Along the Tracks

Monday, April 21, 2003

Defending CNN

In today’s New York Times, Ethan Bronner offers a semi-defense of CNN’s decision to withhold news it uncovered during a decade in Baghdad, revealed last week by CNN news executive Eason Jordan.

Bronner’s argument - basically, “who are we (or more to the point, ‘you’) to judge?” - is unconvincing at best, disparaging at worst. He describes his own experiences covering closed societies and totalitarian regimes in print journalism, never exactly admitting to “hiding” stories but nevertheless making “tough choices” about what to report and how. He does not address the central argument against CNN - that covering up for a dictator without expressly saying so was a betrayal of the trust of viewers. Rather, he attempts to blur journalistic ethics in shades of gray. Indeed, the title of his piece is “The Rules for Covering Brutal Dictatorships Aren’t Black and White.”

I must humbly disagree.

First, the “rules” - more properly considered ethical norms - do have some gray areas, but they relate to specific dilemmas, not general “coverage” issues. Jordan’s strongest case for withholding, at least temporarily, stories about the brutality of Saddam was the concern for employees in Iraq who could be endangered. However, the ethical solution would have been to get those employees, and perhaps all employees, safely out of Iraq, then report the stories. A generalized “graying” of ethical standards in order to have the opportunity to “report” from inside a totalitarian regime is not legitimate; the activity ceases to be “journalism” and becomes “propaganda” when it is standard policy to withhold information or “color” the stories in a favorable way and in the absence of any intention to right a temporary wrong.

Propaganda, not journalism, is what CNN was conducting in Baghdad, even when the stories weren’t entirely positive, because by hiding what they knew about the true nature of the regime, CNN’s executives denied their viewers crucial information about just how terrible things were in Iraq. Poor health care, pockets of malnutrition and general environmental degradation are bad, it is true - but they do not constitute reasons for military intervention. Torture, brutalization, illegal weapons production and mass killings potentially do. Such facts at least cry out for some type of outside action. Hiding the truth condemned Iraqis to continued horrors.

Second, Bronner attempts to draw parallels from a coverage decision he once made in Syria. Apparently, there was a bit of a stir in the family of ruler Hafez Assad over the marriage of his daughter. Bronner reported this squabble, and was subsequently kept out of Syria for 18 months.

This is a weak comparison. Deciding whether or not to report a bit of “soft news” most properly placed on the society pages hardly constitutes a moral dilemma. The question every journalist must ask himself or herself is, “What am I after?” If Bronner was reporting for “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” then perhaps the Assad wedding tiff was the “real story” - and Bronner was right to report it and sacrifice a year-and-a-half of future stories. But if the goal was to report on more meaty issues - Syria’s terrorist ties, the oppression of dissidents, chemical weapons production, even a sympathetic look at Syria’s desire to regain the Golan Heights from Israel - then an amusing but politically irrelevant tale of bridal spats wasn’t worth any mention at all, regardless of the consequences. The point here is precisely that CNN’s blind eye was turned to highly relevant hard news, not run-of-the-mill fluff. Indeed, besides countless unnamed and forever unknown Iraqis, it is likely CNN’s decision specifically cost the life of Saddam’s son-in-law; if the son-in-law had known Uday Hussein’s intention to kill him, as discovered by CNN, he might not have returned to Iraq, where he was in fact executed.

I find it fascinating how many of these “defenses” of ethical and moral failures make it onto the op-ed pages of the New York Times. It’s almost like someone in charge wants to see ethical lines blurred. Hmmm ....

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