Iraq 15: CNN’s “propaganda flowed like wine” (Washington Times)

April 15, 2003

* "No longer the most trusted name in news"

 

CONTENTS

1. "CNN was running a straight propaganda-for-profits deal with Saddam"
2. She said little about human-rights violations
3. "Probably 200 kids from toddlers to 12-year-olds. The stench was unreal - urine, feces, vomit, sweat."
4. "CNN was running a straight propaganda-for-profits deal with Saddam"
5. "Corruption at CNN" (By Peter Collins, Washington Times, April 15, 2003)
6. "CNN's disinformation campaign" (Washington Times, April 15, 2003)
7. "CNN knew" (Washington Times, April 14, 2003)
8. "CNN's access of evil" (By Franklin Foer, Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2003)
9. "Craven news network" (By Eric Fettmann, New York Post, April 12, 2003)
10. "Saddam's silent collaborators" (By Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail (Canada) April 15, 2003)
11. Transcript of an interview from last October on New York's National Public Radio affiliate station, with Eason Jordan


“CNN WAS RUNNING A STRAIGHT PROPAGANDA-FOR-PROFITS DEAL WITH SADDAM”

[Note by Tom Gross]

This is a follow-up to last Friday's dispatch Iraq 14: CNN: "The News We Kept to Ourselves" with more revelations that many may find astonishing, from today's Washington Times by Peter Collins, a former CNN Baghdad correspondent, about CNN network President Tom Johnson, correspondent Brent Sadler, and others.

I attach 7 pieces, with summaries first for those who don't have time to read the articles in full.

1. "Corruption at CNN" (By Peter Collins, Washington Times, April 15, 2003). Collins, a former CNN Baghdad correspondent, says that he personally witnessed CNN head of news Eason Jordan and CNN network President Tom Johnson unsuccessfully begging for an interview with Saddam; that Johnson personally instructed Collins to read Saddam Hussein's propaganda on air as is it was news; that Johnson was unhappy when Collins didn't read the propaganda on air with sufficient enthusiasm; and that Brent Sadler, CNN's chief reporter at the time in Baghdad then told Collins the next day that he should have been more "helpful". (In addition to working for CNN, Peter Collins has also worked as a war reporter for CBS News in Vietnam and East Asia and in Central America for ABC News, and had also made three trips to Baghdad for ABC News.) (Note: The Israeli foreign ministry has long complained about the impartiality of Brent Sadler's reporting on Israel from south Lebanon.)

2. "CNN's disinformation campaign" (Washington Times, April 15, 2003, Editorial resulting from Collins's piece). "Former CNN Baghdad correspondent Peter Collins makes a strong case that Mr. Jordan is lying when he denies that ensuring access was a motive for CNN's shading of the truth on Iraq... Collins adds that, the following day, when he factually reported that Iraqi charges that American war planes were bombing "innocent Iraqi farmers" were false (it turned out that the "farm" in question was most likely a location for Iraqi missile batteries), CNN correspondent Brent Sadler rebuked him."

SHE SAID LITTLE ABOUT HUMAN-RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

3. "CNN knew" (Washington Times, April 14, 2003, Another editorial on the same subject, from yesterday's paper). "For the last twelve years, CNN has provided the West with the dominant news image of Saddam's Iraq. But, now we know... The propaganda flowed like wine. CNN was running a straight propaganda-for-profits deal with Saddam. Until CNN brings in honest news executives, no prudent viewer should trust CNN's current and future reporting from other foreign capitals."

4. "CNN's access of evil" (By Franklin Foer, Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2003). Foer cites those more honest CNN reporters that were not allowed in to Iraq for fear they might not merely parrot regime propaganda Wolf Blitzer, Christiane Amanpour and Richard Roth. By contrast, "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." ... For long stretches, Ms. Arraf was American TV's only Baghdad correspondent... She said little about human-rights violations, violent oppression, or festering resentment towards Saddam. Scouring her oeuvre, it is nearly impossible to find anything on these defining features of the Baathist epoch."

5. "Craven news network" (By Eric Fettmann, New York Post, April 12, 2003). Fetmann writes that Eason Jordan's revelation is "like saying that the best interests of journalism would have justified suppressing stories on the Holocaust during World War II in order to keep a U.S. news bureau in Berlin so as to be able to tell Nazi Germany's side of the story... This astonishing confession doesn't just undermine CNN's claim to be "the most trusted name in news" it wreaks incalculable damage on all journalists' ability to be trusted... Indeed, CNN's silence seems to have cost as many lives as it may have saved."

“PROBABLY 200 KIDS FROM TODDLERS TO 12-YEAR-OLDS. THE STENCH WAS UNREAL URINE FECES, VOMIT, SWEAT”

6. "Saddam's silent collaborators" (From today's Globe and Mail (Canada) April 15, 2003, By Margaret Wente). Wente writes of the children's prison in Baghdad where the regime locked up the kids of parents deemed disloyal to the regime, and tortured them. She questions why for years CNN and others didn't report on "the children's screams" even though they were known about. Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, for example, said he knew about the children's prison because his team inspected it in 1998. He once said it was the most horrific thing he had seen. "Probably 200 kids from toddlers to 12-year-olds. The stench was unreal urine, feces, vomit, sweat. The kids were howling and dying of thirst. We threw water in there, but the Iraqis probably took the water out afterwards."

7. Transcript of an interview from last October on New York's National Public Radio affiliate station, with Eason Jordan the CNN executive who last week disclosed CNN's practice of not reporting Iraqi brutalities in which he flatly denies doing anything of the sort:

BOB GARFIELD: I'm sure you have seen Franklin Foer's article in The New Republic which charges that the Western press is appeasing the Iraqi regime in order to maintain its visas to be there reporting should a war ultimately break out. What's your take on that?

EASON JORDAN: The writer clearly doesn't have a clear understanding of the realities on the ground because CNN has demonstrated again and again that it has a spine; that it's prepared to be forthright; is forthright in its reporting.

-- Tom Gross


FULL ARTICLES

CORRUPTION AT CNN

Corruption at CNN
By Peter Collins
The Washington Times
April 15, 2003

Mr. Eason Jordan's admission that CNN had to suppress the news from Baghdad in order to report it brought back memories for me.

In January 1993, I was in Baghdad as a reporter for CNN on a probationary, three-month contract. Previously, I had been a war reporter for CBS News in Vietnam and East Asia and in Central America for ABC News. I had also made three trips to Baghdad for ABC News before the Gulf War.

Now, Bill Clinton was about to be inaugurated and there was speculation that Saddam Hussein might "test" the new American president. Would the new administration be willing to enforce the "no-fly" zones set up in northern and southern Iraq after the Gulf War?

CNN had made its reputation during the war with its exclusive reports from Baghdad. Shortly after my arrival, I was surprised to see CNN President Tom Johnson and Eason Jordan, then chief of international news gathering, stride into the al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad. They were there to help CNN bid for an exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein, timed to coincide with the coming inauguration of President Clinton.

I took part in meetings between the CNN executives and various officials purported to be close to Saddam. We met with his personal translator; with a foreign affairs adviser; with Information Minister Latif Jassim; and with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

In each of these meetings, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan made their pitch: Saddam Hussein would have an hour's time on CNN's worldwide network; there would be no interruptions, no commercials. I was astonished. From both the tone and the content of these conversations, it seemed to me that CNN was virtually groveling for the interview.

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.

The next day, I was CNN's reporter on a trip organized by the Ministry of Information to the northern city of Mosul. "Minders" from the ministry accompanied two busloads of news people to an open, plowed field outside Mosul. The purpose was to show us that American warplanes were bombing "innocent Iraqi farmers." Bits of American ordinance were scattered on the field. One large piece was marked "CBU." I recognized it as the canister for a Cluster Bomb Unit, a weapon effective against troops in the open, or against "thin-skinned" armor. I was puzzled. Why would U.S. aircraft launch CBUs against what appeared to be an open field? Was it really to kill "innocent Iraqi farmers?" The minders showed us no victims, no witnesses. I looked around. About 2000 yards distant on a ridgeline, two radar dishes were just visible against the sky. The ground was freshly plowed. Now, I understood. The radars were probably linked to Soviet-made SA-6 surface-to-air missiles mounted on tracks, armored vehicles, parked in the field at some distance from the dishes to keep them safe. After the bombing, the Iraqis had removed the missile launchers and had plowed the field to cover the tracks.

On the way back to Baghdad, I explained to other reporters what I thought had happened, and wrote a report that was broadcast on CNN that night.

The next day, Brent Sadler, CNN's chief reporter at the time in Baghdad (he is now in northern Iraq), came up to me in a hallway of the al Rasheed Hotel. He had been pushing for the interview with Saddam and had urged Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan to come to Baghdad to help seal the deal. "Petah," he said to me in his English accent, "you know we're trying to get an interview with Saddam. That piece last night was not helpful."

So, we were supposed to shade the news to get an interview with Saddam?

As it happens, CNN never did get that interview. A few months later, I had passed my probationary period and was contemplating my future with CNN. I thought long and hard; could I be comfortable with a news organization that played those kinds of games? I decided, no, I could not, and resigned.

In my brief acquaintance with Mr. Jordan at CNN, I formed the impression of a decent man, someone with a conscience. On the day Mr. Jordan published his piece in the New York Times, a panel on Fox News was discussing his astonishing admissions. Brit Hume wondered, "Why would he ever write such a thing?" Another panelist suggested, "Perhaps his conscience is bothering him." Mr. Eason, it should be.

Peter Collins has more than 30 years of experience in broadcast news, including outlets such as the Voice of America, BBC, CBS, ABC and CNN.

 

CNN’S DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN

CNN's disinformation campaign
Editorial
The Washington Times
April 15, 2003

Yesterday, CNN executive Eason Jordan claimed that the network had not covered up evidence of atrocities in Saddam Hussein's Iraq because it wanted to ensure access, but because it was worried about putting people's lives in danger. Writing on today's Op-Ed page, former CNN Baghdad correspondent Peter Collins, who personally witnessed Mr. Jordan and network President Tom Johnson unsuccessfully begging for an interview with Saddam, makes a strong case that Mr. Jordan is lying when he denies that ensuring access was a motive for CNN's shading of the truth on Iraq.

Mr. Collins writes that in January 1993, he participated in meetings in Baghdad between CNN executives and various officials close to Saddam, among them Tariq Aziz, during which Messrs. Jordan and Johnson made their pitch for an exclusive interview with the Iraqi dictator. "From both the tone and the content of these conversations, it seemed to me that CNN was virtually grovelling for the interview," Mr. Collins writes. At one point, the CNN executives offered Saddam an hour's worth of time on the network without commercial interruption.

Mr. Collins adds that, the day following one such meeting, he was preparing to do a "live shot" when a producer handed him some notes, telling him that Mr. Johnson wanted them read on camera. The notes were an item-by-item summary of points that had been dictated by the Iraqi information minister. Mr. Collins was forced to read those propaganda points on the air verbatim, without providing any context. Moments later, Mr. Johnson reproached him for not sounding sufficiently enthusiastic while "reporting" what the Iraqis told CNN to say. Mr. Collins adds that, the following day, when he factually reported that Iraqi charges that American war planes were bombing "innocent Iraqi farmers" were false (it turned out that the "farm" in question was most likely a location for Iraqi missile batteries), CNN correspondent Brent Sadler rebuked him for hindering the network's chances of landing an interview with Saddam.

In short, contrary to the assertions made by Mr. Jordan, the facts presented by Mr. Collins strongly suggest that CNN's coverage of Iraq was largely dictated by concerns about currying favor with Saddam Hussein in an effort to win an exclusive interview with the dictator. No careful viewer can trust CNN's reporting on international affairs.

 

CNN KNEW

CNN knew
Editorial
The Washington Times
April 14, 2003

Mr. Eason Jordan, chief news executive at CNN, published in the New York Times a truly rare article last Friday: an op-ed capable of genuinely shocking even world-weary cynics in a jaded world. He announced that, over the last dozen years: "I made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders. Each time I visited, I became more distressed by what I saw and heard... awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."

He went on to catalogue in horrid detail the abuses of Saddam's torture and murder machine. He wrote that Saddam's eldest son Uday "told me in 1995 that he intended to assassinate his two brothers-in-law who had defected and also ... King Hussein of Jordan." The CNN news executive tipped off the king, but not the brothers-in-law, who were subsequently murdered.

In one of his most revealing statements, Mr. Jordan wrote that: "I came to know several Iraqi officials well enough that they confided in me that Saddam Hussein was a maniac who had to be removed." He concluded by writing that "I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me ... At last, these stories can be told freely."

Where to begin? First, as the chief news executive of the only truly worldwide television news network, Mr. Jordan was literally the one man in the entire world in a position to "unbottle" those awful truths. Moreover, those awful truths were not only newsworthy, but would have been history-making had they been reported. One can only imagine the impact on the U.N. debate of last winter if CNN had headlined that several Iraqi officials had told CNN that "Saddam Hussein was a maniac who had to be removed." Instead, the world got CNN reports balanced carefully we know now, thanks to Mr. Jordan between the truth and the requirements of Saddam's propaganda office.

So deeply had Mr. Jordan morally compromised himself and CNN that Uday the psychopath felt comfortable confiding his highest-visibility murder plans to Mr. Jordan. His secrets were safe with CNN. What a scoop they missed: "Son of Saddam Hussein plans to murder King of Jordan." Indeed, the entire Arab world might have turned on Saddam years ago if that story had been reported. But, of course, if CNN had reported that story, it would not have been able to keep open its Baghdad bureau and thus would have lost the profitable competitive advantage it maintained over rival news outlets.

For the last twelve years, CNN has provided the West with the dominant news image of Saddam's Iraq. It was the jewel in the crown of CNN's international reporting reputation. But, now we know, from the unwitting pen of CNN's morally obtuse chief news executive, that it was always a false image CNN was broadcasting. The hard news was kept secret. The propaganda flowed like wine. CNN was running a straight propaganda-for-profits deal with Saddam. Until CNN brings in honest news executives, no prudent viewer should trust CNN's current and future reporting from other foreign capitals.

 

“CNN’S ACCESS OF EVIL”

"CNN's access of evil"
By Franklin Foer
Wall Street Journal
April 14, 2003

As Baghdad fell last week, CNN announced that it too had been liberated. On the New York Times' op-ed page on Friday, Eason Jordan, the network's news chief, admitted that his organization had learned some "awful things" about the Baathist regime murders, tortures, assassination plots that it simply could not broadcast earlier. Reporting these stories, Mr. Jordan wrote, "would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."

Of course, Mr. Jordan may feel he deserves a pinch of credit for coming clean like this. But this admission shouldn't get him any ethical journalism trophies. For a long time, CNN denied that its coverage skimped on truth. While I researched a story on CNN's Iraq coverage for the New Republic last October, Mr. Jordan told me flatly that his network gave "a full picture of the regime." In our conversation, he challenged me to find instances of CNN neglecting stories about Saddam's horrors. If only I'd had his Times op-ed!

Would that this were an outbreak of honesty, however belated. But it isn't. If it were, Mr. Jordan wouldn't be portraying CNN as Saddam's victim. He'd be apologizing for its cooperation with Iraq's erstwhile information ministry and admitting that CNN policy hinders truthful coverage of dictatorships. For CNN, the highest prize is "access," to score live camera feeds from a story's epicenter. Dictatorships understand this hunger, and also that it provides blackmail opportunities. In exchange for CNN bureaus, dictatorships require adherence to their own rules of reportage. They create conditions where CNN and other U.S. media can do little more than toe the regime's line.

The Iraq example is the telling one. Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf has turned into an international joke, but the operation of his ministry was a model of totalitarian efficiency. The ministry compiled dossiers on U.S. journalists. It refused to issue visas to anyone potentially hostile which meant that it didn't issue visas to reporters who strayed from al-Sahhaf's talking points. CNN correspondents Wolf Blitzer, Christiane Amanpour and Richard Roth, to name a few, were banned for critical reporting. It didn't take much to get on this list. A reporter who referred to "Saddam" (not "President Saddam Hussein") was shut out for "disrespect." If you didn't cover agitprop, like Saddam's 100% victory in October's referendum, the ministry made it clear that you were out.

Leaving, however, might have been preferable to staying under these conditions. Upon arrival in Iraq, journalists contended with constant surveillance. Minders obstructed their every move, dictated camera angles, and prevented unauthorized interviews. When the regime worried that it had lost control of a journalist, it resorted to more heavy-handed methods. Information ministry officials would wake journalists in the dead of night, drive them to government buildings, and denounce them as CIA plants. The French documentary filmmaker Joel Soler described to me how his minder took him to a hospital to ostensibly examine the effects of sanctions, but then called in a nurse with a long needle "for a series of blood tests." Only Mr. Soler's screaming prevented an uninvited jab.

With so little prospect for reporting the truth, you'd think that CNN and other networks would have stopped sending correspondents into Iraq. But the opposite occurred. Each time the regime threatened to pull the plug, network execs set out to assiduously reassure them. Mr. Jordan made 13 of these trips.

To be fair, CNN was not the only organization to play this game. But as the network of record, soi-disant, they have a longer trail than most. It makes rich reading to return to transcripts and compare the CNN version of Iraq with the reality that has emerged. For nearly a decade, the 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."

For long stretches, Ms. Arraf was American TV's only Baghdad correspondent. Her work was often filled with such parrotings of the Baathist line. On the Gulf War's 10th anniversary, she told viewers, "At 63, [Saddam] mocks rumors he is ill. Not just standing tall but building up. As soon as the dust settled from the Gulf War, and the bodies were buried, Iraq began rebuilding." She said little about human-rights violations, violent oppression, or festering resentment towards Saddam. Scouring her oeuvre, it is nearly impossible to find anything on these defining features of the Baathist epoch.

Reading Mr. Jordan now, you get the impression that CNN had no ethical option other than to soft-pedal. But there were alternatives. CNN could have abandoned Baghdad. Not only would they have stopped recycling lies, they could have focused more intently on obtaining the truth about Saddam. They could have diverted resources to Kurdistan and Jordan (the country), where recently arrived Iraqis could speak without fear of death. They could have exploited exile groups with underground contacts.

There's another reason why Mr. Jordan doesn't deserve applause. He says nothing about the lessons of Baghdad. After all, the network still sends correspondents to such countries as Cuba, Burma and Syria, ruled by dictators who impose media "guidelines." Even if CNN ignores the moral costs of working with such regimes, it should at least pay attention to the practical costs. These governments only cooperate with CNN because it suits their short-term interests. They don't reward loyalty. It wasn't surprising, then, that the Information Ministry booted CNN from Baghdad in the war's first days. In a way CNN's absence at this pivotal moment provides a small measure of justice: The network couldn't use its own cameras to cover the fall of a regime that it had treated with such astonishing respect.

(Mr. Foer, an associate editor of The New Republic, is the author of "Soccer Explains the World," to be published soon by HarperCollins.)

 

CRAVEN NEWS NETWORK

Craven news network
By Eric Fettmann
New York Post
April 12, 2003

CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan yesterday revealed that his network had refused for years to report what it knew about Saddam Hussein's murderous atrocities even against its own journalists. This astonishing confession doesn't just undermine CNN's claim to be "the most trusted name in news" it wreaks incalculable damage on all journalists' ability to be trusted by the American people.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Jordan disclosed that over the past dozen years CNN kept a tight lid on "awful things that could not be reported, because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."

In return for its silence, CNN was allowed to maintain a permanent Baghdad bureau long the only one by a U.S. network in the Iraqi capital.

But to what point if the only way to keep the bureau working was to soft-pedal Saddam's horrors? If you can't report the truth, why have journalists there in the first place?

It's like saying that the best interests of journalism would have justified suppressing stories on the Holocaust during World War II in order to keep a U.S. news bureau in Berlin so as to be able to tell Nazi Germany's side of the story.

Until yesterday, CNN long insisted that its arrangement with Saddam Hussein and his henchmen did not impair its ability to report freely.

"CNN has demonstrated again and again that it has a spine," Jordan told NPR's Bob Garfield last October. "It's prepared to be forthright, is forthright in its reporting. We wouldn't have a team in northern Iraq right now if we didn't want to upset the Saddam Hussein regime."

Perhaps.

But even Peter Arnett, who became a star reporting from Baghdad during the first Gulf War, conceded to The New Republic's Franklin Foer last fall that "there's a quid pro quo for being there [in Baghdad]. You go in and they control what you do... So you have no option other than to report the opinion of the government of Iraq."

Foer's devastating piece detailed how Western reporters CNN's Baghdad bureau chief, Jane Arraf, chief among them would "mimic the Ba'ath Party line" in a "go along to get along" strategy.

And, in fact, CNN worked long and hard over the years to convince Saddam's regime that it could trust the cable network.

In a remarkable on-air exchange in 1996, after Deputy Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz said Arnett would only be allowed back into Baghdad "if you promise that you will give candid, objective, fair coverage," CNN anchor Bernard Shaw replied: "We have no axes to grind, we don't support any particular government," then pleaded with Aziz to let CNN "enter your country so that we can report both sides of the story."

But as we now know, thanks to its chief news executive, that's not what CNN had in mind.

Among the stories suppressed by CNN, according to Jordan:

* A CNN Iraqi cameraman was kidnapped by Saddam's secret police, then beaten and subjected to electroshock torture for weeks.

* Other Iraqis working for Western press organizations similarly disappeared - some for good.

* A Kuwaiti woman who had spoken with CNN was beaten daily for months in front of her father, then had her body torn limb from limb, the parts left in a bag on her family's doorstep.

* Uday Hussein boasted directly to Jordan that he would assassinate his two brothers-in-law, who had defected. Months later, both men were lured back and killed.

Indeed, CNN's silence seems to have cost as many lives as it may have saved.

What did it show instead? Foer notes such stories as a series of public "demonstrations" for Sadam's 65th birthday. "Everyone knows they're a sham," one Western journalist told Foer, "but CNN in Atlanta is telling [correspondent] Nic Robertson that he has to file a story, so he shows the demonstration."

Selling such propaganda as news is problematic enough. Keeping quiet about the real news torture, initimidation and murder makes a mockery of journalists' professed responsibility to be a truth-teller.

That's the problem with Faustian bargains like the one Eason Jordan and CNN made with Saddam Hussein to keep CNN reporting from Baghdad. Ultimately, it means the devil takes possession of your soul for eternity.

 

“SADDAM’S SILENT COLLABORATORS”

"Saddam's silent collaborators"
By Margaret Wente
Globe and Mail (Canada)
April 15, 2003

Last week, I learned there was a children's prison in Baghdad where they locked up the kids of parents deemed disloyal to the regime.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. As more and more information emerges about Saddam Hussein's Iraq, we're learning how awful it really was. Still, I was stunned. What kind of regime locks up and tortures children?

In its scale and sadism, the regime's brutality went way beyond the cruelty of your average police state. It lasted for 20 years. Saddam's rule of terror ought to have sparked international outrage years ago. But it never did. Why not?

The standard answer is, the world didn't really know how bad it was. Yet these atrocities were no secret. They were known to anyone familiar with the regime, including Western governments, the United Nations, weapons inspectors and, yes, human-rights organizations. Yet all these institutions had other interests that apparently outweighed their concerns about the imprisonment and torture of children.

Some of the major media knew, too. In a stunning piece called The News We Kept to Ourselves, published last Friday in The New York Times, CNN news chief Eason Jordan reveals that the network never did come clean on everything it knew about Iraq. It never told its viewers that local CNN employees were abducted and tortured. It never passed along what Mr. Jordan learned on some of the 13 trips he made to Baghdad to schmooze with the regime in exchange for reporters' visas. On one trip, Saddam's son Uday told him he planned to kill his two brothers-in-law (he did). On other trips, Iraqi officials told Mr. Jordan Saddam was a maniac who had to be removed.

"I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me," he confessed. But he says CNN had to keep quiet in order to protect its employees.

The way others see it, CNN had to keep quiet in order to protect its access. In their view, CNN soft-pedalled the horrors of the regime so it could keep broadcasting from Iraq. In this, it was not alone. That's the usual quid pro quo for reporting on dictators, and Iraq was unusually vigilant in the way it kept tabs on the media. Every foreign journalist was tended by an official minder; if the regime didn't like their stories, they were kicked out.

Even Peter Arnett (who ended his network career by appearing on Iraqi TV) acknowledged the quid pro quo. "You go in and they control what you do," he told The New Republic's Franklin Foer last fall. "So you have no option other than to report the opinion of the government of Iraq." Perhaps that's why we got so much straight-faced coverage of massive anti-U.S. rallies.

Naturally, it was hard for journalists to get at the truth. But there were other ways. The world is full of exiles who fled Saddam's horrors, and bear his scars. Yet no one was very interested in what they had to say. Even outfits such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which did document some of Saddam's horrors, seemed more interested in scourging the West over sanctions than exposing the regime's abuses.

The reason is, they didn't want their evidence to be used for an end they opposed, such as regime change.

Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter illustrates this attitude. He knew about the children's prison because his team inspected it in 1998. He once said it was the most horrific thing he had seen. "Probably 200 kids from toddlers to 12-year-olds. The stench was unreal urine, feces, vomit, sweat. The kids were howling and dying of thirst. We threw water in there, but the Iraqis probably took the water out afterwards."

But now that Mr. Ritter has become a peace crusader, he doesn't want to talk about it. "Actually, I'm not going to describe what I saw there," he told Time this week, "because what I saw was so horrible that it can be used by those who would want to promote war with Iraq, and right now I'm waging peace."

Many people in the peace movement excuse these evasions by claiming we knew all these things all along. But I had no idea. Did you? The human-rights violations and widespread oppression of Saddam's regime are among the most underreported stories of the past decade.

As for the other parties in the know, there are the usual dreary reasons. They had their commercial interests to consider. After Saddam gassed the Kurds, for example, the U.S. decided to overlook his bad manners to protect its lucrative Midwestern agricultural exports (it's all about wheat). He made France and Germany rich, too. They were Iraq's biggest suppliers of munitions, equipment and chemical agents useful for making poison gas. As for the UN, it had no interest in Saddam's abuses because too many of its members supported him.

All of them, every one, heard the children's screams. But they kept it to themselves.

 

TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH EASON JORDAN FROM NPR’S WNYC AFFILIATE STATION

Transcript of Interview with Eason Jordan from NPR's WNYC affiliate station
October 25, 2002

BOB GARFIELD: After journalists were expelled from Iraq on Thursday, CNN head of news-gathering Eason Jordan, called the move "a Draconian measure that will sharply curtail the world's knowledge about what is happening in Iraq. Iraq is often displeased with CNN," says Jordan, "but especially this week when the network reported from the scene of that extraordinary protest in Baghdad."

EASON JORDAN: The big beef was that we reported that gunfire was used to disperse the demonstrators which is absolutely irrefutable fact, but the Iraqi government sometimes denies the facts and refuses to acknowledge the truth.

BOB GARFIELD: Well what kind of weird conversation is it with the Iraqi officials that you're having when you're holding up a, a piece of videotape and saying this is black and they're saying no, no that's white. It's bizarre!

EASON JORDAN: Well there are a lot of bizarre things in Iraq, and unfortunately the Iraqi officials refuse to look at the videotape because they said they didn't care what it showed or what was heard on the tape because the reality -the Iraqi reality was very different from the actual facts.

BOB GARFIELD: I'm sure you have seen Franklin Foer's article in The New Republic which charges that the Western press is appeasing the Iraqi regime in order to maintain its visas to be there reporting should a war ultimately break out. What's your take on that?

EASON JORDAN: The writer clearly doesn't have a clear understanding of the realities on the ground because CNN has demonstrated again and again that it has a spine; that it's prepared to be forthright; is forthright in its reporting. We wouldn't have a team in northern Iraq right now if we didn't want to upset the Saddam Hussein regime. We wouldn't report on the demonstration if we didn't want to upset the Saddam Hussein regime. We wouldn't have been thrown out of Iraq already 5 times over the last several years if we were there to please the Saddam Hussein regime. So the story was lopsided, unfair and chose to ignore facts that would refute the premise of the article.

BOB GARFIELD: Well what is the calculus? In the New Republic article he cites the coverage of Saddam Hussein's birthday by CNN which he deemed to be not a huge news event. Are you tossing bones to Saddam Hussein in order to be there when, when it really matters?

EASON JORDAN: No. I don't think that's the case at all. Now, there is Iraqi propaganda that is news! I mean there is propaganda from a lot of governments around the world that is newsworthy and we should report on those things. Saddam Hussein's birthday is a big deal in that country. We're not reading Iraqi propaganda; we're reporting as an independent news organization.

BOB GARFIELD: Back in '91 CNN and Peter Arnett in particular were heavily criticized, mostly by civilians, for reporting from within Baghdad during the U.S. attack in ways that they'd consider to be utter propaganda and to out of context and not reflecting the overall reality of Saddam Hussein' regime. Have you analyzed what you can get access to without appearing to be just a propaganda tool for Saddam?

EASON JORDAN: Well absolutely. I mean we work very hard to report forthrightly, to report fairly and to report accurately and if we ever determine we cannot do that, then we would not want to be there; but we do think that some light is better than no light whatsoever. I think that the world, the American people will be shortchanged if foreign journalists are kicked out, because even in Peter Arnett's case there were things that he reported on and this is a long time ago now but things he reported on that I don't think would have been reported at all had he not been there. We feel committed to our Baghdad presence. We've had a bureau there for 12 years with occasional interruptions when we've been thrown out, but we're not there to please the Iraqi government we're not there to displease the Iraqi government we're just there to do our job.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's say there's an a second Gulf War. Is that the mother of all stories? Do you have to be there? Are there decisions you'll make on the margins to be as certain as you possibly can that you will have a presence there?

EASON JORDAN: We'd very much like to be there if there's a second war; but we are not going to make journalistic compromises in an effort to make that happen, being mindful that in wartime there is censorship on all sides, and we're prepared to deal with a certain amount of censorship as long as it's not extreme, ridiculous censorship where which we've actually seen a number of cases in previous conflicts not just with Iraq. But sure! We want to be there, but it's we don't want to be there come hell or high water. We want to be there if we can be there and operate as a responsible news organization.

BOB GARFIELD: Very well. Eason Jordan, thank you very much.

EASON JORDAN: Okay, thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Eason Jordan is the chief news executive and news-gathering president for CNN News Group. He joined us from CNN studios in Atlanta.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.