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Covering Dictatorships Means Covering the Truth
Since people liken even America to a dictatorship, we need to characterize the term. First, if independent media exist, especially dissenting ones, the government aggressively censors them. After all, news doesn’t mean much if citizens are privy only to propaganda via state-controlled outlets.
Second, the government removes any contenders for political office. After all, news doesn’t mean much if the opposition is jailed or dead.
Third, the government terrorizes its citizens. After all, news doesn’t mean much if people are afraid to speak.
Fourth, the government aggressively censors foreign correspondents. After all, news doesn’t mean much if it’s coming from select personnel.
As the statues of Saddam toppled in Iraq one year ago, Eason Jordan, chief news executive of the Cable News Channel, bashed out an op-ed for the New York Times, whose headline was its own indictment: “The News We Kept To Ourselves.” For the past twelve years, Jordan wrote, 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.” Indeed, the Hussein régime expertly terrorized, if not executed, any Iraqi courageous enough to slip a journalist an unapproved fact. Wrote Jordan: “A thirty-one-year-old Kuwaiti woman, Asrar Qabandi, was captured by Iraqi secret police . . . for ‘crimes,’ one of which included speaking with C.N.N. 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.”
As for the journalists, had one been “lucky” enough to gain a visa to report in Iraq, one then received a minder, an English-speaking government shadow. A well-practiced obstructionist, the minder severely circumscribed journalists’ travels to a régime-arranged itinerary. In one typical story, 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 sixty-fifth birthday. When her colleagues turned on their cameras, officials dictated angles and, with bullhorns, instructed the crowd to increase the volume of their chants. Had the régime deemed one’s reports to be too “critical,” like those of recently-retired New York Times journalist Barbara Crossette or C.N.N.’s anchor Wolf Blitzer, they simply revoked one’s visa or shut down one’s bureau, or both.
Of course, it all depends on what “critical” means; a journalist who referred to “Saddam,” and not “President Saddam Hussein,” was banned for “disrespect.” At least until an Eason Jordan could toady his way back in.
And yet C.N.N. advertises itself as the “mot trusted name in news.” Truth, however, as the American judicial oath affirms, consists in reporting 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 was to abdicate a journalist’s cardinal responsibility. Indeed, if journalists in Iraq could not have pursued, let alone reported, the truth, they should not have been in Iraq concocting the grotesque lie that they could, and were. Any Baghdad Bureau under Saddam was 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 ex–C.I.A. officer Robert Baer, Amman is the Iraqi expatriate pub.
Why, then, did the media stay in Saddam's Iraq? As columnist Mark Steyn observes: “What mattered to C.N.N. was not the two-minute report of rewritten Saddamite press releases but the sign off: ‘Jane Arraf, C.N.N., Baghdad.’” In the value hierarchy of today’s yellow media, the media see access above everything and at all costs — access to the world’s brutalest sovereign of the last thirty years and his presidential palaces built with blood money, and at the costs of daily beatings, skull-smashings, and limb-severings.
In short, journalism under dictators means selling one’s soul to keep one’s bureau in hell.
Dictators, of course, understand this dark hunger, and for slaking it, they demand unconditional obsequiousness. Hence, a journalist reporting from Iraq was but a puppet for disinformation, broadcasting the Baath Party line to the world without so much as innuendo that “Jane Arraf, C.N.N., Baghdad” was not the same as “Jane Arraf, C.N.N., Washington.” In this way, far from providing newsworthy news or even protecting Iraqis, the media’s Iraqi presence only lent legitimacy and credibility to the Hussein dictatorship.
Alas, dictatorship neither begins nor ends with Iraq. According to Freedom House, America’s oldest human rights organization, comparable régimes today include Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. So how should we read reports with these datelines? In judging the veracity of news reported from within a dictatorship, the proper principle is caveat emptor — reader beware.
As Hamilton College professor of history Alfred Kelly explains, train yourself to think like a historian. Ask questions such as: Under what circumstances did the writer report? How might the circumstances, like fear of censorship or the desire to curry favor or evade blame, have influenced the content, style, or tone? What sort of biases or blind spots might the writer have? 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? You need not become a conspiracy theorist, but you should develop keener awareness for context.
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