Soundings

Stefan Kanfer
See-No-Evil Journalists
One honest reporter tells the truth about his colleagues in Iraq.
Autumn 2003

John Burns, the New York Times’s Baghdad bureau chief, filed the most lucid, responsible, and valorous dispatches from the war in Iraq, reminding us of what great reporting the Times, with its unmatched resources, is still fitfully capable of when it isn’t pushing its left-wing agenda in its news pages. Those who doubt it should have a look at an outstanding new anthology, Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, an Oral History, edited by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson.

Under extraordinarily hazardous conditions (Saddam’s troops briefly held him and threatened his life), Burns continued to file story after story, pointing out how successfully the war was going, and how warmly Iraqis greeted American troops—often directly contradicting the editorial position of his own newspaper, which sought to portray the war as negatively as possible.

Looking back, Burns quarrels with the Bush administration’s stance that the casus belli was Iraq’s still-undiscovered weapons of mass destruction. But he also writes with extraordinary and impassioned eloquence of the abattoir that was Saddam’s Iraq, where the state tortured and murdered countless Iraqi citizens, children included. “This war,” Burns reckons, “could have been justified any time on the basis of human rights, alone.”

The Timesman concludes that a “central truth” had to be “told about this place. It was also the essential truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents here. Why? Because they judged that the only way they could keep themselves in play here was to pretend that it was all okay.”

In a word: access. In two words: selling out. Burns is loath to name names; for the most part he merely recalls Iraq’s blacklist of “unfriendly” reporters—that is, those like Burns who wrote about what they saw. But there was also a white list of tame journalists: “In one case, a correspondent actually printed out copies of his and other people’s stories—mine included—in order to be able to show the difference between himself and others. He wanted to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state. He was with a major American newspaper.”

The worst of the pseudo-journalists collaborated in mendacity for access to Iraq’s major players. The quid pro quo for such interviews: the reporters had to write “as if they were in Belgium.” The BBC was among these journalistic enterprises; so was CNN, whose director, Eason Jordan, admitted publicly that his network—the same one that gave you Peter Arnett back in the first Gulf War—routinely hid the truth about Saddam’s murderous thugs.

Burns’s employers remain distinctly unenthusiastic about any news that might cast a favorable light on the war in Iraq. The Times recently ran an interesting headline: IN A POLL, BAGHDAD RESIDENTS CALL FREEDOM WORTH THE PRICE. The item reported new Gallup research showing that some 67 percent of Baghdad’s residents believe that ousting Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do—big news, indeed, since the findings represented the first major polling done in Iraq.

The trouble was, that item was at the bottom of page 16. The Times’s front page carried articles about George Bush’s speech to the U.N., calling him “an American president weakened by plunging approval ratings at home, facing a tough security situation in Iraq where American soldiers are dying every week, and confronted by the beginnings of a revolt against the American timetable for self-rule.”

As Burns took pains to point out, Iraq was and is a roiled and difficult place, hard to administer and pacify in so brief a time. Yet in overwhelming numbers the Iraqis themselves wanted Saddam gone—for very good reasons—and they have had no hesitation in saying so. Even though this is a difficult pill for the antiwar, anti-Bush journalists and editors to swallow, they’re paid to report the truth. And the truth is that Iraq is not Belgium, and that the U.S. effort is far from the failure they seem to desire.

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