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Investigation: Hearing What Eason Jordan Said

Dead Messengers: How the U.S. Military Threatens Journalists (Part 1 Of 4)
Hearing What Eason Jordan Said

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Investigation
Thursday 24 February 2005

Eason Jordan, CNN's freshly ousted news chief, hardly knew what hit him. On Thursday, January 27, he was schmoozing with the global A-List at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. On Friday, February 11, he was looking for work.

"After 23 years at CNN," he wrote, "I have decided to resign in an effort to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy over conflicting accounts of my recent remarks regarding the alarming number of journalists killed in Iraq."

"I never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists, and I apologize to anyone who thought I said or believed otherwise."

Corporate media managers had long envied Jordan's diplomatic skill, as when he arranged CNN's live coverage from Baghdad of the first Gulf War. But political conservatives reviled him for being "too liberal." They also felt he had cozied up to Saddam.

The right-wingers got that right, as many political progressives agreed. In an April 2003 Op-Ed for the New York Times, Jordan admitted that he had personally held back news that the Iraqis had tortured a CNN staff member. To run the story would have jeopardized the network's access and made it necessary to remove some or all of its people working in the country.

Unlike conservatives, who never seem bothered by their double standards, progressives also criticized Jordan for cozying up to George W. Bush. Who can forget how CNN beat the drums for the president's march to war in Afghanistan? Or, how Jordan's embedded reporters enthusiastically cheered the U.S. military blitz on Baghdad?

Drum-beating and cheerleading defeat what the news media should be and do in a pluralistic society. But, however deftly Jordan once played to whoever held power, his performance at Davos was completely cackhanded, muddying the point I think he was trying to make:

No, from all available evidence, U.S. soldiers on the ground do not knowingly try to kill journalists, either American or foreign.

Yes, U.S. commanders encourage hostility toward the media and fail to do what they should to protect journalists, especially those who choose not to embed themselves under military control.

Jordan's exact words exist on a videotape that the World Economic Forum has so far refused to release. But no belated replay will end the larger debate over the military's threat to the media. The issues are too large, the stakes too high. And, by all accounts, Jordan's comments were so confused that different people will hear them in different ways, just as they did at Davos.

The Journalist

Jordan made his remarks on a panel called "Will Democracy Survive the Media?" A long-ago British colleague of mine - Aidan White, now general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) - attended the session along with 150 to 200 others.

"It looked as though it was going to be a spiky meeting," he told me. "One expected a little bit of give and take."

Score one for English understatement.

White went to Davos representing some half million reporters and media workers around the world, including 30,000 members of the Newspaper Guild and 3 other groups in the United States. As part of his job, he works closely with Iraqi journalists as well as foreign media people in Iraq, and knows first-hand the problems they face with the American military, which is what Jordan tried to address.

Jordan "had recently been in Iraq," White explained, "and I think he was reflecting a great deal of frustration from not only his own people in Iraq, but others there as well, that they weren't getting a very good deal in terms of the way they were being treated by the military."

According to White, Jordan said that the American military dealt unfairly with journalists, especially Iraqi journalists, and deliberately treated them in often-petty ways that revealed an underlying hostility toward the media.

White summed up Jordan's message as he heard it: "Effectively, the American military were out to get journalists. And some of them were deliberately targeting journalists."

Did Jordan say they were targeting journalists in the sense of trying to kill them, I asked.

"No," said White. "That is not what I heard him say."

Less familiar with the working life of journalists in Iraq, others in the audience heard Jordan's words with different ears. In White's view, "They got the wrong end of the stick."

The Blogger

The most telling example appeared on the World Economic Forum's web site, in an entry posted at 2:21 the morning after the panel. Its author was conference participant Rony Abovitz, co-founder of a high-flying medical technology firm in South Florida. He wrote:

During one of the discussions about the number of journalists killed in the Iraq War, Eason Jordan asserted that he knew of 12 journalists who had not only been killed by U.S. troops in Iraq, but they had in fact been targeted. He repeated the assertion a few times, which seemed to win favor in parts of the audience (the anti-U.S. crowd) and cause great strain on others.

Sitting in the audience, Abovitz immediately challenged Jordan, asking "if he had any objective and clear evidence to back up these claims, because if what he said was true, it would make Abu Ghraib look like a walk in the park."

Abovitz blogged on:

Eason seemed to backpedal quickly, but his initial statements were backed by other members of the audience (one in particular who represented a worldwide journalist group). The ensuing debate was (for lack of better words) a real "sh-storm."

Abovitz heard Jordan trying to clarify his position, but to no avail.

To be fair (and balanced), Eason did backpedal and make a number of statements claiming that he really did not know if what he said was true, and that he did not himself believe it. But when pressed by others, he seemed to waver back and forth between what might have been his beliefs and the realization that he had created a kind of public mess. His statements, his reaction, and the reaction of all in attendance left me perplexed and confused.

The Congressman

Barney Frank, the liberal Massachusetts Congressman, spoke on the panel with Jordan and later added details of his own reaction.

"It sounded as if [Jordan] was saying the killings had been deliberate," Frank told the Miami Herald. "I sat up, and I said, 'That's very troubling to me, I feel an obligation to act on this.' "

"I'm not saying this is American military policy," Jordan responded, as Congressman Frank recalled. But Jordan insisted that U. S. soldiers had deliberately shot at journalists and not been punished,

Was Jordan talking about cases of mistaken identity or itchy trigger finger "in the heat of battle," Frank asked.

No, said Jordan.

After the panel, Frank called Jordan and asked for specifics. "If you think there are cases where American military personnel killed reporters and weren't disciplined, I want to know, and [Congress] will take action," Frank recalled saying.

In fact, Aidan White and others at Davos pointed out the very specifics Congressman Frank wanted, as did a subsequent, widely blogged statement that appeared to come from CNN. But between Jordan's confusion and the baying of rightwing attack dogs, few Americans - in Congress or out - would have heard enough to weigh the evidence.

For those who care to judge for themselves, the best place to start is the story of Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, where on April 8, 2003, an American tank crew killed two journalists and wounded three others. The U.S. military never took testimony from a single journalist who was there, and never disciplined any military personnel.

Tomorrow, t r u t h o u t offers Exhibit A, a stunning, on-the-spot investigation of the incident published by the non-partisan Reporters Without Borders.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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