Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Roger Simon (no relation) and Daniel Drezner have both noted the striking contrast between Christiane Amanpour's and John Burns' criticisms of American press coverage of the Iraq war. Both of these journalists agree that the coverage was compromised by heavy-handed pressure, but Burns points to the former Iraqi regime as the culprit, whereas Amanpour accuses the Bush administration and--believe it or not--Fox News--of being responsible for the "muzzled" press in Iraq.

Needless to say, Burns comes off looking far better in this comparison, simply because he's obviously much closer to the mark than Amanpour. For one thing, his claim of journalistic obsequiousness to Saddam Hussein's regime has been documented elsewhere, whereas Amanpour gives no evidence that the White House (let alone Fox News) successfully pressured CNN to change its coverage in any significant way.

But there's a similarity of tone, and even of substance, in these two reporters' somewhat over-the-top remarks that I think deserves more attention. Both see themselves, first and foremost, as deliverers of an important message that's not being heard because of nefarious attempts to suppress it. Both revel in the drama of their own role as speaker of truths that powerful people wish unheard. And both seem to care more about overall themes than about specific facts and events. The two seem to see themselves as, in a word, storytellers, for better or worse, observing a romantic tale in the making before their eyes, and recounting it with flair and passion (not to mention self-flattery).

The traditional model of the journalist--at least in the domestic sphere--is very different: a hard-bitten cynic who believes no one, his job being to uncover the hard, unpleasant facts that everyone would rather not hear. This journalist is neither glamorous nor daring; vaguely despised by all, he roots around among his sources until he uncovers the ugly facts that the journalist's reading public needs to know for its own protection, delivering them with hard, skeptical bluntness.

Of course, the foreign correspondent has always been a far more romantic figure, in the Burns-Amanpour mold. It's worth asking, though, if this ideal is as effective at keeping an audience practically informed as the domestic one. A nose for a thrilling yarn is not, after all, the same as a nose for the pertinent facts on the ground. Perhaps the inevitable price of the occasional dedicated, indefatigable, and (fortunately) essentially accurate John Burns is a profession dominated by preening, melodramatic and deeply confused Christiane Amanpours.

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