I’m still having a hard time understanding the ethical justfication for keeping this stuff secret. If CNN had gotten kicked out for standing up to such brutality against its own employees and associates, I don’t see such a huge downside. What were the CNN stories that had to be reported from the scene that compensated for the dishonesty of not telling the whole story? Besides if CNN left on such principle, it would make other media organizations look like lapdogs. The tumult from that would have either forced more honest coverage from those organizations or resulted in more organizations leaving Iraq. Ultimately, this would have been a PR disaster for Iraq which desperately needed to win over world opinion and they would have had to have treated all employees of foreign media more gingerly. There was a similar dilemma during the Cold War when journalists were accused of “writing for their visa” — i.e. softening their reportage in order to stay in the Soviet Union. This was always justified on the grounds of getting out the bigger story. The problem with this approach is it tends to make evil countries seem like normal countries and hence foster a climate of moral equivalence.
Full disclosure: I work for CNN and I would like to continue doing so, but I can’t in good conscience say that Jordan’s explanation, as offered in the Times, is persuasive. I don’t mind the use of journalistic ground rules, but I do think it is unethical not to tell the reader or viewer what those ground rules are. For example, when Barbara Walters types interview stars she’ll agree to a host of ground rules about what they will and won’t discuss. That’s fine. But if you don’t tell the viewer what those ground rules are, you are implying that the issues which are off limits are in fact not newsworthy. If CNN agreed not to report certain events or to soften its reporting in anyway, it should have made it clear early and often that it is impossible to provide a clear picture because of the climate of fear and intimidation. I am sure that some disclosures along these lines were offered over the years on CNN, but I don’t think there were a lot of them.
Where Jordan might deserve credit is for at least being the first of many to come forward. He suggests that this was a problem for numerous “international press services.” It will be very interesting to see what kinds of confessions we get — and don’t get — from other networks and newspapers. It seems to me this has the potential — small though it may be — of becoming a journalistic Enron scandal. Of course, when all of the media is complicit in something, it rarely becomes a big deal.
Funny how that works.