September 15, 2003


John Burns: 'There Is Corruption in Our Business': 'NY Times' Writer on the Terror of Baghdad (John F. Burns, SEPTEMBER 15, 2003, Editor & Publisher)

The following are the words of New York Times correspondent John F. Burns, on his experiences reporting from Baghdad during the war. Excerpted from the book Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, an Oral History by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson, published this week by The Lyons Press, used with permission.

From the point of view of my being in Baghdad, I had more authority than anybody else. Without contest, I was the most closely watched and unfavored of all the correspondents there because of what I wrote about terror whilst Saddam Hussein was still in power.

Terror, totalitarian states, and their ways are nothing new to me, but I felt from the start that this was in a category by itself, with the possible exception in the present world of North Korea. I felt that that was the central truth that has 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 okay.

There were correspondents who thought it appropriate to seek the approbation of the people who governed their lives. This was the ministry of information, and particularly the director of the ministry. By taking him out for long candlelit dinners, plying him with sweet cakes, plying him with mobile phones at $600 each for members of his family, and giving bribes of thousands of dollars. Senior members of the information ministry took hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes from these television correspondents who then behaved as if they were in Belgium. They never mentioned the function of minders. Never mentioned terror.

In one case, a correspondent actually went to the Internet Center at the Al-Rashid Hotel and printed out copies of his and other people's stories -- mine included -- specifically in order to be able to show the difference between himself and the 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.

Yeah, it was an absolutely disgraceful performance. CNN's Eason Jordan's op-ed piece in The New York Times missed that point completely. The point is not whether we protect the people who work for us by not disclosing the terrible things they tell us. Of course we do. But the people who work for us are only one thousandth of one percent of the people of Iraq. So why not tell the story of the other people of Iraq? It doesn't preclude you from telling about terror. Of murder on a mass scale just because you won't talk about how your driver's brother was murdered.

An appropriately savage denunciation, by one of its honored own, of media behavior that borders at times on collaboration.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2003 8:29 PM

The obvious question is why couldn't Burns' letter to Editor and Publisher have been used by his employer, either as an analysis or Sunday Magazine short essay, where it would receive far wider circulation among the general public than in a newspaper trade magazine.

Posted by: John at September 16, 2003 2:23 AM

The conclusion of his article, about listening to the whispers, was quite moving. Of course, most reporters today want to hear the clash of cymbals, the flattery of their peers, and the one-note condescending sneers towards all things Republican. Collaboration is not too strong a word, particularly if we consider the fate of those who dare whisper in places like Ba'athist Iraq.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 16, 2003 11:24 AM

Compare the journalists described here with Jason Blair. He at least didn't suck up to a murdering dictator to publish lies. He didn't even have to leave his apartment.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 17, 2003 12:07 AM

I forgot about Jayson Blair - wonder if the Times will nominate him for a Pulitzer?

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 18, 2003 9:48 AM