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Second-guessing CNN? Look in the mirror

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2003

I’ve having a little trouble with all the righteous indignation worked up by journalists (and webloggers who fancy themselves as journalists, an affectation that’s at once cute and annoying) about Eason Jordan’s account of how CNN handled reporting from Iraq. The general consensus, summarized neatly by Dan Gillmor, is that “CNN should have left the country. It was not worth keeping a bureau open if the only way to do so was to make so many ethical and moral compromises.” The NY Times itself has a follow up article discussing some of the criticism. (More on Google News)

The reality is that exchanging access for information is a time-honored tradition among journalists, so much so that it can be considered a best practice. The embedded journalists in Iraq are a good example. Should they not have been there because they can’t report their exact locations, U.S. troop movements, etc.? Could you imagine how fast political reporting would dry up if reporters in D.C. reported absolutely everything they knew about? No one would talk to them ever again.

Tech journalists get all sorts of information about new products, buy outs, and the like that they can’t report for fear of losing access. If Microsoft flies you out to Redmond to play with all their new toys (some of which you get to take home) and you report on something they specifically asked you not to, you might not get invited back next time. Repeat that with three or four big companies and you’re out of a job.

Then there’s the issue of withholding information to save people’s lives. Glenn Reynolds blasted Jordan’s decision to withhold information in Iraq, but just three weeks ago, he criticised the BBC for publishing too much information about Salam Pax, the Baghdad blogger, and said “if [Salam] turns out to have been killed by Saddam’s goons, I’m going to very publicly blame the BBC.” Seems to me that if CNN had reported all the information it had known and had gotten several people killed in the meantime, they’d be under fire for that by the same folks. Whatever.

Lastly, where the hell was everyone else in Iraq, reporting all these atrocities? Where was FoxNews endangering the lives of their Iraqi employees’ families to get the truth out at all costs? Where was Rush Limbaugh sticking his neck out to topple Saddam’s regime with the truth? Out of your chairs, pundits. It’s hard to make the tough choices when you’re sitting comfortably on the sidelines. Could you make a decision to air a news report knowing that it will directly cause the brutal torture and death of someone’s entire family?

Obtaining and then reporting on information is a gray, muddy process. As much as we’d like to believe that journalists and journalism should be completely objective, the world doesn’t work like that. Compromises are necessary. Based on what I’ve read, my personal feeling is that CNN was put in a very difficult position in Iraq and did the best they could in reporting what was available to them given the circumstances. I join Mr. Jordan in expressing relief that these stories can finally be reported.