Sliming American troops
AFTER THE fall of Dan Rather, the media wars have claimed another victim: CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan. Jordan resigned last Friday after more than a week of controversy over his remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 27, in which Jordan allegedly suggested that American forces in Iraq had deliberately killed journalists. It's a sad end to a 23-year career in journalism; it's also a story with important lessons about the modern media.
One oddity is that, so far, no one knows exactly what Jordan said. No videotape or transcript of his remarks has been made public, apparently because the forum's rules forbid it -- though pressure to release the video was mounting when Jordan quit.
Here's what can be gleaned from reports by other panelists and attendees (including Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts). Jordan stated that a number of journalists had been killed by the US military in Iraq and that some of those killings were intentional, not ''collateral damage." Representative Frank and others sharply questioned him on whether he was saying that American forces had deliberately targeted members of the press. Jordan replied that what he meant was that some journalists were killed intentionally rather than accidentally -- but because of ''mistaken identity" (i.e. being mistaken for insurgents), not because they were journalists. A CNN statement issued before Jordan's resignation reiterated this explanation and asserted that his widely criticized remarks were misunderstood.
Yet eyewitness accounts suggest that Jordan was not so much clarifying as backpedaling. His initial remarks about the actions of US forces reportedly included an uncorroborated tale of an unnamed journalist for the Al-Jazeera television network who was tortured in the Abu Ghraib prison and taunted as ''Al-Jazeera boy" by his American captors. According to Wall Street Journal editorial page writer Brett Stephens, after being confronted, Jordan apparently replied that ''there are people who believe there are people in the military" who are out to get journalists.
All this suggests that intentional targeting of journalists as journalists was likely a part of Jordan's claim. (No such charge has ever been made by any journalists' organization, though disturbing questions have been raised about negligence in the US military's shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad in April 2003 in which two journalists were killed.) Moreover, bloggers who pursued the story dug up instances of Jordan making similar vague allegations against both American and Israeli troops in past conference talks.
To many conservatives, Jordan quickly became a poster boy for left-wing anti-American bias in the media. And in fact, his behavior fed into the worst suspicions held by many conservative and moderate Americans about media bias -- specifically, that the mainstream media are always ready, as columnist Michelle Malkin put it, to ''slime" America's armed forces. His comments were made behind the scenes and off the record; but if those comments do reflect an animus against the US military, it's hardly outlandish to suspect that such an animus may subtly influence reporting.
Some of Jordan's critics would probably rail against any negative media coverage of American troops. They're wrong. It's the job of journalists to report the truth, and it's our right and obligation as American citizens to know what is being done in our name. If a network news chief has evidence that the US military has deliberately killed or tortured journalists, the network should be reporting it and the government should be investigating it. Without such evidence, a journalist should be the last person to traffic in unsupported and irresponsible innuendo.
Jordan's downfall also attests to the rising power of the ''new media": the Internet weblogs. The bloggers broke this story, and kept it going when the mainstream media wouldn't cover it. Many of those bloggers undoubtedly had an ideological agenda, but the fact is that they did some solid reporting -- and that some of their information came from liberals such as Representative Frank. In some quarters of the blogosphere, Jordan's resignation was met with an unpleasant ''we got him!" gloating; but ''gotcha" journalism is hardly limited to blogs. Like other media, the blogs can be vehicles for vendettas and witch-hunts -- as well as a tool for openness and accountability.
Mainstream journalists should resist the temptation to view Jordan as a victim of a right-wing lynch mob. His fatal wound was ultimately self-inflicted. And, if the ''old media" don't learn some lessons from this incident, there will be more such wounds.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.