Saturday, April 19, 2003

CNN executive Eason Jordan recently published an anguished admission that his network often soft-pedaled the Saddam Hussein regime's atrocities in order (he claims) to save the lives of their employees in Iraq. The blogosphere's reaction has been overwhelmingly negative, particularly once it was noted that last year Jordan dishonestly touted the scrupulous objectivity of CNN's reporting on Iraq.

Not that Jordan's confession could have surprised anyone familiar with his network's practices. His earlier self-defense, in fact, was a response to a Franklin Foer article last year in the New Republic that documented Western journalists' kowtowing to the Iraqi regime in return for access. And having personally noted for years CNN's fawning, dissident-free coverage of Cuba, I certainly concur with Matt Welch's observation that CNN's bureaus in Havana and Baghdad have been mere "propaganda huts".

But we should remember that the line between CNN's behavior and what might be described as "ordinary journalism" is thinner and less obvious than many would assume. As Mickey Kaus notes, journalists are known to occasionally pen "source-greasers", flattering articles about people (typically incoming office-holders) who they hope will supply them with good material in the future. Such suck-ups can even extend to covering up for a particularly cherished source. For example, Howard Kurtz (quoted in the Daily Howler) claims Jacob Weisberg once admitted, of erstwhile presidential candidate, Vietnam vet, legendary journo-shmoozer and all-around great guy John McCain, that "the press protects him....He delivers these stupid lines all the time. The typical response from journalists is either not to report it or to congratulate him for being so blunt instead of treating it like a gaffe."

In other words, it is not particularly unusual or shocking for journalists to cultivate access to treasured sources by downplaying their misdeeds and granting them obsequiously laudatory coverage. If domestic politicians can get that kind of kid-glove treatment, Jordan must have thought, then why not foreign dictators?

The reason why not, of course, is that Saddam Hussein was far worse than any domestic politician in a democratic society is ever likely to be. His control over the information coming out of Iraq was far tighter than the control exercised by John McCain's campaign manager--indeed, at least some of the McCain remarks allegedly hushed up by the press corps eventually became public anyway. And the evils about which CNN was silent in Iraq were far more horrible, and far more deserving of the audience's attention, than a few embarrassing gaffes by a presidential candidate.

To paraphrase the old joke, we all know--or should know by now, at least--what journalists are, and it's really just the price they're haggling over. Eason Jordan's CNN made the mistake of choosing the wrong customer, surrendering too willingly, and charging too low a price, and now it looks about as cheap and sleazy as a news organization possibly can. Even in the demi-monde of journalism, after all, there are gradations of dignity, and CNN, by shamelessly flirting with tyrants, long ago lost every last shred of its own.

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