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CNN Under Fire; The Aftermath of War; Report Card on Wartime Media

Aired April 20, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: CNN under fire. Did the network's top news executive make a huge blunder in withholding stories of Saddam Hussein's brutality, out of concern, he says, for people's safety? Eason Jordan takes on the criticism of his stunning confession.
The aftermath of war. We'll go to Baghdad to look at the continuing journalistic challenges there. And embedded or in bed, a report card on the wartime media.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Just ahead, we'll talk with CNN's Eason Jordan about the controversy he's created and hear as well from media critic Dan Kennedy of "The Boston Phoenix."

But first, straight to Iraq and Anthony Shadid, Middle East correspondent for "The Washington Post." He's been in Baghdad since the war began.

Anthony Shadid, what's been the hardest part of covering the chaos in Baghdad since the shooting stopped, and in a way is it more dangerous for journalists with all these looters running around?

ANTHONY SHADID, WASHINGTON POST: Well, you know, Baghdad was by far -- since the beginning, Baghdad has been an incredibly difficult story to cover, mainly for what was in addition to the reporting itself, worrying about your visa, worrying about whether the Information Ministry would allow you to stay, having to deal with the minders that were always supposed to accompany you.

All that has been gone now, and so that has freed up the reporting a little bit, and there is a sense of ease almost in getting around, talking to people that you hadn't been able to talk to before. It still remains a difficult story. I think there is still a lot of danger out there, and almost danger that you're not going to expect as much. I mean, during the war, you did know what you were facing and you did know that bombing was going on. You knew where to go and where not to go.

Now there is a little more of maybe an unease or an insecurity that something bad could happen from anyplace. But in comparison to what was going on before, it's far easier.

KURTZ: Now, a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the war, you interviewed some of the victims of when that bomb exploded in a crowded Baghdad marketplace. What was that experience like, both journalistically and personally to go through?

SHADID: It was obviously a very difficult story. Any time when you have death on that scale, carnage on that scale, it's difficult as both a person and a reporter. As a person, you know, the scenes are shocking and they're very sad and difficult to see. As a reporter, you always wonder how you're going to capture that moment, how are you going to convey this scene to the people who will be reading the story the next day.

You know, what I tried to do in covering all this just was almost act as a photographer in a lot of ways, to try to capture the scenes and capture the detail and just convey them without judgment or without, you know, any kind of twist to the writing, just to put it out there and let people try to understand what was happening at that time.

KURTZ: And in a similar fashion, when that tank opened fire at the Palestine Hotel, where so many journalists were staying, killing two journalists, was it hard to report objectively on that story, given that two of your colleagues died in the process and that the Army seemed to open fire without provocation?

SHADID: You know, that was actually a difficult day in general. I think a lot of reporters here had spent the morning at (UNINTELLIGIBLE) hospital, and this -- in those few days before the American forces entered the city and Saddam Hussein collapsed, it was a pretty -- there was a lot of carnage going on in the outskirts of Baghdad, particularly in the south, and the hospital was overflowing with casualties.

The deaths of the journalists followed that by hours, and I think a lot of journalists were kind of at wit's end at that point with all that was going on.

Obviously, these were colleagues and these were people we cared about. And to see it, you know, up close and to see it right where we were staying and with the knowledge that, you know, we understood that the Army knew where journalists were staying at the Palestine Hotel.

You know, there were questions left unanswered, and I'm not sure all the questions have been answered yet, but, again, you know, you want to be careful as a reporter to say these deaths are more important than those deaths or to try to add judgment or value to life. I think, again, you have to approach that story as this is another instance of war and this is another instance of the disasters that befall in war.

KURTZ: You wrote very movingly about a 14-year-old boy who was one of the victims of this war, killed by an explosion. And since you speak Arabic, you've been able to talk to a lot of families and sort of ordinary people in Baghdad about the war. But it occurred to me that if a TV reporter spoke on the air as much about civilian casualties as you have written in the newspaper, I suppose there would be some criticism about, you know, favoring Iraq or worrying too much about the enemy in the war. What's the role of a journalist in your view in covering civilian casualties when your own country is at war? SHADID: I question the assumption, first of all, that it's favoring Iraq to cover what's going on in Baghdad during the war. I mean, you know, the results of war is the impact on people, and that's my job as a reporter is to cover that impact on people, and that's what I saw myself doing in Baghdad.

You know, it was a question, there was a spot, news story obviously every day going on with what the government was saying, what the government planned to do, we covered that. You know, in the end there, with the Information Minister Sahaf, it wasn't a very compelling story in a lot of respects, because he just wasn't believable.

What was going on in the streets and what was going on in people's lives, you know, people who were on the very brink of a huge change and they were going through an incredibly disturbing time to reach that change, you wanted to capture those sentiments and understand what they were thinking and understand what they were doing.

You know, if we hadn't been here, nobody would have seen that side of the war and I think we had a really important mission, and being an eye and an ear for readers in the United States to say, you know, there is one side -- there's the end of the war where the embeds are and there's the other -- where the bombs land, basically, where we are. And both sides should be covered as accurately and as comprehensively as possible.

KURTZ: And on that point, we have about a half minute. You stayed in Baghdad at great personal risk. You know about the dangers of reporting there. You were shot last year, you were covering the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Why did you take the risk of exposing yourself to that massive American bombing campaign?

SHADID: Well, I think it's important for reporters to be here, number one. I think it's important to have as many eyes and ears covering this war as possible. Number two, I think this is a story that we're going to see in the coming years to be incredibly decisive, perhaps one of the most decisive moments of our generation. I think we're only starting to see that impact of that unfold, and to be a journalist and not to take part in that or witness that I think would be a mistake.

KURTZ: Anthony Shadid of "The Washington Post," we appreciate you being here with us this morning from Baghdad. Thanks very much.

And we turn now to a controversy that has erupted involving CNN. The network's chief news executive Eason Jordan wrote a "New York Times" opinion piece about the 13 trips he's made to Baghdad in recent years and said, quote, "each time I visited, I became more and 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."

Eason Jordan joins us now from CNN Center in Atlanta. Also with us in Boston, media critic Dan Kennedy of "The Boston Phoenix." Eason Jordan, a lot of people asking, you had this horrifying evidence of brutality by Saddam Hussein's regime, even with the risks involved, how could you not report it? How could you sit on that information?

EASON JORDAN, CNN CHIEF NEWS EXEC.: Well, Howard, the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime has been known for many, many years, and we have reported it on CNN in great detail. What we have not done and what I would hope no news organization would do is tell very specific personal stories that would result in innocent people getting killed. I think the criticism would be legitimate if CNN had pulled its punches in reporting on the brutality of the regime. But the fact of the matter is, we did that time and time again.

KURTZ: But do you understand now better that perhaps when you sat down to write this piece why so many people, liberals and conservatives, feel that you and CNN were sort of compromising your standards in exchange for maintaining access, for them to be able to stay in Baghdad? Can you understand how that perception has taken hold?

JORDAN: I can understand the perception of anyone reading the op-ed piece and not being familiar with CNN's reporting, thinking, well, if CNN knew these stories, CNN must not have been reporting on the brutality of the regime. The reality is, of course, we did report extensively on the brutality of the regime, and we withheld the stories not because of access, CNN had a very, very contentious relationship with the Iraqi government. We were thrown out of Iraq time and time again, had more than a dozen correspondents banned. It was not about access. It was about keeping innocent people alive, not letting them be killed because of our reporting.

KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, I want to read a line from a "Washington Post" editorial on this subject. "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." How badly in your view has CNN's reputation been tarnished by this episode?

DAN KENNEDY, THE BOSTON PHOENIX: Well, I think CNN has clearly had a very bad week. I'm not sure how long the damage is going to last. The problem is "The Washington Post" editorial points out is one of perceptions, and now when people sort of look back at how CNN has reported on Iraq over the years, anything that appears even slightly soft is going to be held up as an example of, oh, look at what CNN did because they didn't want to endanger their access. I don't think that's fair, but that's the perception that's been created by this to some extent.

KURTZ: Do you accept Eason Jordan's explanation, that he took this course, indeed that he had no choice, because innocent lives were at stake?

KENNEDY: I think that CNN probably reported on Iraq as tough as it could under the circumstances. What I question is whether at some point Mr. Jordan should have considered changing those circumstances, pulling his people out of Iraq and reporting on Iraq from outside the country, not disclosing what he knew that would have endangered people, but ceasing to make these kind of compromises in the course of reporting on what's really one of the most brutal regimes on the face of the earth.

KURTZ: Eason Jordan, was there no point where you were tempted to do just that, pull up stakes, leave Baghdad and just say, look, we can't deal anymore with these thugs and murderers?

JORDAN: Well, we talked about it on a number of occasions amongst ourselves. I felt like in the end, it was more important for us to be there that to not be there. The time CNN was thrown out of Iraq, and there were many of those times, had to do with the toughness of our reporting. Our bureau chief in Baghdad was thrown out for reporting on a human rights demonstration. I thought it was important to tell those stories, and we did tell those stories, but I never for a second thought about telling stories that I thought would get innocent people killed.

KURTZ: Let's go to some of the specifics. Eason, you write about an Iraqi cameraman for CNN who was beaten and tortured with electroshock. I guess for being unwilling to tell the regime that you were some kind of CIA spy. How could you continue to send journalists to Baghdad in the face of that kind of inhuman behavior? It seems to me that all of CNN's people would have been at risk given these kinds of brutal tactics.

JORDAN: Well, all journalists in Baghdad were at risk, Howard, and I wish you had asked Anthony Shadid what stories he might know that haven't been told to the world, because there are hundreds of journalists who have been in and out of Baghdad who know stories that have not been told until now, and the question is, after the fuss that was created over my small op-ed piece, how many stories will not be told because people are scared to come out and just tell the truth now that it can be told without endangering people's lives.

KURTZ: So you're suggesting here that CNN was not alone, that any journalist who had to operate under the difficult conditions of Baghdad had to some degree compromise on what could be reported, and yet because you wrote this piece it's CNN that is getting all the abuse heaped upon it?

JORDAN: I'm prepared to take all the heat that's directed at me, Howard. I feel like I did the right thing. I felt that way when I wrote it.

KURTZ: But did you have company?

JORDAN: Sure, of course. There were many journalists who knew stories like this. I encourage you and everyone to read "The New York Times" today. John Burns has a diary, a Baghdad diary in "The New York Times" that is fascinating, it's very compelling, and it's all true about what compromises journalists had to make in Baghdad in order to stay there and not to put innocent lives at risk. KURTZ: What about that, Dan Kennedy? Didn't any journalist operating under very difficult conditions under Saddam's regime faced these same kind of ethical dilemmas, and would it have been better, as you suggest, for CNN to pull out when it was one of the few Western news organizations that was reporting from Baghdad? Would the world have been better served by that?

KENNEDY: I have to tell you, this is such a complex issue that I'm not going to sit here and say it would have been better for CNN to pull out. I do think it's something that should have been very, very seriously considered.

Now, you know, I certainly have been critical of Mr. Jordan during the last week, but as we look back and now as we move forward, I think it's possible that we may end up viewing hit op-ed as almost a public service, because as he says, there were probably all sorts of news organizations making all sorts of compromises, perhaps similar to the ones that CNN made, not just in Iraq but in other authoritarian regimes. You know, I'm not just a critic, I'm a viewer, and I like full disclosure. And maybe now is the time to have some sort of a public discussion on how the media operates in authoritarian regimes around the world that would change people's perception of what they're reading and what they're viewing.

KURTZ: Eason Jordan, you voluntarily disclosed this, you came out with these revelations in "The New York Times." Nobody forced you to do it. What compelled you to write this piece? You must have had some inkling that you were going to take some criticism over this?

JORDAN: Certainly I anticipated a certain amount of criticism, and I'm sorry I didn't write a piece that was a bit longer, provided some more context and certainly explained to people that CNN has reported on the brutality of the regime time and time and time again.

I was disappointed with some of the outrage. I think there is some hypocrisy here, and I think once all the stories come out, and there's so many untold stories, that people will have a fuller understanding of what's going on. And as far as for me, Howard, the reason I came out and wrote this piece is for years I've been going to Iraq, for years I felt terribly about some of the things I learned there, and I felt like when those stories could be told without innocent people being killed, they had to be told.

KURTZ: All right. We need to get a break. And when we come back, the story of an Iraqi assassination plot that CNN did not report to the world. Why did the network sit on that information?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Eason Jordan, you met with Saddam's son Uday and he told you, incredibly enough, about assassination plots against Jordan's King Hussein and Saddam's two brothers-in-law who had defected from the regime. What did you do with that information?

JORDAN: Well, Howard, I met with him twice. The second time in the early part of 1995. Just a couple of weeks prior to that, two of his brothers-in-law and the daughters of Saddam Hussein had defected to Jordan, and it was quite a scandal at the time because one of those brothers-in-law was Hussein Kamal, who was arguably the second most powerful man in Iraq. He took with him a lot of secrets about the regime, so two weeks after that defection, I met with Uday Saddam Hussein. It was a private, off-the-record meeting. It was -- nothing from it was to be reported in any way. Those were the ground rules in advance.

When I met with him, he went berserk and just went on a rant about how awful King Hussein was and how he was going to assassinate the king for giving asylum to his brothers-in-law and he said he was also going to assassinate his brothers-in-law. This was unnerving, to say the least.

The next day I went to Jordan. I met with King Hussein personally, I told him about this threat. The king was the host of the two defectors. I knew that he would tell the defectors, but the king was dismissive, and he himself had met a couple of days earlier with Uday and he just dismissed Uday as a madman and what he had to say as a rant.

KURTZ: But, of course, the two brothers-in-laws were later lured back to Iraq and were killed. Dan Kennedy, did Eason Jordan put himself in an impossible position by having an off-the-record meeting with Uday Hussein and trying to set up an interview with Saddam? And does that create a sort of an appearance of coziness between CNN and the regime?

KENNEDY: Well, I think this is an instance where, you know, you -- having an off-the-record meeting with a foreign leader is not terribly unusual and surprising, but once he got in there, it seems like he was put in an impossible situation. And these are the situations that seem to have come up over and over again during the course of his 13 trips to Iraq. I mean, this is just -- look at the extent of the evil that you're dealing with here, and I think at a certain point it becomes you can't deal with this kind of evil without becoming so compromised that your journalistic mission becomes endangered, really.

KURTZ: Eason Jordan, you said earlier that some of those critics accusing CNN of compromising its standards are guilty themselves of hypocrisy. What do you mean by that?

JORDAN: Well, there are many, many journalists who have been in and out of Baghdad over the years and there are a lot of Iraqi journalists as well who know far, far more than I do about what's happened in Iraq over the last several years, and I think these stories will come out over time. Maybe they're better held for books when they won't create quite an uproar as my op-ed piece did just at the end of the war, but I have no doubt whatsoever that there are many, many more stories and some far more chilling than the stories that I have told.

KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, in the moment we have remaining, let's look at the war coverage generally. Do you think the cable networks, among others, were perhaps too negative early on in this war, threw too much information at us that suggested the war was not going well when in fact it was a strikingly successful three-week war?

KENNEDY: Well, it seems to me that the news media in general were doing a pretty accurate and thorough job of reporting the misgivings the generals themselves had. I'm not sure, you know, it's always nice to think that the media can be more skeptical about the information they're getting, but the generals seemed to be almost unanimous for a while that things were getting bogged down and it wasn't going well.

KURTZ: And on that point, Eason Jordan -- forgive me, Dan. Too many generals, too many armchair generals on television. Why so much focus on cable coverage of people who used to work for the Pentagon and who were challenging the war plan, particularly in those early days?

JORDAN: Oh, I think it's important to have experts explain the war and to describe the military hardware, describe the tactics, talk about the strategy behind the conflict. I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instances, at CNN, here are the generals we're thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war, and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.

KURTZ: OK. We've got to leave it there. Eason Jordan in Atlanta, Dan Kennedy in Boston, thanks very much to both of you for joining us.

Well, coming up, a look at the Pentagon's grand experiment with embedded reporters. How did the press do on covering the war in Iraq? That's next on RELIABLE SOURCES.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now for a report card of sorts on the press performance in Iraq.


KURTZ (voice-over): So what kind of war did 600 embedded correspondents and all those high-tech satellite dishes and videophones bring us? There's been no shortage of critics who say the reporters were way too cozy with the troops, little more than purveyors of Pentagon propaganda. And plenty of detractors say the press was way too quick to shift into quagmire mode, with a barrage of second-guessing stories about what turned out to be a strikingly successful three-week war.

There's some truth to that, although many reporters were quoting unnamed Pentagon officials and retired military officers as questioning the war plan. And there were times when it was hard to separate the reporters from the soldiers.

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Under attack. KURTZ: When CNN's Brent Sadler, for example, came under Iraqi attack and his armed bodyguard returned fire, or when the "Boston Herald's" Jules Crittenden pointed out Iraqi snipers for his unit to kill, or when Fox's Ollie North kept praising "my Marines."

But for all of that, the media deserved high marks and got them from 74 percent of those in a Pew Research poll. People saw journalists grappling with a story of global importance, not some bit of sensationalism involving killing sharks or a dead Capitol Hill intern. People saw journalists risking their lives, and a dozen of them, including David Bloom and Michael Kelly, sacrificing their lives. People saw newspapers churn out special sections day after day, and anchors working marathon hours, and big name correspondents like Ted Koppel and John Roberts slogging their way through sandstorms.

Sure, there were mistakes and excesses and self-promoting flag drag networks trashing the competition as if war were a ratings game, but there was also plenty of good journalism, courageous journalism under very difficult conditions.


KURTZ: Now we'll see whether the media are up to the job of covering the struggle for peace the way they covered the war, or whether Iraq will quickly drop off the radar screen. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Be sure to stay with CNN throughout the day fort latest on the war in Iraq. Straight ahead is "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER," with guests including Henry Kissinger and the French ambassador to the United States. Then stay tuned for 3 p.m. Eastern special, CNN's "Inside the Regime." Join Heidi Collins as she takes a look at the fallen Iraqi government. And at 4:00 Eastern, "CNN LIVE SUNDAY" brings you the latest on today's news.

I'm Howard Kurtz in Washington. Join us again next Sunday morning for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" begins after this news update.


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