ONCE UPON A TIME, it was Ted Turner’s ex-wife, Jane Fonda, who traveled to foreign lands to give aid and comfort to America’s enemies. Today it’s his ex-network, CNN, which still bears the anti-American likeness of the radical mogul who created it.
When Baghdad fell last week, CNN officials saw the handwriting on the wall: Ba’athist atrocities they had concealed for years would soon be broadcast world over by more honest news organizations. International audiences, in turn, would get a glimpse of all that CNN had failed to show them. The network’s journalistic abuses would be brought to light along with Saddam Hussein’s abuses of human rights.
So, in a pathetic attempt at preemptive damage control, CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan issued his now infamous confession in last Friday’s New York Times, The News We Kept to Ourselves. With that, CNN officials hoped they could make the whole, sordid episode disappear. They mustn’t get off that easy.At issue is more than just the revolting and shameless lengths to which some reporters will go to gain access, but also an unmistakable anti-American bias that infects establishment media outfits like CNN. Because of that bias and its own lack of shame, CNN willingly made itself a propagandist for America’s enemies.
To hear Jordan tell it, he had no choice but to bury multiple stories documenting the cruelty of the Iraqi regime—stories of electric torture, a woman torn limb from limb, a man who had his teeth removed with pliers, another whose fingernails were yanked out. If CNN told the world about what was really going on in Iraq, Jordan claims, more innocent Iraqis would have no doubt met similarly wicked and excruciating fates.
That’s the network’s official party line. CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson told the Associated Press that "the decision not to report these particular events had nothing to do with access, and everything to do with keeping people from being killed as a result of our reporting." The good folks at CNN are humanitarians first, reporters second.
Jordan goes so far as to make it sound as though his decision to report only the news Saddam wanted the world to hear was some sort of heroic, journalistic self-sacrifice. (Oh the scoops we surrendered so that others may live!) But this line of rationalizing rests on a false dilemma between reporting the facts (thus endangering the lives of innocents) and reporting propaganda. In truth, there was a third option, one which CNN seems unwilling even to acknowledge: The network could have just closed down its Baghdad bureau altogether.
Sure, that act of real journalistic self-sacrifice might have come with a loss of cachet for a network that prided itself on being the only one with a Baghdad bureau (conveniently located in the Ministry of Information). It might have meant losing choice footage of exciting, state-sanctioned stories like Saddam’s overwhelming victory in the one-man presidential referendum, or how many people showed up for the latest government-organized anti-American rally. But there’s something to be admired about a news organization that would publicly say: If we can’t do the job right, we won’t do it at all.
CNN, on the other hand, simply decided to do the job poorly, treating half-truths and lies as though they were the complete facts. When New Republic associate editor Franklin Foer interviewed Jordan for an excellent story the magazine published last October (How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media), Jordan told him that CNN gave "a full picture of the regime" in Iraq—an obvious lie exposed by Jordan’s own New York Times op-ed.
CNN didn’t have to do Saddam’s bidding, that was its own choice. But why?
To gain access, sure, but there’s more to it than that. After all, even CNN has its standards. It might be willing to compromise its integrity for regimes like those of pre-liberation Iraq, Syria, or Cuba (all three of which are home to CNN bureaus), but it won’t play propagandist to just any government.
After the fall of Baghdad, American officials rushed to set up a new Iraqi TV station, one that would feature subtitled Western newscasts and political talk shows, so as to give Iraqis an inkling of how political discourse works in a free society. To that end, the government obtained the right to feature PBS’ "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and Fox News Channel’s "Special Report With Brit Hume."
But one network wouldn’t play along—CNN.
"As an independent, global news organization," the Washington Post quotes Robinson as saying, "we did not think it was appropriate to participate in a U.S. government transmission."
Talk about bad timing. The Post printed Robinson’s obtuse explanation the same day the New York Times ran Jordan’s apologia. In one paper, a network flack self-righteously explained that CNN wouldn’t support the U.S. government, while in another, a network official boasted about the way it willingly aided Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
It gets worse. At OpinionJournal.com, the indispensable James Taranto unearthed the following quote from Jordan in a 1999 Atlanta Business Journal item: "The government we have the toughest time with is the U.S. government."
That’s right. It’s not Hussein’s Iraq—which repeatedly threatened to take away the news executive’s beloved bureau, prompting him to make 13 separate trips to Baghdad to genuflect before Saddam’s throne—that Jordan found most difficult to work with. The regime that tortured his cameraman and bullied his reporters into silence wasn’t the one that gave him fits.
No, the government that troubled him the most was America’s, thanks to the pesky sanctions and trade embargoes it imposes on the very tyrannies Jordan’s network all too happily promotes. America is the problem. It always is.
Ted Turner may no longer be at CNN, but his spirit clearly lives on.