Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2003 / 21 Elul, 5763

Zev Chafets

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Press scandal: Kowtowing in Iraq | A very important book about Iraq has just been published by The Lyons Press, a little Connecticut house that specializes in books about fly fishing. A lot of important journalists are hoping you'll miss it.

"Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, an Oral History," by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson, contains an astonishing 4,000-word interview with John Burns, who until recently covered Baghdad for The New York Times. (To purchase, click HERE . Sales help fund JWR)

"Terror, totalitarian states and their ways are nothing new to me," says Burns, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting in Bosnia and Sarajevo, "but I felt from the start that [Saddam Hussein's Iraq] was in a category by itself, with the possible exception of ... North Korea. I felt that was the central truth that has to be told about this place. It was also the central truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents here (italics added)."

Burns is brutally direct. Reporters covered up for the Iraqis because they were intimidated. They feared for their visas, their access and their lives. He recounts a visit by Saddam's henchmen to his hotel in which he was warned to collaborate or "be taken to a place from which you will not return."

Obviously, Burns wasn't the only journalist threatened in this way. The Iraqis had a blacklist of what they considered unfriendly reporters, and a lot of men and women did what they could to stay off that list.

"In one case," Burns recalls, "a correspondent actually ... printed out copies of his and other people's stories - mine included - specifically in order to be able to show the difference between himself and others. He wanted to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state. He was with a major American newspaper."

Burns calls this kind of behavior "disgraceful." He is especially contemptuous of CNN's Eason Jordan, who admitted in April that his network systematically pulled punches for years to protect its Iraqi personnel.

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Burns: "The point is not whether we protect the people who work for us by not disclosing the terrible things they tell us. Of course we do ... [but] it doesn't preclude you from telling about terror, of murder on a mass scale, just because you won't talk about how your driver's brother was murdered."

Burns cites the riot that took place when Saddam opened the dreaded Abu Ghraib prison in October. Although it was an unprecedented event, "some of my colleagues chose not to cover that, saying it would get you in trouble."

Intimidation censored the news from Saddam's Baghdad, as it still does in the reporting coming out of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern police states. But so did moral obtuseness.

"There is such a thing as absolute evil," says Burns. "I think people just simply didn't recognize it. They rationalized it away."

It is hard to imagine a more scathing indictment from a more authoritative source. Burns charges his colleagues with nothing less than "a gross abdication of responsibility." But the iconic media organizations that stand accused are saying nothing. The notable exception is the New York Daily News, whose Paul Colford mentioned the book Aug. 19.

Including The Times, which has yet to cover or comment on the historic journalistic scandal exposed by its own correspondent. That job has been left to a couple of guys named Katovsky and Carlson and a little publishing house in Connecticut that specializes in fly fishing.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

© 2002, NY Daily News