April 21, 2003


The Rules for Covering Brutal Dictatorships Aren't Black and White (Ethan Bronner, 4/21/03, NY Times)
Covering totalitarian states forces a journalist to act in compromising ways. Anyone who has reported from such countries knows that it is one of the most challenging tasks a journalist faces, involving daily calculations over access, honesty, freedom of movement and fear of reprisal. Some governments assume a foreign journalist is a spy. The way they treat you forces you to act like one. [...]

One solution is to report only from the places where the story is accessible. In the Middle East, this usually means Israel. But those who complain about CNN would certainly complain if it or other news organizations produced even more stories about Israel and still fewer about the countries around it. Coverage from the region already suffers from a terrible imbalance on this score.

I was a Middle East correspondent through much of the 1990's, and while I never faced a choice as agonizing as the possible death of an employee, I did struggle with complex dilemmas. In 1994, I wrote a short article about the marriage of President Hafez al Assad's strong-willed daughter, Bushra. She wed a politically ambitious man of whom her father disapproved, something I learned from people who knew her. Officials at the Syrian Information Ministry screamed at me over the telephone and barred me for about 18 months, saying I had shown disrespect for the president and his family. Did I make the right decision to write it? I'm not sure. I told readers something they didn't know. But at what cost to my coverage? If I had saved that interesting but not significant little story, might I not have gained more information on later visits about more important things in Syria? But would I not be betraying my readers and my mission by withholding information?

The fact is that each time I visited Syria or Iraq or Iran, I learned a lot — and I believe my readers benefited either from the articles I wrote from those places or broader ones later looking at the region as a whole. I was often able to move around without a minder (perhaps easier for a print reporter than one in television). There is simply no way to understand a place without setting foot in it. Yet by going there, you are forced to contend with a set of rules that are abhorrent. This is the dilemma faced by CNN and everyone else in a place like the old Baghdad.

It's easy to say Mr. Jordan and CNN made the wrong choice. It certainly allows for a comforting moral clarity. And it may be that they stepped over a line in pandering to Iraqi officials. But I, for one, would be very slow in condemning them. Anyone who has faced the choices forced on journalists in those circumstances knows exactly what I mean.

You ever notice how everyone thinks that the ethical rules of their own profession are uniquely difficult to live within and impossible for folks outside the profession to appreciate? Mr. Bronner proposes a solution which he apparently believes none of us would accept, that journalists forego "access" where it is severely restricted, but he's wrong. Why not refuse to report from within totalitarian nations? Is the byline--"Ethan Bronner, reporting from Baghdad, Iraq"--really worth so much commercially that a journalist should seek it even at the expense of honest reporting? Or, if you choose to report from such places, why not begin each story with a disclaimer that, because of the nature of the regime and the restrictions placed upon you, your report should be considered inherently inadequate and likely untrustworthy? After all, what individual detail in the story that follows can possibly be more significant that the regime's denial of human freedoms, in general, and exertion of control over your story, in particular? In essence you'd be borrowing a page from Cato the Elder, the Roman statesman, who, when he finally determined that Rome could no longer accept the predations of the Carthaginians, took to ending his every speech with the phrase: Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed). Posted by Orrin Judd at April 21, 2003 8:30 AM

Like you, OJ, I reallly wonder what value the story is that they are making such noble journo-sacrifices to bring to us. Seriously, journos, what is the real goal of doing the story in the first place? If the goal is "any old sorry bag of crap I can drag out of there", perhaps CNN and their brethren should start a new media outlet where the motto is "truth optional - here it is anyway!" OOPS - too late, they already do, they just haven't changed the motto.

TV news is all about ratings any more, and has been for 20 years now. The public suffers proportionately.

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at April 21, 2003 12:11 PM

Interestingly, it seems to me that both this post and the one about the Arab media (above) describe what happens when the media succumb to the allures of Capitalism(!). They have done everything to attract an audience--and concommitant revenues--by offering that audience what the media orgs believe (or essentially dictates) that the audience wants.

The rather simple (if rather shocking) "corrective" mechanism of such blatantly mercenary calculations is that the audience (like most consumers, P.T. Barnum notwithstanding) doesn't appreciate being cheated or in this case, lied to.

One supposes they'll "buy" their news elsewhere in the future (if they have the opportunity to do so).

And yet. in not a few cases (e..g, Al Jazeera, but not only), it's a bit more complicated, since I think the media has figured out that its audience has a vested interest in believing those lies that it constantly tell them. In which case, it has an interest to continue to repeat them, and even embellish them. Dr. Feel Good, as it were.

In which case, the only solution (or "correction") is for that audience to continually slam into the wall of reality.

Until reality "sinks in."

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 21, 2003 12:29 PM