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Eason Jordan, Quote, Unquote

CNN News Chief Clarifies His Comments on Iraq

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page C01

What CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan said, or didn't say, in Davos, Switzerland, last month has become a burgeoning controversy among bloggers and media critics.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who attended the World Economic Forum panel at which Jordan spoke, recalled yesterday that Jordan said he knew of 12 journalists who were killed by coalition forces in Iraq. At first, said Frank, "it sounded like he was saying it was official military policy to take out journalists." But Jordan later "modified" his remarks to say some U.S. soldiers did this "maybe knowing they were killing journalists, out of anger. . . . He did say he was talking about cases of deliberate killing," Frank said.

CNN's Eason Jordan, right, with Afghanistan's foreign minister, Abdullah, at a World Economic Forum panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland. (Virginia Mayo -- AP)

Jordan denied that last night, saying he had been responding to Frank's comment that the 63 journalists who have been killed in Iraq were "collateral damage" in the war. "I was trying to make a distinction between 'collateral damage' and people who got killed in other ways," Jordan said last night. "I have never once in my life thought anyone from the U.S. military tried to kill a journalist. Never meant to suggest that. Obviously I wasn't as clear as I should have been on that panel."

In some of the cases, "with the benefit of hindsight, had more care been taken, maybe this could have been avoided," Jordan said, referring to shootings that involved mistaken identity. But, he said, "it's a war zone. Terrible things happen."

Two other panelists backed Jordan's account. David Gergen, editor at large at U.S. News & World Report, said he "sort of gasped" when Jordan spoke of journalists being "deliberately killed," but that Jordan "realized, as soon as he said it, he'd gone too far" and "walked it back." Jordan then expressed "a very deep concern about whether our soldiers on the ground level are using as much care as they should" when journalists are involved, said Gergen, who moderated the discussion.

BBC World Services Director Richard Sambrook, in a note to New York University journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen, said Jordan was objecting to the phrase "collateral damage."

"He clarified this comment to say he did not believe they were targeted because they were journalists, although there are others in the media community who do hold that view (personally, I don't)," Sambrook wrote. "They had been deliberately killed as individuals -- perhaps because they were mistaken for insurgents, we don't know. However the distinction he was seeking to make is that being shot by a sniper, or fired at directly is very different from being, for example, accidentally killed by an explosion."

No transcript exists of the Jan. 27 session, which was supposed to be off the record, and a videotape of the event has not been made public. The dispute erupted when Rony Abovitz, co-founder of the technology company Z-Kat, posted an account on the forum's Web site of what Jordan said, while also noting that he had backpedaled when challenged.

This triggered widespread denunciations of Jordan by conservative bloggers, who have also criticized the mainstream media for not reporting the remarks.

"Why would Arab members of the audience come up and congratulate him for having the courage to speak the truth?" asked Jim Geraghty of National Review Online. "One of the most senior news execs in the world tells a crowd of dignitaries from around the globe that the U.S. military targeted a dozen journalists for death, and there is no [mainstream media] coverage of that?" wrote radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Edward Morrissey of the Captain's Quarters blog urged his senators in Minnesota to hold public hearings "to establish once and for all whether the U.S. military has a policy of assassinating and torturing journalists, in Iraq or anywhere else, and correct the terrible damage Mr. Jordan may have inflicted on our image abroad."

In the interview last night, Jordan said he and a group of other news executives have discussed with a top Pentagon official allegations by Iraqi employees of NBC, Reuters and al-Jazeera "who claimed to have been detained and tortured by the U.S. military. They all came out with horrific statements about what had been done to them."

At the World Economic Forum, participants say, the only specific case cited by Jordan was the April 2003 incident in which U.S. forces fired a tank round at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, killing a cameraman employed by Reuters and another for the Spanish network Telecinco. Military spokesmen said the troops were responding to sniper fire from the hotel, which was known to house about 100 foreign journalists, and defended the shelling as "a proportionate and justifiably measured response."

But Jordan supplied a list of the other incidents, such as a tank firing on and killing Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana as he was filming outside Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. U.S. officials said the troops mistook Dana's camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Frank said he found Jordan's remarks "troubling" and in a later phone conversation asked him for specifics about the journalistic casualties so he could make inquiries at the Pentagon. Jordan said Frank was responding to a note from him and that there had been a "misunderstanding" if the congressman expected a further response.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who was in the audience, "was outraged by the comments," said his spokesman, Marvin Fast. "Senator Dodd is tremendously proud of the sacrifice and service of our American military personnel."

Jordan's comments have sparked controversy before. He drew widespread criticism in 2003 for saying in a New York Times op-ed piece that CNN had withheld information about some of Saddam Hussein's abuses out of concern for the network's Iraqi employees in Baghdad. "Withholding information that would get innocent people killed was the right thing to do, not a journalistic sin," Jordan told his staff in a memo.

Three CNN staffers have been killed in Iraq, two of them in January 2004 when the cars they were traveling in came under fire by insurgents.

Gergen said Jordan had just returned from Baghdad and was still "deeply distraught" over the journalists who have died in Iraq. "This was a guy caught up in the tension of the moment," Gergen said. "He deserves the benefit of the doubt."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program. Staff writer Lisa de Moraes contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company