hollywood? What kind of deal did Bush cut to get into the White House?

The implication that the media shelter the public from some news — or shelter that news from the public — is frustrating to journalists, in part because it's true. Reporting is full of noble and not-so-noble compromises. You keep troop movements secret. You leave certain subjects off limits in order to secure an exclusive with a certain ingenue. You don't ask a question that's begging to be asked — so you'll get called on at the next press conference. You do it out of decency or out of caution or, you tell yourself, to build the capital and relationships to tell the truth and damn the consequences ... someday.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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For Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, someday came after the metal head of Saddam Hussein finally rolled to a stop in Firdos Square. From 1991 to 2003, he wrote in the New York Times, CNN (which, like TIME, is part of AOL Time Warner) sat on stories of Iraqi brutality out of concern for the safety of its employees and sources. It did not report that these people were tortured by the government or that the regime threatened to kill CNN employees. Saddam's son Uday even threatened, in front of Jordan, to kill King Hussein of Jordan and two of Saddam's sons-in-law who had defected. Jordan tipped off the King but not the defectors — who were later murdered — in order to protect the interpreter who translated the threat.

Critics said CNN had "traded truth for access." (From the crowing over Jordan's "shocking revelations" on rivals Fox News and MSNBC, you'd have thought he had handed over each Christiane Amanpour script for Saddam to red-pencil.) Jordan had made 13 trips over 12 years to lobby Iraqi officials for interviews, and the line between protecting employees and sucking up is blurry — though, he noted, CNN covered Iraq contentiously enough that its reporters were often kicked out. But, as the New Republic's Franklin Foer points out, CNN also called Saddam's re-election with 100% of the vote a "huge show of support" and a "vote of defiance against the United States."

Jordan surely meant well. Most of us would err on the side of protecting a colleague's life. And there's nothing evil about wanting to report from Iraq — especially in the '90s, when America was focusing like a laser beam on its own navel. But precisely because for many of those years there was no Fox News, no MSNBC and no al-Jazeera, CNN's reporting — and omissions — had even greater influence in shaping perceptions of Iraq, particularly in the Middle East. If it couldn't tell viewers how its newsgathering was shaped by implicit death threats, it was time to get out of Baghdad.

The public, Jordan responded to his critics, did not need CNN to prove that Saddam was a monster: "Iraq's human-rights record and the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime were well known." But CNN's decisions affected more than its coverage of one regime. They confirmed the popular suspicion that there is one story for insiders and another one for regular suckers — the journalistic equivalent of Martha Stewart and ImClone. Too many Americans already live in parallel universes, one controlled by a vast right-wing conspiracy, another in which Vincent Foster was murdered. In even more polarized and desperate quarters, people believe the Mossad brought down the World Trade Center. At the extreme, this world view is the mind-set of terrorism: that history is a hermetic system and the only way to get inside it is to smash it from without. In law-abiding society, it's an excuse for cheap cynicism, an excuse that CNN's decision makes that much harder to refute.

Of course, other news organizations make such calls too, and after CNN's roasting, we will probably never learn who else did so in Iraq. Jordan's belated candor was brave, but it also presumed a tolerance for media paternalism that has not existed for decades. CNN's audience had the right to decide whether its reports were worth trusting, despite the pressures underlying them. Instead, CNN arrogated that right to itself. And yet it may also have made viewers more sophisticated, if less trusting. Jordan has made several trips to North Korea, as he did to Iraq, and says he has not cut deals for access there either. Yet the next time CNN reports from Pyongyang, the audience will be straining to see past the edge of the screen, looking for the man who — metaphorically or not — is holding the gun.