Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s senior foreign correspondent, thinks that journalists censored themselves during the war in Iraq. She told CNBC’s Tina Brown that “the media was muzzled” and “intimidated” and that a “climate of fear and self-censorship” inhibited coverage of the war. The culprits: the Bush administration and its “foot soldiers at Fox News.” (Ironically, one media watchdog has declared CBS the “most pro-war” in its coverage.) But when challenged to cite a story that she was prevented from reporting, she came up short. She could only point to a “question of tone.” “It’s really a question of really asking the question,” implying that this “climate of fear” stopped reporters from doing their jobs.
As a correspondent for CNN, Amanpour should know about how intimidation shapes stories out of places like Baghdad. Her boss, CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan, admitted earlier this year that his network had been withholding the truth about the Iraqi regime for years. In the New York Times, he confessed that his network didn’t report all the “awful things” it learned about life under Saddam Hussein. His reason: CNN feared that by doing so it would jeopardize the lives of Iraqis working for the network’s Baghdad bureau. But he also admitted that CNN was afraid that Iraq’s information ministry would shut down that bureau and cut off CNN’s access to Iraqi “newsmakers.”
Confirmation that the media have been distorting the news out of Iraq has now come from some surprising sources. John Burns, the Times’ Baghdad bureau chief and a veteran foreign correspondent, had denounced the media’s “absolutely disgraceful performance” in coverage of Iraq. Burns’ critique was published as an excerpt from an oral history chapter in a new book on the media and Iraq at Editor & Publisher.com. He is blunt in his criticism of colleagues for their failure to report “awful things” about Saddam Hussein’s regime. Burns’ words have been widely circulated on the Internet and appeared, in an abbreviated form, in the Wall Street Journal.
He recounts the bribes paid to Iraqi information ministry officials in exchange for favorable treatment. He tells of $600 cell phones given to family members of the director of the ministry as well as bribes to other officials totaling “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from television correspondents “who then behaved as if they were in Belgium.” NPR correspondent Ann Garrels confirmed Burns’ account of the bribes in her new book on the war. Book reviews in the Denver Post and USA Today cite her references to the bribes paid to Iraqi officials in return for visas, access and information. USA Today has her citing one mid-level bureaucrat who made at least $200,000 off his share of the bribes. In addition to access and information, Garrels charges that some of her colleagues had “unspoken agreements” with the Iraqis not to report the awful truths about human rights abuses. The USA Today review says she singled out CNN for its efforts to “curry favor” in order to maintain its presence in Baghdad.
One anecdote from Burns, repeated endlessly on the Internet, involves a correspondent “from a major American newspaper.” This correspondent took the trouble to print both his own and his competitors’ stories off the Internet. He then provided these to Iraqi officials in an effort to demonstrate that he was “a good boy” in comparison to the regime’s detractors, like Burns. Burns doesn’t name names, but many continue to wonder about the identity of that “reporter.”
Burns faults the media mostly for refusing to report on the human rights abuses inflicted on the Iraqi people. He has been posted to Mao’s China, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, but thinks that with the possible exception of North Korea, Iraq as a terror state was in a category by itself. “Absolute evil,” he said.
Another Times’ star, columnist Thomas L. Friedman, seconded Burns’ critique. Appearing on the Charlie Rose show, Friedman reportedly said that the last ten years of media coverage of Iraq was hardly “a shining example of American journalism.” Friedman agreed that the media failed to cover Iraqi atrocities in order to get and keep visas and access. He thinks, “the press has something to answer for” on this story.
Burns concluded, “there is corruption in our business,” and he urged his colleagues to “get back to basics.” But the real censors in the Iraq case seem to have been the network executives and newspaper editors who cared more about maintaining a “presence” in Baghdad than truth or accuracy in their reporting. What does that say about the reporting from the capitals of other regimes, like Cuba, Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia?