CNN AND IRAQ….Here’s a little story about how blogging can change your view of events. Maybe.

Eason Jordan, the chief news executive at CNN, wrote an op-ed yesterday in the New York Times about the problems CNN has had reporting news from Iraq over the past 13 years. He provided several examples of stories that were spiked because it would have put their own reporters in jeopardy if they had reported them:

For example, in the mid-1990’s one of our Iraqi cameramen was abducted. For weeks he was beaten and subjected to electroshock torture in the basement of a secret police headquarters because he refused to confirm the government’s ludicrous suspicion that I was the Central Intelligence Agency’s Iraq station chief. CNN had been in Baghdad long enough to know that telling the world about the torture of one of its employees would almost certainly have gotten him killed and put his family and co-workers at grave risk.

My first, top-of-the-head thought when I read this was to shake my head over what a horrible position CNN had been in. Obviously you don’t want to be responsible for putting your own people at risk of torture and death, but on the other hand Iraq is an important place and CNN was surely right to want to keep their Baghdad bureau open. This is the kind of decision all of us hope we never have to make ourselves.

I thought nothing more about it, but as I cruised through the blogosphere during the day I saw that this had become a big deal. Blog after blog was apoplectic about Eason’s story. There are way too many comments to link to here, but the general tone was that (a) CNN was deliberately trying to hide evidence of torture by Saddam’s regime, (b) they should have just pulled out of Baghdad, and (c) how can we ever trust anything they say again?

What was more surprising to me was that all these comments were on righty blogs, despite the fact that this hadn’t initially struck me as a left-right kind of story. So I thought about it some more. Here are a few comments:

  • The critics have a point: CNN didn’t make it clear in their earlier reporting that they were constrained in what they could tell. This surely hurts their credibility.

  • On the other hand, reporters frequently slant stories in order to protect access to sources. CNN’s actions may seem more egregious in the aftermath of a war, but this desire to protect access is pretty fundamental to journalists everywhere. This isn’t really big news.

  • I imagine every news organization did pretty much the same thing that CNN did. The only difference is that they haven’t fessed up to it yet.

  • CNN made a judgment that being able to report from inside Iraq was worth the downside that the realities of the situation imposed on them. Considering how important a story Iraq is, it’s not clear to me that this was the wrong decision.

  • Stories of Iraqi torture and other atrocities were widely reported. It’s not as if CNN had an exclusive story and chose to bury it.

Long story short, the value of the blogosphere to me was that it provided a view that hadn’t occurred to me, and one that I think was worth making. At the same time, however, it strikes me as overblown, mostly an attempt to prove that CNN is some kind of liberal shill ? which strikes me as odd given the breathless pro-war tone of their coverage over the past few weeks.

Journalistic objectivity is a worthy goal in many ways, but whenever you read or listen to the news you should be aware that reporters are only as good as their sources and frequently tilt their reporting to protect access to those sources. That’s just the way the game is played.

UPDATE: On the other hand, it’s true that in this interview from last October Jordan pretty clearly tries to claim that CNN wasn’t shading the truth just to please Saddam. Still, if you read the whole thing Jordan talks about “the realities on the ground,” about government censorship, about some of the things they did that got them kicked out of Iraq on occasion, and about his contention that “some light is better than no light whatsoever.”

CNN may have made the wrong call, but I’m still skeptical that, as Matt Welch puts it, “‘news bureaus’ in Baghdad and other totalitarian capitals (Havana, to name one) are actually propaganda huts, churning out what CNN producers call ‘sanctions coverage’ (pieces on the awful humanitarian toll of international economic sanctions), while refusing to report the awful truth.” I’m sure every journalist in these countries has to make compromises, but would we really be better off if we had no reporting from there at all?

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