April 19th, 2004

Covering Dictatorships Means Covering the Truth

A version of this blog post was awarded the Hamilton College 2005 Cobb Essay Prize, appeared in the Utica Observer-Dispatch (April 19, 2004), and was noted on the Hamilton College Web site (April 21, 2004).

Most of us trust that what we read, watch or hear from well-established news organization is trustworthy. But trustworthiness depends on the source—not only the organization, but also the origin of information. For without freedom one cannot report the news freely. It is therefore fraudulent for a news agency to operate in a dictatorship without disclosure.

What constitutes a dictatorship? First, if independent media exist, the state aggressively censors them. After all, news doesn’t mean much if citizens are privy only to propaganda. Second, if candidates for political office exist, the state shackles their activities. After all, news doesn’t mean much if the opposition is nonexistent. Third, the state cows its citizens. After all, news doesn’t mean much if people are afraid to speak.

As Iraqis and U.S. marines toppled the massive statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad two years ago, Eason Jordan, chief news executive of the Cable News Network (CNN), penned an op-ed for the New York Times. The headline was its own indictment: “The News We Kept to Ourselves.” For the past 12 years, Jordan confessed, there were “awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff.” This much is inarguable: the Hussein regime expertly terrorized, if not executed, any Iraqi courageous enough to slip a journalist an unapproved fact. Jordan relates one particularly horrifying story: “A 31-year-old Kuwaiti woman, Asrar Qabandi, was captured by Iraqi secret police . . . for ‘crimes,’ one of which included speaking with CNN on the phone. They beat her daily for two months, forcing her father to watch. In January 1991, on the eve of the [first] American-led offensive, they smashed her skull and tore her body apart limb by limb. A plastic bag containing her body parts was left on the doorstep of her family’s home.”[1]

As for the journalists, had one been “lucky” enough to gain a visa to Iraq, one then received a minder. An English-speaking government shadow, the minder severely circumscribed a journalist’s travels to a regime-arranged itinerary. Franklin Foer of the New Republic describes one typical account: when a correspondent unplugged the television in his hotel room, a man knocked on his door a few minutes later asking to repair the “set.” Another correspondent described an anti–American demonstration, held in April 2002 in Baghdad, to celebrate Saddam’s 65th birthday. When her colleagues turned on their cameras, officials dictated certain shots and, with bullhorns, instructed the crowd to increase the volume of their chants. Had the regime deemed one’s reports to be too critical, like those of recently retired New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette or CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, it simply revoked one’s visa or shut down one’s bureau, or both.[2] Of course, this all depends on the definition of “critical”; referring to “Saddam,” and not “President Saddam Hussein,” got you banned for “disrespect.” At least until an Eason Jordan could toady his way back in.

And yet CNN advertises itself as the “most trusted name in news.” Truth, however, as the American judicial oath affirms, consists of the whole truth and nothing but the truth; what one omits is equally important as what one includes. Thus, to have reported from Saddam’s Iraq as if Tikrit were Tampa was to abdicate a journalist’s cardinal responsibility. Indeed, if journalists in Iraq could not have pursued, let alone publish, the truth, they should not have not been concocting the grotesque lie that they could, and were. Any Baghdad bureau under Saddam is a Journalism 101 example of double-dealing. And any news agency worthy of the title wouldn’t have had a single person inside Iraq—at least officially. Instead, journalists could have scoured Kurdistan or Kuwait, even London, where many recently arrived Iraqis can talk without fear of death. According to former C.I.A. officer Robert Baer, who was assigned to Iraq during the Gulf War, Amman, the capitol of Jordan, is a virtual pub for Iraqi expatriates.[3]

Why, then, were the media in Iraq? As columnist Mark Steyn observes, “What mattered to CNN was not the two-minute report of rewritten Saddamite press releases but the sign off: ‘Jane Arraf, CNN, Baghdad.’”[4] Today’s media today access above everything and at any cost—access to the world’s most brutal sovereign of the last 30 years and his presidential palaces built with blood money, and at the costs of daily beatings, skull-smashings and limb-severings. Dictators, of course, understand this dark hunger, and for allowing one to stay in hell, they demand one’s soul, or unconditional obsequiousness. Thus did CNN become a puppet for disinformation, broadcasting the Baath Party line to the world without so much as innuendo that “Jane Arraf, CNN, Baghdad” was not the same as “Jane Arraf, CNN, Washington.” In this way, far from providing anything newsworthy, let alone protecting Iraqis, the media’s presence there only lent legitimacy and credibility to Saddam’s dictatorship.

Alas, dictatorship neither begins nor ends with Iraq. According to Freedom House, America’s oldest human rights organization, comparable countries today include Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.[5] How should we read articles with these datelines? In judging the veracity of news originating from within a dictatorship, the proper principle is caveat legens—reader beware. As Hamilton College history professor Alfred Kelly explains in a guidebook for his students, train yourself to think like a historian. Ask questions such as: Under what circumstances did the writer report? How might those circumstances, like fear of censorship or the desire to curry favor or evade blame, have influenced the content, style or tone? What stake does the writer have in the matters reported? Are his sources anonymous? What does the text omit that you might have expected it to include?[6] You need not be a conspiracy theorist to recognize the value of skepticism.


[1] Eason Jordan, “The News We Kept to Ourselves,” New York Times, April 11, 2003.

[2] Franklin Foer, “How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media: Air War,” New Republic, October 2002.

[3] Franklin Foer, “How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media: Air War,” New Republic, October 2002.

[4] Mark Steyn, “All the News That’s Fit to Bury,” National Post (Canada), April 17, 2003.

[5] As quoted in Joseph Loconte, “Morality for Sale,” New York Times, April 1, 2004.

[6] Alfred Kelly, Writing a Good History Paper, Hamilton College Department of History, 2003.


Chinni, Dante, “About CNN: Hold Your Fire,” Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 2003.
Collins, Peter, “Corruption at CNN,” Washington Times, April 15, 2003.
—, “Distortion by Omission,” Washington Times, April 16, 2003.
Da Cunha, Mark, “Saddam Hussein’s Real Ministers of Disinformation Come Out of the Closet,” Capitalism Magazine, April 14, 2003.
Fettmann, Eric, “Craven News Network,” New York Post, April 12, 2003.
Foer, Franklin, “CNN’s Access of Evil,” Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2003.
—, “How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media: Air War,” New Republic, October 2002.
Glassman, James K., “Sins of Omission,” TechCentralStation.com, April 11, 2003.
Goodman, Ellen, “War without the ‘Hell,’” Boston Globe, April 17, 2003.
Kelly, Alfred, Writing a Good History Paper, Hamilton College Department of History, 2003.
Jacoby, Jeff, “Trading Truth for Access?Jewish World Review, April 21, 2003.
Jordan, Eason, “The News We Kept to Ourselves,” New York Times, April 11, 2003.
Loconte, Joseph, “Morality for Sale,” New York Times, April 1, 2004.
de Moraes, Lisa, “CNN Executive Defends Silence on Known Iraqi Atrocities,” Washington Post, April 15, 2003.
Smith, Rick, “CNN Should Scale Back Chumminess with Cuba,” Capitalism Magazine, May 8, 2003.
Steyn, Mark, “All the News That’s Fit to Bury,” National Post (Canada), April 17, 2003.
Tracinski, Robert W., “Venezuela’s Countdown to Tyranny,” Intellectual Activist, April 2003.
Walsh, Michael, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” DuckSeason.org, April 11, 2003.


Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey recently observed that the “media marketplace . . . long ago concluded [that] having access to power is more important speaking truth to it.”

No Responses to “Covering Dictatorships Means Covering the Truth”