December 17, 2003


John Burns on Covering Iraq: Then and Now: Wolper's Exclusive Interview With 'NY Times' Scribe (Allan Wolper, 12/17/03, Editor & Publisher)

John F. Burns sat back in a chair in a corner of the Algonquin Hotel dining room in midtown Manhattan, thousands of miles from his New York Times outpost in Baghdad -- his hand curled around a morning cup of coffee -- and spoke publicly for the first time about the ethical remonstrations he created via a taped interview published in the recent book, Embedded: The Media At War in Iraq (The Lyons Press). That oral history was first excerpted at E&P Online on Sept. 15, drawing extraordinary attention and praise, and criticism as well.

"I said some very edgy things about that period of time," said Burns, the 59-year-old senior foreign correspondent for the Times, who was in the U.S. for just a few days before heading back to Baghdad. "I had become known as the most dangerous man in Iraq. It was not a joke. And it put me under tremendous stress. So when I spoke harshly in the book, I had some very raw feelings about this."

The "this" was his contention that American journalists in Iraq often ignored the terror of Saddam Hussein's regime to avoid losing their visas, and plied his ministers with expensive gifts and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to stay on their good side.

"Yeah, it was an absolutely disgraceful performance," he told Embedded editors Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson. Burns also told them that a journalist he won't identify "from a major American newspaper" took his clips and those of his competitors to the Iraqi Ministry of Information to prove he was softer on Saddam than Burns and others were.

Burns sat down with E&P on Nov. 26, the day after receiving The Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at a Waldorf-Astoria black-tie dinner attended by representatives of the very news organizations he accused of paying off Saddam's deputies. [...]

[H]e warned American journalists against setting unethical precedents. "If we are going to hold our government accountable we'd better be pretty sure we don't make expedient compromises ourselves, which is a very hard thing to do -- very hard," he said. "You better get into these places to report on them. You have to get your visas extended to continue to report on them. It is not easy. It's a question of where you strike the balance. I don't think the balance was struck in the right way when Saddam was in power." [...]

Q. Can you tell me the name of the reporter from the major American newspaper who brought your articles to Saddam's ministry of information?

I am not going to say anything about that. I have not said anything more about that since that last time. And I think it is better for me not to say anything.

Q. Why haven't you identified the television journalists who paid off the Iraqi officials? By not naming them, you wound up implicating the entire press corps.

That was an unfortunate consequence ... The points I had to make were not personal ones. The points were broader. They were matters of principle ... It's an impossible dilemma. I am not going to talk about individuals. What I found out to my enormous pleasure was that I struck a chord in my profession. Many of my colleagues from Baghdad have written to me, had dinner with me, and approached me at news conferences to say they appreciated what I said.

Someone smarter than me will have to explain why what he knows about his fellow journalists doesn't require him to hold them accountable in the same way he would the government? Why doesn't he have an ethical obligation to publish damning information about his fellow pressmen?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2003 8:00 PM

He has no ethical obligations as a reporter. This is because, although journalists like to pretend otherwise, theirs is a trade not a profession. You don't need a license to be a journalist, you don't need any special training to be a journalist, and you cannot be professionally disciplined if you violate the ethical rules set out by leading journalists.

Contrast this with the Code of Professional Responsibility which lawyers must follow. As was explained to me when I took a legal ethics course, all legal ethics boil down to two rules: don't commingle the corpus (that is, don't mix personal funds with the funds in the trust account) and rat out your friends. In other words, lawyers have a professional obligation to report misconduct. Yes, I know that this is honored more in the breach than in the observance, but at least there are lawyers who do receive some form of professional discipline for all sorts of misconduct. The only reporters who ever seem to get in trouble are those who have become too much of an embarrassment to their employers such as Jayson Blair (NY Times) and Stephen Glass (New Republic).

This is not to suggest that I believe that journalists should be licensed; all I mean to suggest is that they must stop pretending that they are following some wonderful and important calling and stop pretending that they form a fourth branch of government. A reporter, as far as I am concerned, is no different than a butcher or a locksmith; he may have ability that I do not have, but that ability hardly means that he is entitled to the respect a true professional is.

In fact, it's hardly surprising that even a respected reporter such as John Burns feels no ethical compulsion to rat out his dishonest friends. As Bernard Goldberg suggests in his two books, it's much more important to be a team player than to have the powers that be angry at you because you hold a mirror up to their less attractive sides.

Posted by: MIK at December 17, 2003 8:54 PM

I'm a journalist and I don't know any others who think of it as a profession in the sense of law or medicine.

As such, each reporter or editor has to devise his own ethical standard. Mine is, never feel sorry for the poverty of people who have more money than I do.

After that, it's situational ethics like turtles, all the way down.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 17, 2003 9:17 PM

It seems that there is more of a circle-the-wagons attitude (or one of shooting the wounded) in the press than in other jobs. Jouralists are constantly looking for the whistleblower among doctors, tobacco executives, military personnel, anyone in the Justice Dept., the White House, sometimes Congress, and a myriad of other groups, but never among themselves. Aside from the political angle, this is the main problem with media bias. But people out here on the other side know that there is no divine right for the press.

Just yesterday, I read (on the web, of course) about another NYT reporter who is in a similar situation to Jayson Blair (rapidly promoted by Howell Raines, now accused of multiple instances of fabricating quotes, if not more). Will we see this in the LAT or the WaPo? No. Not unless Bill Keller is forced to resign for covering it up. Will Daniel Okrent be writing about it today?

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 18, 2003 10:08 AM

Jim, if you imagine that journalists don't shoot their own wounded, try reading Jim Romenesko's daily roundup at

I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm defending the press from criticism, but it is, after all, just about the only truly free market sector of the US economy. If it's broke, then there are problems with Adam Smith.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 18, 2003 2:00 PM

I did a search in the search engines on "professional lawyer blog" and I found your web blog.
I am a Lawyer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and thus my interest in searching for a company blog on the WWW looking to see how the rest of the world thinks about lawyers and see what trends and technology are happening in the world. I also was interested in a blog for myself which might possibly lead to a blob for my law firm, you never know, that is if I can understand the technology of operating a blog and from what I see I am somewhat hesitant at the present time.
It has been interesting reading and I will keep my professional comments to myself.

Respectfully yours
B. J. Stephens, LL.B.
A Halifax Lawyer

Posted by: Halifax Lawyer at February 11, 2004 12:09 AM