Coverup News Network

The role of a President’s press secretary is not only to provide facts to the media, but also to cultivate friendly relationships and develop a level of trust and rapport with those covering the President. Such relationships can insure that the President has his policy positions presented in the best possible light. Trust and rapport can be established by being honest and open. Relationships can also be nurtured in other subtle and less open ways. A friendly journalist might find himself or herself given tidbits of news to scoop his or her colleagues. A journalist, who writes a critical article, might find that he or she has less access to the newsmakers.

Indeed, there is a constant tension for journalists between obtaining access and maintaining distance and objectivity. Some journalists are good at maintaining integrity by nurturing different and competing sources so as not to be beholden to any single source. Moreover, if a press secretary is too parsimonious with access and information, the President he represents will have fewer avenues available for propagating his message.

In the book Spin Cycle, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post documented how well Clinton Administration Press Secretary Bill McCurry played the game of trading access for sympathetic coverage. All press secretaries do this to some extent, but McCurry was particular adept. To give a current example, some believe that journalistic matriarch Helen Thomas has been deliberately snubbed at press conferences for her obnoxious questions. Others believe that White House Press Secretary Ari Fletcher cynically exploits Thomas. Her belligerent questions can make the rest of the White House Press Corps appear mean-spirited, painting Ari Fletcher as a beleaguered and sympathetic character.

Professional journalists learn how to play the access versus independence game well. The best manage to find sources and cover the news without being compromised. Loss of independence is a journalist’s occupational hazard and journalists are consequently sensitive to the problem.

This sensitivity makes the guilty admission by Eason Jordan, Chief News Executive at CNN, on the New York Times Op-Ed page so amazing. Now that Coalition forces have crushed Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime, it appears that the Iraqi people were not the only ones freed. Unfettered, Jordan now informs us of the “news we kept to ourselves,” about “the awful things that could not be reported” lest CNN loose its Baghdad Bureau and Iraqis working on the CNN staff be tortured or killed. Eason admits they CNN knew about and did not report on the intention of Hussein’s oldest son, Uday, “to assassinate two of his brothers-in-law who had defected.” CNN knew, but did not report to the public that some in the Iraqi leadership believed that Hussein was a “maniac who had to be removed.”

One can appreciate the concern for their personnel in Baghdad and the moral predicament faced by CNN. However, CNN did have a choice. They could have yielded the Iraqi Bureau and pulled all their personnel out. When circumstances make it difficult to maintain journalistic integrity, it is the professional duty of the media either to leave the situation or tell the entire truth and deal with the consequences as best as possible. It is almost never appropriate for a news service to deliberately conceal what it would otherwise reveal. Instead, CNN let its obsession for access, the ability to have foreign bureau in Baghdad, overwhelm its journalistic judgment.

Seasoned reporter Peter Collins revealed that while working at CNN, Baghdad, CNN was “virtually groveling” to persuade Saddam Hussein to grant CNN an exclusive interview. CNN promised the Iraqis the interview would run world-wide for an uninterrupted hour. Collins was further upset when forced to read an “item-by-item summary of points made by the [Iraqi] Information Minister” in what amounted to “Saddam Hussein’s propaganda.” Later, when Collins gave an on-air report critical of Hussein’s regime, CNN’s Baghdad Chief complained “you know we’re trying to get an interview with Saddam. That piece last night was not helpful.” Rather than continue to work under such constraints, Collins left Baghdad and CNN.

Even worse, until the New York Times piece, CNN even lied to its colleagues about compromises it was making in its Iraqi coverage. According to Franklin Foer:

“For a long time, CNN denied that its coverage skimped on truth. While I researched a story on CNN’s Iraq coverage for the New Republic last October, Mr. Jordan told me flatly that his network gave ¬Ďa full picture of the regime.’ In our conversation, he challenged me to find instances of CNN neglecting stories about Saddam’s horrors. If only I’d had his [New York] Times op-ed.”

If other news organizations follow CNN’s example, totalitarian regimes will learn that they do not need to nurture rapport and trust with the press. All they need to do is threaten and intimidate and they can exchange modest regulated access for favorable coverage.

Once we know that a news organization will modify its coverage to maintain their bureaus, it looses credibility. CNN was the first US-based news service to establish a Bureau in Communist Cuba in 1997 What does CNN know about Cuba that it is not telling us? What compromises have CNN made to insure that Communist dictator Fidel Castro permits the CNN Havana Bureau to remain open? After Jordan admissions, CNN is obligated to answer these questions.

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