About CNN: Hold your fire

Journalists like to tell stories. Besides a dislike for math, it's probably what draws most reporters get into the profession in the first place. And when journalists are away from work and among others of their own ilk, they still tell stories. Things they've seen. Things they've done. Things they didn't put into their copy. This is what journalists do.

This is also, in a sense, what Eason Jordan did last Friday in a now famous/infamous opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times. In the column, Mr. Jordan, the chief news executive for CNN, revealed several stories about atrocities perpetrated by Saddam Hussein that the news network had, but didn't report, because, he said in the piece, "doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those of our Baghdad staff."

For the past week, Jordan has been blasted by members of the media, and especially CNN's competitor Fox News, for not revealing this information earlier. The critics argue that CNN's failure to report these acts - which included the beating of a cameraman, death threats (some which were later carried out), and other tortures - basically amounted to an abdication of the network's mission to report the news.

Before people start burning little CNN logos in effigy, however, a brief word about how journalism really works.

As professions go, journalism involves one of the more complicated games around. Every story a reporter covers creates a notebook full of material, and not all of it makes it into print or broadcast. Some doesn't make the final draft because of space. Sometimes, however, it stays in the notebook because of a judgment call or because a source has said the information was "off the record."

Reporters make these calls all the time. Often people say things to a reporter they'd never reveal to a complete stranger. Say, for instance, that you talk to a journalist about your boss, and in the process you reveal that you believe your boss is insane. You list evidence that he is a horrible man who regularly threatens his staff with pay cuts, firings, or character assassination for the most innocuous reasons. Then afterward, you realize you might have said too much.

In cases like these, reporters have to weigh the value of the information against the damage it could do. If the reporter puts this information into his story, he is essentially guaranteeing your dismissal.

Jordan, of course, was faced with much higher stakes: the lives of his associates and sources. And one can easily see the argument for not running with information that will lead to deaths. At the very least, it's irresponsible; at most it makes the journalist an accomplice to murder.

Further, as Jordan points out, the world was scarcely in need of more evidence that Hussein was a reprehensible human being. The public record was already full of stories of him gassing and torturing his own people.

Jordan's piece does raise some interesting questions, such as why he didn't quietly warn two of Hussein's sons-in-law that Hussein's oldest son, Uday, planned to assassinate them. They were killed in Baghdad a few months after Jordan got the tip.

But there is a bigger question as well. The reason reporters allow things to occasionally be said "off the record" is that even if they can't use that specific information in their stories, the reportage informs their thinking in a larger sense. If a reporter hears a politician make an off-color remark at an "off the record" session, he may not be able to put it into his story, but it certainly affects his view of the man. And just because a reporter can't use that bit of information in the story, he can look for other ways to report it - other things the politician did or said on the same topic.

The question in Jordan's case then is not whether CNN should have withheld information to save lives, but rather whether their reporting adequately explained that picture of Iraq to the public during the past 12 years. That's probably only a question CNN itself or a severely sleep-deprived news junkie can answer.

Another question though - and one that is more difficult to answer - is why one would choose to make all this information public now. There is certainly no shortage of reporting on the atrocities in Iraq under Hussein. There will likely only be more reports in the weeks and months ahead.

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