The Blog

Special Relationships

It's becoming clear that some journalists in Saddam's Iraq had special relationships with the government. Others did it the right way.

12:00 AM, Sep 17, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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IT'S WORTH RECYCLING John Burns's stunning denunciation of corruption in the media, already touted on Andrew Sullivan's indispensable blog on Tuesday and elsewhere since.

The scandal of some Western media's silence about the atrocities of Saddam Hussein's regime, of course, is old news. It's already five months since CNN's news chief, Eason Jordan, wrote about his organization's blithe cover-up in the New York Times.

But Burns's piece adds a dimension that needs to be underlined--and I don't mean the material bribes paid to Saddam's director of information. His account highlights the deadening of conscience that goes along with a policy of collusion, rationalized as the price of maintaining access to Iraq.

Its counterpart is the quickening of conscience on the part of those who refuse to sell out. Burns, who won a Pulitzer prize for his war reporting from the Balkans, writes of his "fury" when people chided him for risking his life to cover Iraq--as if exposing evil were a thing no sensible journalist would inconvenience himself to do.

And don't miss Burns's account of warning the Iraqis at the Ministry of Information in Baghdad that their building was to be bombed the next night. He personally went from floor to floor telling people to get out. When an Iraqi official later accused him of working for the CIA, he shot back, "I come from a newspaper and a country who cares about people. We were told [by colleagues in New York that the building would be attacked] on the basis of human decency. Not just for ourselves but also for Iraqis. They didn't want to kill innocent Iraqis."

Burns's vehemence brings to mind another instance of healthy fury at colleagues' cravenness, on the part of another brave and honest reporter in Iraq. Michael Kelly, the late editor of the Atlantic Monthly, recalled being in Baghdad the night the first Gulf War began, in January 1991. CNN was the only news outfit that still had a line to the outside world, and Kelly slipped a note under their locked door asking them to contact some of the journalists' families to let them know they had come through the night all right. The wording of the CNN refusal and other details of the exchange are priceless. Here's how Kelly recalled them in an interview he gave six weeks before his death in Iraq on April 4:

. . . There are a lot of individual stories from that night that you can't see because they're not what TV shows--how people react to things. Some of that I wrote about, some of that I didn't. Some people had reactions to that night that I didn't want to write about. There were a lot of people there who were mad at CNN--you didn't see that on TV.

Because?

Well, because CNN had this special relationship with the Iraqi government that they had earned, in part, through what I thought was corrupt reporting.

Sort of the mouthpiece for Saddam.

More than that. Specifically, they were allowed to fly on Iraqi planes to go into Kuwait City when it was occupied, and they were taken there by the Iraqi government for the specific purpose of shooting down the story that the Iraqi occupiers had killed babies in incubators. And they did shoot that story down for the government. As [Robert] Wiener, the producer for CNN, has written for his book, which has recently been made into a movie, they acquiesced to the Iraqi government's demand that they not tell the world the rest of the stuff they saw in Kuwait City. They did that to protect their special standing. Their special standing was not only access to interviews that nobody else could get, but they also had this land line that allowed them twenty-four-hour open telephone.

So in effect, they were enabling.