CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan yesterday sent a memo to his staff defending his decision to withhold information about how Saddam Hussein's regime had intimidated, tortured and killed Iraqis who had helped the cable news network over the years.
"Withholding information that would get innocent people killed was the right thing to do, not a journalistic sin," Jordan said in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The TV Column.
"Some critics say if I had told my Iraq horror stories sooner, I would have saved thousands of lives," he wrote in his message to staffers. "How they come to that conclusion I don't know. Iraq's human rights record and the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime were well known before I wrote my op-ed piece. The only sure thing that would have happened if I told those stories sooner is the regime would have tracked down and killed the innocent people who told me those stories."
Jordan has been pelted with criticism since he detailed the incidents last Thursday night on Aaron Brown's CNN program and, more thoroughly, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times the next day.
He revealed that in the mid-'90s, an Iraqi cameraman working for CNN was tortured because the government believed Jordan was working for the CIA. Reporting that incident "would almost certainly have gotten him killed and put his family and co-workers at grave risk," Jordan wrote.
CNN also did not report that it had learned from Kurds that a planned attack on CNN employees by Hussein's forces in northern Iraq had been thwarted a few months earlier.
Plus, Jordan wrote, CNN could not report that Hussein's eldest son, Uday, told him in 1995 that he intended to assassinate two of his brothers-in-law who had defected and also King Hussein of Jordan, who had given them asylum. "I was sure he would have responded by killing the Iraqi translator who was the only other participant in the meeting," Jordan explained. (He said he did call King Hussein to warn him, who "dismissed the threat as a madman's rant.")
Since that piece ran on Friday, it's been open season on Eason Jordan.
Rush Limbaugh had a field day: "CNN is reporting that 11 chemical-bio weapons labs have been found in the Iraqi town of Karbal, and they're buried to escape detection. I'm wondering how long has CNN known this? It's a legitimate question now."
Franklin Foer, associate editor of New Republic magazine, also got into the act, in a piece penned for the Wall Street Journal, called "CNN's Access of Evil." Foer said he was suspicious of Jordan's "outbreak of honesty" and suggested the guy should be "apologizing for [CNN's] cooperation with Iraq's erstwhile information ministry -- and admitting that CNN policy hinders truthful coverage of dictatorships."
Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity took a swipe while talking to G. Gordon Liddy: "I don't have any doubt that we're going to hear a lot about . . . the misery and torture" in Iraq, Hannity said, setting up his punch line: "If we wanted to hear more about torture, we could ask Eason Jordan at CNN. He knew all about it but didn't report it."
On "Fox Special Report With Brit Hume," conservative columnist and FNC contributor Charles Krauthammer called it "a classic example of selling your soul for the story."
"He clearly gave up truth for access," Krauthammer said. "He could have taken the translator out and told that story about Uday, or other stories. But he would have lost the bureau in Baghdad and that's why he did it."
And the New York Post, which is owned by the same company that owns Fox News Channel, weighed in with a couple of pieces, including one by Eric Fettmann headlined "Craven News Network." Fettmann suggested that "CNN's silence seems to have cost as many lives as it may have saved."
Jordan denied that CNN withheld vital information from the public to maintain a reporting presence in Iraq:
"That is nonsense. No news organization in the world had a more contentious relationship with the Iraqi regime than CNN. The Iraqi leadership was so displeased with CNN's Iraq reporting, CNN was expelled from Iraq six times -- five times in previous years and one more time on Day 3 of this Iraq war."
In his memo, Jordan detailed the CNN reporters and anchors who have been booted or banned from Iraq, including Baghdad bureau chief Jane Arraf, who was barred in response to her reporting on a public protest demanding to know what happened to Iraqis who vanished after being abducted by Iraqi secret police. Also on the list were Christiane Amanpour, Wolf Blitzer, Aaron Brown, Brent Sadler, Nic Robertson, Rym Brahimi, Sheila MacVicar, Ben Wedeman and Richard Roth.
Jordan yesterday told The TV Column that he's "surprised and disappointed" by the criticism.
"To me it was about one thing and one thing only -- saving lives of innocent people. It had nothing to do with access. . . . Anybody who thinks it's more than that is absolutely wrong. I don't know anybody who would report a story that would get somebody killed."
With regard to cynicism among critics that he had decided to report nothing about the atrocities while making trips to Iraq to lobby the government to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders, Jordan told The TV Column, "It should be noted that news execs from every TV network in this country went themselves to Baghdad to argue their case."
As of last week, it was safe to write about the information he'd collected because the Hussein regime was over, Jordan said.
"I have no doubt whatsoever that in every case at least one person would have been killed for every piece, if I had disclosed earlier."
In his staff memo, Jordan said he chose to write the op-ed piece "to provide a record of one person's experiences with the brutality of the Iraqi regime and to ensure we maintain CNN's long record of reporting on atrocities around the world, even if in these cases we could do so only years later to protect the lives of innocent people."
CNN is mulling whether to move Paula Zahn to prime time and get itself another morning anchor.
When war broke out in Iraq, causing CNN to kill Connie Chung's show, Aaron Brown initially took over early evening war coverage. But Zahn moved in soon thereafter, anchoring 7 to 9 p.m. war coverage. Many TV biz watchers speculated that was a sure sign CNN was testing Zahn for a prime-time run. There've even been rumblings that Zahn's empire might be beefed up to absorb the "Crossfire" time slot.
Sources close to the situation say the prime-time Zahn model is being considered, and that CNN suits spoke to Jane Clayson about taking the morning gig, though that's not going to happen, one said.
Clayson, you'll recall, anchored CBS's "The Early Show" with Bryant Gumbel when it was doing weaker numbers. Since bowing out of that show, she signed a new CBS News contract making her a correspondent for the evening news and "48 Hours Investigates."
"We're not commenting on any possible programming changes," a CNN rep told The TV Column.
With regard to the displacement of "Crossfire," the rep said that it "is a show we value very much that will continue to air on CNN."