Dilemmas of the Press
The New York Times
April 11, 2003
News We Kept to Ourselves
ATLANTA - Over the last
dozen years I made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN's Baghdad
bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders. Each time I visited,
I became more distressed by what I saw and heard - awful things that could not
be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly
those on our Baghdad staff.
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
Working for a foreign
news organization provided Iraqi citizens no protection. The secret police terrorized
Iraqis working for international press services who were courageous enough to
try to provide accurate reporting. Some vanished, never to be heard from again.
Others disappeared and then surfaced later with whispered tales of being hauled
off and tortured in unimaginable ways. Obviously, other news organizations were
in the same bind we were when it came to reporting on their own workers.
We also had to worry that
our reporting might endanger Iraqis not on our payroll. I knew that CNN could
not report that Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, told me in 1995 that he intended
to assassinate two of his brothers-in-law who had defected and also the man giving
them asylum, King Hussein of Jordan. If we had gone with the story, I was sure
he would have responded by killing the Iraqi translator who was the only other
participant in the meeting. After all, secret police thugs brutalized even senior
officials of the Information Ministry, just to keep them in line (one such official
has long been missing all his fingernails).
Still, I felt I had a
moral obligation to warn Jordan's monarch, and I did so the next day. King Hussein
dismissed the threat as a madman's rant. A few months later Uday lured the brothers-in-law
back to Baghdad; they were soon killed.
I came to know several
Iraqi officials well enough that they confided in me that Saddam Hussein was a
maniac who had to be removed. One Foreign Ministry officer told me of a colleague
who, finding out his brother had been executed by the regime, was forced, as a
test of loyalty, to write a letter of congratulations on the act to Saddam Hussein.
An aide to Uday once told me why he had no front teeth: henchmen had ripped them
out with pliers and told him never to wear dentures, so he would always remember
the price to be paid for upsetting his boss. Again, we could not broadcast anything
these men said to us.
Last December, when I
told Information Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf that we intended to send reporters
to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, he warned me they would "suffer the severest
possible consequences." CNN went ahead, and in March, Kurdish officials presented
us with evidence that they had thwarted an armed attack on our quarters in Erbil.
This included videotaped confessions of two men identifying themselves as Iraqi
intelligence agents who said their bosses in Baghdad told them the hotel actually
housed C.I.A. and Israeli agents. The Kurds offered to let us interview the suspects
on camera, but we refused, for fear of endangering our staff in Baghdad.
Then there were the events
that were not unreported but that nonetheless still haunt me. A 31-year-old Kuwaiti
woman, Asrar Qabandi, was captured by Iraqi secret police occupying her country
in 1990 for "crimes," one of which included speaking with CNN on the phone. They
beat her daily for two months, forcing her father to watch. In January 1991, on
the eve of the American-led offensive, they smashed her skull and tore her body
apart limb by limb. A plastic bag containing her body parts was left on the doorstep
of her family's home.
I felt awful having these
stories bottled up inside me. Now that Saddam Hussein's regime is gone, I suspect
we will hear many, many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis about the decades
of torment. At last, these stories can be told freely.
Eason Jordan is chief
news executive at CNN.
The Images They Choose and Choose to Ignore
By ROBERT JENSEN
It was the picture of
the day -- the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad -- and may end up
being the picture of the war, the single image that comes to define the conflict.
The message will be clear: The U.S. liberated the Iraqi people; the U.S. invasion
of Iraq was just.
On Wednesday morning television
networks kept cameras trained on the statue near the Palestine Hotel. Iraqis threw
ropes over the head and tried to pull it down before attacking the base with a
sledgehammer. Finally a U.S. armored vehicle pulled it down, to the cheers of
It was an inspiring moment
of celebration at the apparent end of a brutal dictator's reign. But as Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has pointed out at other times, no one image tells
the whole story. Questions arise about what is, and isn't, shown. One obvious
question: During live coverage, viewers saw a U.S. soldier drape over the face
of Hussein a U.S. flag, which was quickly removed and replaced with an Iraqi flag.
Commanders know that the displaying the U.S. flag suggests occupation and domination,
not liberation. NBC's Tom Brokaw reported that the Arab network Al Jazeera was
"making a big deal" out of the incident with the American flag, implying that
U.S. television would -- and should -- downplay that part of the scene. Which
choice tells the more complete truth?
Another difference between
television in the U.S. and elsewhere has been coverage of Iraqi casualties. Despite
constant discussion of "precision bombing," the U.S. invasion has produced so
many dead and wounded that Iraqi hospitals stopped trying to count. Red Cross
officials have labeled the level of casualties "incredible," describing "dozens
of totally dismembered dead bodies of women and children" delivered by truck to
hospitals. Cluster bombs, one of the most indiscriminate weapons in the modern
arsenal, have been used by U.S. and U.K. forces, with the British defense minister
explaining that mothers of Iraqi children killed would one day thank Britain for
U.S. viewers see little
of these consequences of war, which are common on television around the world
and widely available to anyone with Internet access. Why does U.S. television
have a different standard? CNN's Aaron Brown said the decisions are not based
on politics. He acknowledged that such images accurately show the violence of
war, but defended decisions to not air them; it's a matter of "taste," he said.
Again, which choice tells the more complete truth?
Finally, just as important
as decisions about what images to use are questions about what facts and analysis
-- for which there may be no dramatic pictures available -- to broadcast to help
people understand the pictures. The presence of U.S. troops in the streets of
Baghdad means the end of the shooting war is near, for which virtually everyone
in Iraq will be grateful. It also means the end of a dozen years of harsh U.S.-led
economic sanctions that have impoverished the majority of Iraqis and killed as
many as a half million children, according to U.N. studies, another reason for
Iraqi celebration. And no doubt the vast majority of Iraqis are glad to be rid
of Hussein, even if they remember that it was U.S. support for Hussein throughout
the 1980s that allowed his regime to consolidate power despite a disastrous invasion
But that does not mean
all Iraqis will be happy about the ongoing presence of U.S. troops. Perhaps they
are aware of how little the U.S. government has cared about democracy or the welfare
of Iraqis in the past. Perhaps they watch Afghanistan and see how quickly U.S.
policymakers abandoned the commitment to "not walk away" from the suffering of
the Afghan people. Perhaps we should be cautious about what we infer from the
pictures of celebration that we are seeing; joy over the removal of Hussein does
not mean joy over an American occupation.
There is no simple way
to get dramatic video of these complex political realities. But they remain realities,
whether or not U.S. viewers find a full discussion of them on television.
Robert Jensen is an associate
professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the
Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas
from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet "Citizens of the Empire."
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is reproduced
from Counterpunch, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (www.counterpunch.org).
on Media: Introduction
to the Conflict