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Truth delayed

In an era of real-time news, CNN ought to be ashamed

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

It's hard to imagine that Eason Jordan would have picked the headline that ran over his column in The New York Times on April 11: "The News We Kept to Ourselves." It was a brief but damning mea culpa, and it sent shudders through the journalistic community. It is a big enough scandal that it deserves mention both on this page and in Marvin Olasky's column at the end of the magazine on page 32.

Mr. Jordan is chief news executive at CNN, the television news network that first gained its fame through its "reporting" on the first Gulf War in early 1991. In his most unusual recent column, Mr. Jordan bluntly admits that CNN over the last decade repeatedly and deliberately held back from reporting grisly news from Iraq just so that its reporters would be free to stay in the country.

Free to stay in the country-but to what end? If you're not even going to report the stories that your presence in the country allows you to see, what's the motivation for sticking around? Baghdad, even on the best of days, isn't that charming an assignment. What's the point of sitting around week after week, listening to the goofy reports from the Minister of Information, if you don't intend sooner or later to pass on what you hear with an insightful and courageous story?

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"I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me," says a rueful Mr. Jordan in his bizarre Times column. "Now that Saddam Hussein's regime is gone, I suspect we will hear many many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis about the decades of torment. At last, these stories can be told freely."

But Mr. Jordan, of course, has it all upside down. He's forgotten (or maybe never knew) that it is specifically the news reporter's main task not to allow important stories to get bottled up inside. No matter what.

No matter what? Well, Mr. Jordan suggests two justifications for staying silent even when you have an important story to tell. The first is that perhaps there's an even more important story coming in a few days (or a few months, or a few years?), and you want to be there to tell it. Or, as Mr. Jordan put it in an earlier interview, "Some light is better than no light whatsoever."

The second justification is more sobering. It is the reminder that the gruesome stories you heard as a reporter in a totalitarian setting were told to you by somebody whose life or welfare might be at risk if you publish the story. Mr. Jordan put it this way: "We also had to worry that our reporting might endanger Iraqis not on our payroll.... If we had gone with the story, I was sure that [Saddam's son Uday] would have responded by killing the Iraqi translator who was the only other participant in the meeting. After all, secret police thugs brutalized even senior officials of the Information Ministry, just to keep them in line (one such official has long been missing all his fingernails)."

But for any serious journalist to argue that it's OK to sit on an important story, and especially to sit on it for several years-even for reasons like these-is to undo the whole mission of good journalism. The task of a reporter is to tell the truth. Especially when the truth gets monstrous, it needs to be told. It is not the reporter's job to sit and weigh what the effects might be if he does his job. A journalist's job is to get on with telling the truth.

An eerie parallel exists between CNN's shameful performance and that of some Christian missionary organizations. Here and there around the world, too many Christians these days deliberately turn a blind eye to terrible wrongs in various countries and cultures of the world-just so that their continued acceptance by corrupt governing authorities will not be jeopardized. Their rationale is a lot like Eason Jordan's. "A little light is better than no light at all," they might say.

Both messengers are forgetting the same important principle-that a messenger's main task is to carry the message, and not to get weighed down in endless debates over whether this is the time to carry the message or what the secondary effects might be.

Indeed, all of us tend to fall into the same trap, even in our personal dealings. "I wouldn't dare say what's true in this circumstance," we rationalize, "or I might lose all future opportunity to speak the truth." Or, "I'd speak the truth, but I worry that somebody might get hurt."


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