EVERY NEWS ORGANIZATION, and every reporter, makes difficult, morally ambiguous decisions when working in a totalitarian state. There are no hard and fast rules about where to draw the line between legitimate cooperation with authorities and outright collaboration. Some of the time it is right to let readers and viewers make intelligent inferences, as long as a sentence stating that "this reporter was operating under the rules of local censorship" is inserted into an article or broadcast report. Sometimes it is better to continue publishing news from a place, if the choice is between taking an unpleasant official from a corrupt regime out to lunch or producing no news at all.
Having said that, the case of CNN's coverage of Iraq over the past few years raises special issues. Last week, Eason Jordan, the network's chief news executive, wrote an article in the New York Times in which he described some of the things he had learned but not reported during the 13 trips he made to Iraq over the past decade, while lobbying the government to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open. At one point, a CNN cameraman, an Iraqi citizen, was abducted and subjected to electroshock torture. At another point, CNN learned of an armed attack planned on the organization's headquarters in northern Iraq. Mr. Jordan gives other examples -- and goes on to explain that CNN chose not to report the information to protect other Iraqi employees and out of "fear of endangering our staff in Baghdad."
This tale would be disturbing enough on its own, but it is especially worrying because of CNN's special position in the Middle East. In the past, the network has been watched avidly in the region, and nowhere more so than in Baghdad. It is widely perceived around the world as a voice of the United States. If CNN did not fully disclose what it knew about the Baathist regime, and if CNN deliberately kept its coverage bland and inoffensive, that would help explain why the regime was not perceived to be as ruthless as it in fact was, in the Arab world and elsewhere.
In fact, over the past few days, Baathist atrocities have been revealed ad hoc, as U.S. and British troops discover them. When the systematic investigation of Saddam Hussein's Iraq begins, the stories may grow worse. It is difficult to make judgments in retrospect, but some CNN reporting did seem deliberately unprovocative, given the true nature of the regime. An election last autumn, which Saddam Hussein won with 100 percent of the votes, was interpreted as a "message of defiance to U.S. President George Bush," for example. If the network had also told its viewers that Mr. Jordan dealt with an Iraqi official whose teeth had been pried out for upsetting his boss, Uday Hussein, then those watching the electoral story might have felt differently about that report, about the election result and about a regime that terrified its citizens into proclaiming their unanimous support.