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Reporters Ignored Atrocities to Get Access in Saddam’s Iraq

September 21, 2003

John Burns, the great New York Times reporter, offers us a brutally blunt assessment of how badly Western correspondents covered Saddam Hussein’s regime. His report, excerpted by The Wall Street Journal and Editor & Publisher, is spreading rapidly on the Internet and is bound to have an impact on the public’s already low respect for most journalists.

The compulsively candid Burns, until recently the New York Times bureau chief in Iraq, wrote his comments for the new book “Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq” (The Lyons Press), a collection of first-person accounts by journalists in Iraq.

Burns, who has covered China, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Bosnia, says the terror of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was unmatched anywhere in the world, except perhaps by North Korea today. Iraq was a vast slaughterhouse, he says, but most Western reporters worked hard to keep the news from getting out because they were afraid of losing access or getting expelled from Iraq. The monstrous savagery of life under Saddam — the vast tortures and up to a million dead — was “the essential truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents,” he writes.

Burns laid some of this out earlier in the Times — the bribes and gifts from journalists to Saddam’s henchmen, with reporters turning over copies of their stories to show how friendly they were to the regime. “A rigorous system for controlling and monitoring Western journalists has been in place in Iraq for decades, based on a wafer-thin facade of civility,” he wrote in the Times last April 20.

In his “Embedded” article, Burns is more caustic about the payoffs by journalists. He says big shots at the information ministry took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from TV reporters, “who then behaved as if they were in Belgium.” Will these unnamed TV reporters be called to account?

As an example of evasive noncoverage, Burns cites the reluctance of most reporters to say anything about Abu Ghraib prison, the heart of Saddam’s reign of terror. Burns says he couldn’t find a single colleague in journalism who had read the human rights reports about butchery at the prison. Last October, when President Bush’s pressure caused Saddam to announce a limited amnesty at Abu Ghraib, the BBC didn’t think it was worth sending anyone to the prison. Burns writes: “You had the BBC thinking it was inappropriate to go there because it means that it causes trouble.” Of the reporters who did go to the prison, he says, “Ninety-eight percent of them had never heard of Abu Ghraib. Had no idea what it was.”

After the amnesty turned into a mob scene and a near-riot and unofficial jail break, some groups marched to the intelligence ministry. Burns says this was a phenomenal story, an actual protest in a terrorized land, but “some of my colleagues chose not to cover that.” No use reporting real news if it’s going to cause any inconvenience.

“There is corruption in our business,” Burns writes. “In the run-up to this war, to my mind, there was a gross abdication of responsibility.” The usual rationalization by wayward correspondents is that Saddam’s horrors couldn’t be reported without jeopardizing the lives of sources and reporters. CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, offered that lame excuse in a notorious New York Times op-ed piece on April 11. It was a devil’s handshake: CNN got to stay in Iraq; Saddam Hussein got good press.

Eason said he knew all about the beatings and electroshock torture. One woman who talked to CNN was beaten daily for months in front of her father, then torn limb from limb. Her body parts were left in a bag on her family’s doorstep. But CNN’s viewers hadn’t been told.

Burns has no patience with excuses like Eason’s. He is a reporter who was jailed for six days for his reporting in China and who risked being killed by Saddam’s regime in its dying days. At one point, he wondered whether he would wind up in Abu Ghraib himself.

He says of Iraq: “We now know that this place was a lot more terrible than even people like me had thought. They (reporters) rationalized it away.”

Though President Bush chose to make weapons of mass destruction his principal argument against Saddam, Burns writes, “this war could have been justified any time on the basis of human rights alone. This was a grotesque charnel house, and also a genuine threat to us. We had the power to end it and we did end it.”

Even if as many as 5,000 Iraqis died in the war, Burns writes, that’s fewer than would have died if Saddam’s killing machine had gone on as usual during the six-week period of battle. The war should have been justified on this basis, he says, “but you’d never have known it by reading most of the coverage of the war by those correspondents.”

Criticisms like this are often shrugged off as sour outbursts by conservatives who don’t understand the press. What happens now that the outburst is coming from the best reporter to serve in Iraq?

From → Media

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