February 11, 2005

Blogs push Eason Jordan past the tipping point

According to ABC News and other outlets:

"CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan quit Friday amid a furor over remarks he made in Switzerland last month about journalists killed by the U.S. military in Iraq. Jordan said he was quitting to avoid CNN being "unfairly tarnished" by the controversy. "

When I wrote about this a couple of days ago, I thought it was pretty obvious that Jordan was tottering, even though it was unclear exactly what he had said, much less what he had meant, and even though the (mainstream) media coverage up to that point had been very limited and mostly gentle:

"Since this will get a little complicated, let me put my conclusions up front. (In the court of public relations, the Red Queen's rule applies anyhow: "first the sentence, and then the evidence".) Eason Jordan made a big mistake. He said something whose natural interpretation is incorrect and indefensible. He may have meant to convey the natural interpretation of his remarks, either because he believes it's true, or because he chose to exaggerate in order to express animus against the U.S. forces in Iraq. He may have meant to imply the natural interpretation but to leave himself interpretive room to back up, as politicians often do when they want to play to the prejudices of one group while preserving deniability for another. Or he may not have intended to convey the obvious interpretation of his words at all, despite their inflammatory effect and the prominence of the setting. None of these options is acceptable communicative behavior for the Chief News Executive of CNN."

A similar note was sounded by Bret Stephens (who was actually present at Davos), yesterday in the WSJ:

"I'll leave it to others to draw their own verdicts, but here's mine: Whether with malice aforethought or not, Mr. Jordan made a defamatory innuendo. Defamatory innuendo--rather than outright allegation--is the vehicle of mainstream media bias. Had Mr. Jordan's innuendo gone unchallenged, it would have served as further proof to the Davos elite of the depths of American perfidy. Mr. Jordan deserves some credit for retracting the substance of his remark, and some forgiveness for trying to weasel his way out of a bad situation of his own making. Whether CNN wants its news division led by a man who can't be trusted to sit on a panel and field softball questions is another matter."

That other matter has now been settled in the obvious way. The ABC article explains something that made Jordan's position even more untenable than it would otherwise have been:

"After several management restructurings at CNN, Jordan actually had no current operational responsibility over network programming. But he was CNN's chief fix-it man overseas, arranging coverage in dangerous or hard-to-reach parts of the world."

Stephens, though no ideological friend of Jordan's, seems a little apprehensive about packs of bloggers running wild through the nets, howling for journalistic blood:

"There's a reason the hounds are baying. Already they have feasted on the juicy entrails of Dan Rather. Mr. Jordan, whose previous offenses (other than the general tenor of CNN coverage) include a New York Times op-ed explaining why access is a more important news value than truth, was bound to be their next target."

Well, perhaps blogpacks have their role to play in maintaining a healthy intellectual ecosystem, just as the wolves are good for Yellowstone. Or so I read.

While we're on the subject of defamatory innuendo, let me point out a lovely example in Stephens' editorial. He describes Jordan's NYT op-ed as "explaining why access is a more important news value than truth". I was guilty of something similar when I wrote that "CNN had a pre-war deal with Saddam Hussein not to report his regime's atrocities, in return for protection and access".

CNN's "deal" with Saddam was apparently unspoken -- Jordan just figured, no doubt correctly, that if he reported Saddam's atrocities then CNN's news bureau would be expelled from Iraq. And by "protection" I meant that he avoided telling the story of how CNN staffers and sources had been treated, because he believed (again plausibly) that they and their families would be horribly killed if he publicized what had happened to them.

As for Stephens' phrase about access and truth, what Jordan actually wrote was that he "made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open", and that he learned about "awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff". He didn't actually say that "access is a more important new value than truth" -- instead he said that preserving the lives of CNN's Iraqi staff was more important that telling the truth about Saddam's atrocities. I suspect that if you asked Jordan whether "access is a more important news value than truth", he'd deny it.

Now, in fact I stand by my description of the pre-war situation in Iraq: "CNN had a ... deal with Saddam Hussein not to report his regime's atrocities, in return for protection and access." That's effectively what the situation was, even if that way of describing it is slanted towards a certain evaluation, namely that CNN's decision was unethical and even immoral. And I'm similarly comfortable with Stephens' neat formulation: I'm convinced that Jordan did indeed believe that "access is a more important news value than truth", even though he didn't say that and might well claim that he doesn't believe it. He acted as if he believed it, and that's good enough for me.

But those descriptions ("a deal not to report atrocities in return for protection and access"; "access is a more important news value than truth") are mine and Stephens', not Jordan's. And we might have done more to make that clear.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 11, 2005 11:55 PM