Sunday, December 04, 2005

Flashback: How CNN collaborated with Saddam Hussein

For more than a decade, CNN executives consciously failed to tell their viewers that they were letting their channel be used as a tool of censorship and propaganda for Saddam Hussein.

After US-led forces destroyed the Saddam regime, CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan admitted the self-censorship in a pained New York Times op-ed on April 11, 2003. He claimed he played the game to save lives of Iraqis who worked with his organization.

"I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me," Jordan wrote.

Everybody saw through it. NBC icon Tom Brokaw criticized Jordan for his piece, saying: "you do wonder, what is the deal that they've made to stay where they are when they get there?”

The Washington Post ran an editorial unusual in its harshness toward another news organization:

If CNN did not fully disclose what it knew about the Baathist regime, and if CNN deliberately kept its coverage bland and inoffensive, that would help explain why the regime was not perceived to be as ruthless as it in fact was, in the Arab world and elsewhere.

In fact, over the past few days, Baathist atrocities have been revealed ad hoc, as U.S. and British troops discover them. When the systematic investigation of Saddam Hussein's Iraq begins, the stories may grow worse. It is difficult to make judgments in retrospect, but some CNN reporting did seem deliberately unprovocative, given the true nature of the regime. An election last autumn, which Saddam Hussein won with 100 percent of the votes, was interpreted as a "message of defiance to U.S. President George Bush," for example.

If the network had also told its viewers that Mr. Jordan dealt with an Iraqi official whose teeth had been pried out for upsetting his boss, Uday Hussein, then those watching the electoral story might have felt differently about that report, about the election result and about a regime that terrified its citizens into proclaiming their unanimous support.

Peter Collins, who served briefly as CNN Baghdad bureau chief in 1993, responded four days later in the Washington Times, saying the practice was much more than omission and self-censorship. He wrote that Jordan and CNN President Tom Johnson repeatedly traveled to Baghdad to negotiate with the regime, and that he personally saw Johnson and Jordan "groveling" before Iraqi officials to seek a favor from Saddam Hussein: a personal exclusive interview with CNN. According to Collins:

"The day after one such meeting, I was on the roof of the Ministry of Information, preparing for my first 'live shot' on CNN. A producer came up and handed me a sheet of paper with handwritten notes. 'Tom Johnson wants you to read this on camera,' he said. I glanced at the paper. It was an item-by-item summary of points made by Information Minister Latif Jassim in an interview that morning with Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan.

"The list was so long that there was no time during the live shot to provide context. I read the information minister's points verbatim. Moments later, I was downstairs in the newsroom on the first floor of the Information Ministry. Mr. Johnson approached, having seen my performance on a TV monitor. 'You were a bit flat there, Peter,' he said. Again, I was astonished. The president of CNN was telling me I seemed less-than-enthusiastic reading Saddam Hussein's propaganda."

Franklin Foer of The New Republic investigated CNN's bias in favor of Saddam. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal's online edition,

"For nearly a decade, the [CNN] network gave credulous treatment to orchestrated anti-U.S. protests. When Saddam won his most recent 'election,' CNN's Baghdad reporter Jane Arraf treated the event as meaningful: 'The point is that this really is a huge show of support' and 'a vote of defiance against the United States.' After Saddam granted amnesty to prisoners in October, she reported, this 'really does diffuse one of the strongest criticisms over the past decades of Iraq's human-rights records'."

Click here for more, including a response from Eason Jordan.


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