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Why You Shouldn't Watch CNN Anymore

I recently had dinner with a few close friends and over the course of the meal, we came to talking about the recent events and Iraq and I then directed the conversation towards CNN's recent ethical lapses with respect to their coverage of Iraq.  Surprisingly to me of three people at dinner only one was aware of it and he was fuzzy at best.  Hence this essay.

CNN's Mistake in Iraq

Here's what happened.  And lest I cast my own bias on this story, I'm going to rely on the words of the Washington Post to set the stage:

Last week, Eason Jordan, the network's chief news executive, wrote an article in the New York Times in which he described some of the things he had learned but not reported during the 13 trips he made to Iraq over the past decade, while lobbying the government to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open. At one point, a CNN cameraman, an Iraqi citizen, was abducted and subjected to electroshock torture. At another point, CNN learned of an armed attack planned on the organization's headquarters in northern Iraq. Mr. Jordan gives other examples – and goes on to explain that CNN chose not to report the information to protect other Iraqi employees and out of "fear of endangering our staff in Baghdad."

Editorial Page / The Washington Post / April 15

CNN was told by Iraq that if they didn't publish what basically amounted to neutral / favorable coverage, they would be asked to leave the country – or worse. 

Now here's the perspective of a CNN reporter (Peter Collins):

I took part in meetings between the CNN executives and various officials purported to be close to Saddam. We met with his personal translator; with a foreign affairs adviser; with Information Minister Latif Jassim; and with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

In each of these meetings, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan made their pitch: Saddam Hussein would have an hour's time on CNN's worldwide network; there would be no interruptions, no commercials. I was astonished. From both the tone and the content of these conversations, it seemed to me that CNN was virtually groveling for the interview.

The day after one such meeting, I was on the roof of the Ministry of Information, preparing for my first "live shot" on CNN. A producer came up and handed me a sheet of paper with handwritten notes. "Tom Johnson wants you to read this on camera," he said. I glanced at the paper. It was an item-by-item summary of points made by Information Minister Latif Jassim in an interview that morning with Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan.

The list was so long that there was no time during the live shot to provide context. I read the information minister's points verbatim. Moments later, I was downstairs in the newsroom on the first floor of the Information Ministry. Mr. Johnson approached, having seen my performance on a TV monitor. "You were a bit flat there, Peter," he said. Again, I was astonished. The president of CNN was telling me I seemed less-than-enthusiastic reading Saddam Hussein's propaganda.

Peter Collins / The Washington Times

The Emperor May Have No Clothes But the Other Emperors Don't Seem to Care

One of the things I find most distressing about this story is how most other news media don't seem to be significantly criticizing CNN for their approach to Iraq.  The print media, notably the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have aired the issue but not in a large way.  They have both given CNN management a place to print their version of the events and basically let them "apologize" for this but neither has really taken them to task for it.  National Public Radio has covered it a bit more critically but, disturbingly, the big network news channels have not.  Where's Dan Rather in all this?  Where's 20 / 20 ?  Where's NightLine ?  Here is one of their own commiting a true violation of the Journalistic canon and they aren't descending wolves.  Instead they seem to be leaving it alone.  Is it because they too are guilty of the same offenses ?

Now I'm not the only one who seems to take an issue with how the print media is covering this.  Here is one weblogger's perspective:

Why the Times chose to ally itself with CNN on this is a total bewilderment. Do they think he represents a cause that must have their support? This is not the first time a dirty press person has taken a bath on the Times' op-ed page. On a smaller scale, an editor at the Industry Standard, who now writes for Time, admitted huge ethical transgressions during the dotcom boom, with no comment from the Times. He still claims to be a journalist. What are we to believe? That the Times engages in such practices itself? It certainly seems to condone them.

Dave Winer /

And here is the perspective of Peter Collins, a reporter at CNN who talks about an incident where his own management questioned his reporting about an incident where the Iraqi government was questioning the U.S.'s actions in "bombing innocent farmers".

On the way back to Baghdad, I explained to other reporters what I thought had happened, and wrote a report that was broadcast on CNN that night.

The next day, Brent Sadler, CNN's chief reporter at the time in Baghdad (he is now in northern Iraq), came up to me in a hallway of the al Rasheed Hotel. He had been pushing for the interview with Saddam and had urged Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan to come to Baghdad to help seal the deal. "Petah," he said to me in his English accent, "you know we're trying to get an interview with Saddam. That piece last night was not helpful."

So, we were supposed to shade the news to get an interview with Saddam?

Peter Collins / The Washington Times

Aren't reporters supposed to question things any longer?  Isn't the role of a reporter to not report what he is given by an official but to actually look at the facts (there were actually Iraqi missiles above the "farm" and the Iraqis had apparently freshly plowed the farm to cover this up).

But their Staff Were in Danger

In Mr. Jordan's New York Times piece, he makes a large point about the fact that he needed to protect CNN's employees.  This is a laudable goal – but is it a correct one and were his actions appropriate?  Given the nature of reporting in a dictatorship like Iraq, I'd have to believe that CNN staff understand the risks going in.  Clearly it isn't the same as reporting from downtown San Franciso.  And any responsible executive wants to protect his staff, I understand that.  Even so, if CNN felt that it had to bias its coverage in order to report from Iraq, shouldn't they have just plain left ?  Wouldn't reporting from outside Iraq and pointing out that as a company they could no longer operate safely from within Iraq be more appropriate?  We're not talking about light pressure being applied to a news organization – armed attacks on CNN's headquarters were threatened.

Now let's draw an analogy from a different business – the U.S. meat industry.  In recent years we've seen a dramatic rise in meat tainted with bacteria such as e.coli and listeria.  In these situations, the correct thing for the affected companies to do is to remove the meat from the shelves and replace it with fresh, untainted meat.  Shouldn't CNN have " untainted the news"? 

After all, news today is a product like anything else.  And is tainted news i.e. biased news any better than tainted meat ?  Information is the life blood of the 21st century.  It shouldn't be tainted by an organization that is "trusted".

This is a Global Not Local Issue

Right now everyone seems to be ignoring what I feel is the real issue here:

  1. CNN is a global not local media source.

  2. CNN helps shape world opinion.

  3. A high number of non-U.S. government officials use CNN as a quasi-official news source.

Right now the U.S. is taking considerable heat from all over the world about the war in Iraq.  Most notably from countries such as France and Iraq which are normally U.S. allies.  The issue here isn't at all whether the war is right or wrong.  The issue here is this:

Did CNN's biased coverage help create a global perception that the war in Iraq was not needed?

I wonder what the world would think right now about our actions in Iraq if CNN had been reporting the truth for the past few years?

Of course it should be noted that CNN is in the business of making money and they are owned by an entertainment company, Time Warner.  And while much has been thrown to the wind in the search for corporate profits, you'd have to hope that journalistic integrity isn't one of those.

Conclusion: I'm Turning Off CNN

Journalism, by necessity, needs to be based on truth and it needs to be trusted.  A reader needs to trust that the journalistic source has integrity and honesty.  When that's broken all you end up with is a news source like The Soviet Union's Pravda during the cold war.  As far as I can tell, CNN can no longer be trusted.  If they did this in the Iraq situation, who knows what they have done with respect to other issues?  Has CNN moderated its coverage of Palestine ?  What about Cuba ?  What about North Korea ?  And what about China ?

And what actions are necessary to make me turn on CNN ?  Well given the severity of this ethical breach, I'd recommend the same action that is right now in vogue in companies plagued by financial scandals – you fire the management responsible.  In short, Mr Jordan and Mr. Johnson need to step down.

Until then, personally I'm going to turn CNN off.  I recommend that you do the same.


Here are some references, both those covered above and others:

Note: I'm the author of the Feedster search engine, a tool which covers news feeds and weblogs in close to near real time.

A Very Different Perspective

I received this email from William Vassar who has a very different take on my position.  With his permission I've reprinted it verbaitem including spelling errors.

I hope you receive this and think about what I think CNN did in regards to their Iraq reporting.

Personally, I think  that being able to hear from my 'enemies' is extremely important. I do not want my government telling me what to think, nor do I want the news channels reporting only our (USA) version of what the other side is thinking. I want the freedom to be able to hear what I want, no matter how sick or onesided it may be
I as a citizen feel that it is my responsibility to become fully informed about all sides of an issue, and then make decisions based upon knowledge not propaganda.

CNN has made no secret of the pressure they were under by the Iraqi Government. There have been numerous shows, discussions, and much insider acknowledgements regarding the pressures applied to what they were doing in Iraq. I knew all along that for them to be allowed to be there at all would require concessions on their part and understood the bias reporting. I don't see how that effects all of their reporting. We have all kinds of onesided opinion shows on all public access venues and understand them for what they are.

I find you viewpoint bordering on censorship and manupilating the news. There seems to be an enormous amount of pressure anymore towards doing this kind of adherring to the right way to think.

I feel that an amormous amount of our people have given their lives to protect that freedom.
I appreciate your viewpoint and being expossed to it and thank you for your efforts.

William Vassar

This is interesting.  I hadn't even thought that my position that a journalist should report the truth and NOT be pressured by a foreign government could be censorship. 

Additional comments from the rough draft review are here.


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