Several months ago, CNN news executive Eason Jordan admitted that his network had been shading the truth about Saddam Hussein’s regime for years. In a New York Times op-ed, Jordan justified the network’s practice as necessary to keep his Baghdad bureau open and to protect its access to Iraqi leaders. Now a New York Times foreign correspondent, John Burns, says that the practice of slanting the news out of Iraq was widespread. He alleges that the central truth about Iraq “was untold by the vast majority of correspondents” serving in Baghdad. He judges the media’s performance in covering Iraq to be “absolutely disgraceful.”
Burns sharply criticized the Western media in his chapter in a new book about the media and the war in Iraq. He describes bribes paid to Iraqi information ministry officials in exchange for favorable treatment. He charges that television correspondents gave senior information officials “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.” One correspondent, according to Burns, gave Iraqi officials copies of stories filed by his competitors to show “what a good boy he was.” Burns doesn’t name names, but writes that this correspondent was with a major American newspaper.
Burns’ main criticism focuses on the Western media’s refusal to portray the human rights abuses and reign of terror in Iraq. He thinks that, save for North Korea, as a terror-ruled state Iraq was in a category by itself. In fact, he thinks that the war could have been justified on human rights grounds alone. But many journalists, according to Burns, simply refused to report this fundamental truth about the Saddam Hussein regime.
With regard to CNN’s Jordan, Burns says that he “missed the point completely.” Jordan had defended CNN by claiming that the network withheld stories about Iraqi brutality because it was trying to defend its own Iraqi employees. But Burns charges that this group was only “one thousandth of one per cent of the people of Iraq.” Why didn’t the media tell the story of “murder on a mass scale” he wonders.
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media have generally ignored Burns’ allegations. Fox News’ Brit Hume made a brief reference to Burns and the Wall Street Journal editorial page printed a brief excerpt from his chapter. The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, did likewise. His only comment was to wonder about the identity of the newspaper correspondent mentioned above. The excerpt originally appeared in Editor and Publisher, a journal about the media. It generated “tons of email” both praising and criticizing Burns.
Among the emails was one from CBS News’ Dan Rather. Rather praised Burns’ article as “a brilliant, important contribution to American journalism.” But Rather has come in for some criticism himself, this time from National Public Radio correspondent Ann Garrels. In her new book, Garrels characterized Rather’s pre-war interview with Saddam Hussein as “obsequious tripe.” She quotes a colleague as accusing Rather of lobbing “softball questions” at Hussein and saying that he “might just as well have been interviewing the prime minister of Belgium.”