What bothers me about the media piling on CNN for trading silence in exchange for access in Iraq is the knowledge that they were not, and are not, alone. In many parts of the world the only way for the press to maintain a presence is to implicitly agree to keep quiet about certain, uncomfortable, facts. They become complicit in the regimes they cover.
Sure, CNN wasn’t reporting the awful things they were learning inside Iraq, but who was? They weren’t the only news agency with offices there. When do we get the other mea culpas?
Too often, in too many different ways, media silence is traded for access. Whether in covering a brutal dictatorship, Capitol Hill or celebrities, compromises are made, and the news outlets most willing to compromise their integrity get the access.
Does anybody remember The New York Time’s man in Moscow -- Walter Duranty?
As Andrew Stattaford observed:
[Duranty] knew. Privately, he told British diplomats that as many as ten million people might have died, "The Ukraine," he admitted, "had been bled white."
Publicly, however, his story was very different. He claimed that tales of a famine were "bunk," "exaggeration," or "malignant propaganda." There was "no actual starvation."
Duranty also reported favorable on Stalin’s show trials, writing that the defendants were genuinely guilty. The New York Times received a Pulitizer Prize in 1932 for Duranty’s reporting from Russia. It has never been withdrawn or returned.
UPDATE: CNN spins:
CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson noted that CNN reporters have frequently been kicked out of Baghdad by angry authorities, most recently a few days after the start of the war.
"The decision not to report these particular events had nothing to do with access, and everything to do with keeping people from being killed as a result of our reporting," she said.
Yeah, that's the problem with reporting the truth about repressive regimes -- people get killed. But not reporting enables those same regimes to survive with the result that many more people die as a result. If CNN couldn't report the truth about Sadam's regime while maintaining an office within Iraq, they should have closed their office. But they were not alone, and Iraq is not the only place where the press strikes this implicit sordid bargain.
UPDATE: Peter Collins recoounts how, back in 1993, he was required by his bosses at CNN to parrot Iraqi propaganda and to "shade the news" in order to help CNN score an interview with Saddam. Eventually he resigned.