An update to my earlier posting about CNN's cosiness with Saddam Hussein's regime: Ethan Bronner jumps to CNN's defense in the New York Times. "Covering totalitarian states forces a journalist to act in compromising ways," he writes. "It's easy to say Mr. Jordan and CNN made the wrong choice....But I, for one, would be very slow in condemning them. Anyone who has faced the choices forced on journalists in those circumstances knows exactly what I mean."
In other words, to extend my previous analogy, "a girl's gotta eat". The defense is understandable, if not exactly convincing. However, it does remind us that any profession benefits when its members collude to set prices. According to Franklin Foer's article, all foreign journalists were forced to play ball with the Iraqi regime in order to get access. But had they all (or at least all of the major ones) set boundaries for their cooperation, then they might have won concessions from the regime, which, after all, did not want to forgo any hope of influencing its press coverage by forcing all journalists to stay away and interview defectors and emigres instead.
Slate's Jack Shafer makes a similar point in a different, but related context: the rules imposed by the US armed forces on journalists "embedded" in troop units during combat missions. In one recent instance, the Times' Judith Miller admitted to acceding to a fairly onerous set of restrictions--including pre-publication review, otherwise known as censorship--while reporting (though possibly not even "embedded") with a military team searching for chemical weapons in Iraq. Shafer asks "what chance....more independent newspapers have of covering terrorism and war", if the Times is willing to accept such conditions "on the side". It's a fair question, although Miller was at least completely frank about her concessions, and even Shafer admits that the information she obtained in return qualifies as a bona fide "scoop".
It's worth asking, then, whether CNN, too, was exceptionally accommodating towards its totalitarian foreign hosts in Iraq and Cuba. The Foer article in fact singles out Eason Jordan as a prime suck-up, and CNN is apparently willing to be uniquely friendly to the Castro regime in Cuba, as well. These examples suggest that far from maintaining solidarity with its fellow news organizations, CNN has been willing to break ranks and sell its virtue for less than its competitors. If so, then it has clearly undermined foreign press organizations' efforts to obtain a freer hand in reporting on conditions in those--and other--dictatorial countries. And in retrospect, its coverage--and that of its competitors, too--thus became less informative, not more so. It's not exactly a record for the world's leading news network to be proud of.