Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Mr. Eason Jordan’s admission that CNN had to suppress the news from Baghdad in order to report it brought back memories for me.

In January 1993, I was in Baghdad as a reporter for CNN on a probationary, three-month contract. Previously, I had been a war reporter for CBS News in Vietnam and East Asia and in Central America for ABC News. I had also made three trips to Baghdad for ABC News before the Gulf War.

Now, Bill Clinton was about to be inaugurated and there was speculation that Saddam Hussein might “test” the new American president. Would the new administration be willing to enforce the “no-fly” zones set up in northern and southern Iraq after the Gulf War?

CNN had made its reputation during the war with its exclusive reports from Baghdad. Shortly after my arrival, I was surprised to see CNN President Tom Johnson and Eason Jordan, then chief of international news gathering, stride into the al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad. They were there to help CNN bid for an exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein, timed to coincide with the coming inauguration of President Clinton.

I took part in meetings between the CNN executives and various officials purported to be close to Saddam. We met with his personal translator; with a foreign affairs adviser; with Information Minister Latif Jassim; and with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

In each of these meetings, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan made their pitch: Saddam Hussein would have an hour’s time on CNN’s worldwide network; there would be no interruptions, no commercials. I was astonished. From both the tone and the content of these conversations, it seemed to me that CNN was virtually groveling for the interview.

The day after one such meeting, I was on the roof of the Ministry of Information, preparing for my first “live shot” on CNN. A producer came up and handed me a sheet of paper with handwritten notes. “Tom Johnson wants you to read this on camera,” he said. I glanced at the paper. It was an item-by-item summary of points made by Information Minister Latif Jassim in an interview that morning with Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan.

The list was so long that there was no time during the live shot to provide context. I read the information minister’s points verbatim. Moments later, I was downstairs in the newsroom on the first floor of the Information Ministry. Mr. Johnson approached, having seen my performance on a TV monitor. “You were a bit flat there, Peter,” he said. Again, I was astonished. The president of CNN was telling me I seemed less-than-enthusiastic reading Saddam Hussein’s propaganda.

The next day, I was CNN’s reporter on a trip organized by the Ministry of Information to the northern city of Mosul. “Minders” from the ministry accompanied two busloads of news people to an open, plowed field outside Mosul. The purpose was to show us that American warplanes were bombing “innocent Iraqi farmers.” Bits of American ordinance were scattered on the field. One large piece was marked “CBU.” I recognized it as the canister for a Cluster Bomb Unit, a weapon effective against troops in the open, or against “thin-skinned” armor. I was puzzled. Why would U.S. aircraft launch CBUs against what appeared to be an open field? Was it really to kill “innocent Iraqi farmers?” The minders showed us no victims, no witnesses. I looked around. About 2000 yards distant on a ridgeline, two radar dishes were just visible against the sky. The ground was freshly plowed. Now, I understood. The radars were probably linked to Soviet-made SA-6 surface-to-air missiles mounted on tracks, armored vehicles, parked in the field at some distance from the dishes to keep them safe. After the bombing, the Iraqis had removed the missile launchers and had plowed the field to cover the tracks.

On the way back to Baghdad, I explained to other reporters what I thought had happened, and wrote a report that was broadcast on CNN that night.

The next day, Brent Sadler, CNN’s chief reporter at the time in Baghdad (he is now in northern Iraq), came up to me in a hallway of the al Rasheed Hotel. He had been pushing for the interview with Saddam and had urged Mr. Johnson and Mr. Jordan to come to Baghdad to help seal the deal. “Petah,” he said to me in his English accent, “you know we’re trying to get an interview with Saddam. That piece last night was not helpful.”

So, we were supposed to shade the news to get an interview with Saddam?

As it happens, CNN never did get that interview. A few months later, I had passed my probationary period and was contemplating my future with CNN. I thought long and hard; could I be comfortable with a news organization that played those kinds of games? I decided, no, I could not, and resigned.

In my brief acquaintance with Mr. Jordan at CNN, I formed the impression of a decent man, someone with a conscience. On the day Mr. Jordan published his piece in the New York Times, a panel on Fox News was discussing his astonishing admissions. Brit Hume wondered, “Why would he ever write such a thing?” Another panelist suggested, “Perhaps his conscience is bothering him.” Mr. Eason, it should be.

Peter Collins has more than 30 years of experience in broadcast news, including outlets such as the Voice of America, BBC, CBS, ABC and CNN.

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