Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Access Is a Curse

With the news that Dan Rather has scored a 3 hour interview with Saddam Hussein, I’m reminded of an article by Franklin Foer that appeared in the October 28 edition of The New Republic. It detailed the contortions the Western press must go through, and concessions it must make, in order to get access to anyone or anything within the Iraqi borders. Even though the journalists know they are being mislead, deceived, and used, they often report Iraqi propaganda, without qualification.

The reason? So they can continue to have access. If they report anything not approved by the Ministry of Information, they are subject to disciplinary measures. This can range anywhere from, at the extreme, death (see the article for information on the British journalist Farzad Bazoft) down to expulsion from the country, of both the journalist and news organization in general. The latter is the pressure point for CBS and if these rules of the game are still in place (and I'm sure they are), there’s no chance Rather is going to even attempt to ask the hard questions. According to the New Republic:

In Iraq, high-ranking network functionaries endlessly court the Ministry of Information so they will be well-positioned when they need to get their reporters in. In part these trips consist of network execs setting up meetings with Iraqi officials to try to persuade them that the networks are not sending CIA stooges. And in part they consist of network execs promising the Iraqi regime that they will cover its propaganda.

To stay on the right side of the regime, many reporters on the Baghdad beat take the path of least resistance: They mimic the Baath Party line.

There's a quid pro quo for being there," says Peter Arnett, who worked the Iraq beat for CNN for a decade. "You go in and they control what you do. ... So you have no option other than to report the opinion of the government of Iraq."


Given this, I think it’s likely that the Iraqi regime selected CBS for this interview, precisely because it felt CBS would be most sympathetic to their position, or at least most willing to blindly report their propaganda as news. With a war coming up, CBS needs access to Baghdad. Attempting to expose Hussein’s deception in advance is a secondary consideration to CBS, second to making sure they’re not scooped by Aaron Brown and Peter Jennings, reporting from under a bed at the Al Rasheed hotel as the anti air craft guns start to go off. Again from The New Republic:

When I asked CNN's Jordan to explain why his network is so devoted to maintaining a perpetual Baghdad presence, he listed two reasons: "First, because it's newsworthy; second, because there's an expectation that if anybody is in Iraq, it will be CNN." His answer reveals the fundamental attitude of most Western media: Access to Baghdad is an end in itself, regardless of the intellectual or moral caliber of the journalism such access produces. An old journalistic aphorism holds "access is a curse." The Iraqi experience proves it can be much worse than that.

By "much worse" I'm assuming Foer refers to the complicity of the American media in being used by the nation's enemies to weaken our collective resolve. But then again, the CBS prime time line up may have sufficiently weaked our resolve to fight already.

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