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April 20, 2003

All the news that's unfit to print

Jeff Jacoby in an article entitled Trading Truth for Access pulled it all together
WHEN SADDAM Hussein's psychopathic son Uday told CNN's top news executive, Eason Jordan, that he planned to assassinate his two brothers-in-law who had defected from Iraq, he wasn't concerned that Jordan would rush the explosive scoop onto the air. Uday figured the influential journalist would sit on the story and say nothing - and he was right. The news didn't leak, and the brothers-in-law were murdered soon after.

We know about that conversation, and about CNN's silence, because Jordan admitted it last week. In a New York Times column titled ''The news we kept to ourselves,'' he confessed that CNN habitually suppressed stories of torture, mutilation, and other atrocities - ''things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff. ''

Jordan's disclosure triggered a storm of criticism, and no wonder. It is scandalous that a network calling itself ''the most trusted name in news'' would sanitize the truth about a dictatorship it claimed to be covering objectively. And the scandal is compounded by Jordan's lack of contrition. He makes no apology for downplaying the horrors of Saddam's regime. If CNN hadn't done so, he says, innocent people would have died.

But as Franklin Foer reported in The New Republic last October, CNN didn't bury stories only out of fear. It bent over backward to remain on good terms with Saddam's Ministry of Information, which controlled the all-important visas needed to stay in Iraq. ''Nobody has schmoozed the ministry harder,'' Foer wrote, ''than the head of CNN's News Group, Eason Jordan, who has traveled to Baghdad 12 times since the Gulf War.''

What seems to have emerged from those meetings was a policy of going along to get along. CNN's stories frequently echoed the Baath Party spin, deferentially covering its agitprop or toadying to Saddam. (''It's ... a vote of defiance against the United States .... This really is a huge show of support!'' - CNN's Jane Arraf on Saddam's 100 percent ''election'' victory last fall.) Rarely was there an unvarnished look at the regime's cruelty and deceit. That, Jordan now admits, was ''the news we kept to ourselves.''

But CNN wasn't the only offender, and it doesn't just happen in Iraq.

News organizations boast that they cover even the toughest beats without fear or favor. Sometimes it's true. But sometimes journalists choose to censor themselves instead - to toe a vicious regime's line, to soft-pedal its ruthlessness. They may do it to save their skin or to ingratiate themselves with the dictator or to protect the bragging rights that come with access to a big story. Whatever the excuse, the results are the same: The public is cheated, the news is corrupted, and a despot is strengthened.

Don't take my word for it. Listen to Thomas Friedman, who described in his 1989 bestseller ''From Beirut to Jerusalem'' what it was like to be a reporter in Beirut during the years when southern Lebanon was dominated by Yasser Arafat's PLO and Syria's Palestinian loyalists.

''No discussion about the reality of Beirut reporting would be complete,'' he wrote, ''without mentioning a major reporting constraint journalists there faced: physical intimidation.'' Friedman recalled his own terror on learning that Arafat's spokesman wanted to see him ''immediately'' about the stories he'd been filing to New York:

''I lay awake in my bed the whole night worrying that someone was going to burst in and blow my brains all over the wall.''

No ''major breaking'' news story was ever suppressed because journalists were too intimidated to report it, Friedman insisted. But behind that fig leaf, he conceded a shameful truth:

''There were ... stories which were deliberately ignored out of fear. Here I will be the first to say `mea culpa.' How many serious stories were written from Beirut about the well-known corruption in the PLO leadership? ... It would be hard to find any hint of them in Beirut reporting before the Israeli invasion.''

And then an even more damning admission:

''The truth is,'' Friedman wrote, ''the Western press coddled the PLO.... For any Beirut-based correspondent, the name of the game was keeping on good terms with the PLO, because without it would you not get the interview with Arafat you wanted when your foreign editor came to town.''

There are moral costs to doing business with thugs and totalitarians. Reporters who forget that accuracy, not access, is the bedrock of their profession can too easily find themselves paying those costs - trading off truth for a coveted interview or visa, turning a blind eye to dissent, treating barbaric criminals with deference. Or saying nothing when the dictator's son says he is planning a double assassination.

When ''the name of the game'' becomes ''keeping on good terms'' with the world's most evil men, journalism turns into something awfully hard to distinguish from collaboration. It didn't start with Eason Jordan, and it didn't end in Baghdad.