Voices

Aimless reach

CNN had access in Iraq but hid the truth about Saddam & Sons

Issue: "Iraq: After the rout," April 26, 2003

ON APRIL 9 AND THEREAFTER, NOT ONLY IRAQIS beat their shoes on statues and portraits of their oppressors. Conservatives examined the erroneous predictions of media prophets and couldn't resist gloating.

Sure, it was hard to overlook gems strewn around by Newsweek's Eleanor Clift ("We're embroiled in a conflict that looks like a bad remake of Vietnam") and mile-a-minute talker Chris Matthews (The U.S. effort in Iraq "will join the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Desert One, Beirut, and Somalia in the history of military catastrophe").

The New York Times alone provided many views fit not to print, such as that of columnist Maureen Dowd ("It was hard not to have a few acid flashbacks to Vietnam at warp speed"). But worse than all the bad forecasting by journalists who saw Iraq through the dark prism of Vietnam were the lies of those who did not report what they knew.

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Up to now, when I've taught journalism history, my biggest villain has been Walter Duranty of The New York Times, who covered up Stalin-decreed starvation of Ukraine peasants during the 1930s and was thus an accomplice in mass murder. Now, here comes CNN. That network's confession came on April 11, when Eason Jordan, its chief news executive, acknowledged that he knew of Saddam's brutality but believed that telling the truth "would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."

Mr. Jordan said he did not report Iraqi secret police beating and giving electroshock torture to a CNN cameraman because telling the truth "would almost certainly have gotten him killed and put his family and co-workers at grave risk." Mr. Jordan also did not report that Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, told him he planned to assassinate two brothers-in-law who had defected. CNN wanted to protect a translator and so didn't report that news; Uday did kill the two a few months later.

Mr. Jordan said he did not report (a) several Iraqi officials telling him "that Saddam Hussein was a maniac who had to be removed," (b) the story of a man who was forced to write a letter of congratulations to Saddam Hussein for having the man's brother executed, (c) the story of the aide to Uday who upset his boss once and had his front teeth ripped out with pliers as a result. The answer is (d) all of the above.

Mr. Jordan always supplied a humanitarian justification for cover-up, but did not mention the alternatives he had: getting CNN employees in danger out of the country; calling any of the 2,000 or so UN workers in Baghdad and getting them to investigate; making the cameraman's case an international cause celebre so the Iraqis would have public-relations reasons to stop torturing him.

At the least, CNN could have emphasized other examples of Saddam's brutality to make up for its unwillingness to report these particular ones. CNN consistently could have told the world what Mr. Jordan and others knew: that Saddam & Sons were not just dictators but depraved addicts who needed their regular torture fixes. Instead, CNN played footsie with madmen who cut off the toes of those they didn't like.

CNN's complicity makes it seem that the network's real goal was to keep its Baghdad bureau open at all costs so it could brag of its world-wide reach. But what profiteth a network to cover the whole world and lose its own soul? What was the value of being able to interview Iraqi officials who didn't tell the truth anyway? Joel Belz colorfully raises this question on page 5.

CNN was not alone. Some leading journalists have had moments of decency-following Gulf War I, Michael Gordon of The New York Times saved lives when he saw Saddam massacring Kurds and pushed the U.S. government to protect them-but most wrote of the human cost of war and covered up the human cost of what passed as peace in Iraq. They said Saddam was pragmatic enough to cooperate with UN inspectors and branded as a warmonger anyone who called Saddam evil.

Had CNN and others told the truth, would Saddam have been removed sooner? Would hundreds of thousands of Iraqis been saved from torture or death? We heard about the effects of UN sanctions but not about Saddam's cruelty: Had more people in France and Germany been told the truth, would those countries have acted differently?

Journalism professors should be asking other news bureaus to disclose information they concealed about the true nature of Saddam's regime. Did ABC, NBC, and CBS make CNN-like compromises to stay in good with Saddam? What about major print news services and newspapers? And what do they do in Syria, Cuba, Iran, and other countries to avoid losing access? Do any of their reports from such countries have any credibility?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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