(Published in Italian as "Iraq: Sparate sul giornalista!," Latinoamerica e tutti I sud del mondo 90/91: 1/2.2005, pp. 20-25)

Bruce Jackson

Killing the Reporters

CNN executives seem to have gone quite crazy when word leaked out that their news chief Eason Jordan had said at a panel titled "Will Democracy Survive the Media?" at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on 27 January that he knew of at least a dozen journalists who had been targeted for death by American troops in Iraq. Jordan was challenged on that remark by US Congressman Barney Frank and he quickly backed off. At this point, no one is certain exactly what Jordan said because all participants in the exclusive Davos affair agree they won't make recordings or provide quotations to outsiders. The Davos officials have a videotape, but they're not letting anybody see it.

Some people who were at the panel say Jordan was talking about deliberate killings of journalists. Some that he was talking about how difficult the US military makes things for independent journalists, especially Arabic journalists, and that when he said the US was "targeting journalists" he was talking broadly, not in terms of the sights of a gun. There are so many different versions now it reminds me of those psychology class demonstrations where the professor arranges for a surprising incident and then asks the students to write down exactly what they saw. They all saw the same thing, but some write of a tall white man in a yellow shirt and others of a stocky black man in a red shirt. The demonstration is about the unreliability of eye-witness testimony, the unreliability of memory that seems perfect. Unless you have a film, you can't ever be sure who, if anyone, has the story right.

Getting the story right doesn't matter in the case of Eason Jordan. Fifteen days after the Davos panel, his long career at CNN was over. When he resigned on February 11 he said, "After 23 years at CNN, I have decided to resign in an effort to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy over conflicting accounts of my recent remarks regarding the alarming number of journalists killed in Iraq. I never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists, and I apologize to anyone who thought I said or believed otherwise."

Eason and his superiors at CNN surely were aware of the recent affair involving longtime evening news anchorman Dan Rather affair at CBS. Right wing bloggers and the right wing Fox channel had gone after Rather because they considered him too liberal and not sufficiently supportive of President Bush and his wars. Rather was hounded into retirement when bloggers revealed that one of the documents he quoted in an 8 September 2004 story about how George W. Bush avoided going to Vietnam may have been a forgery. There was never any suggestion that the story itself was wrong, however: Bush did avoid going to Vietnam by using connections to get into the National Guard, and he did fail to complete that National Guard service. Rather's story was correct; it's only the document that was dubious. At first Rather tried to defend the story, perhaps not understanding what was going on. CBS responded by commissioning a study of the event, but by the time that report came in it was too late: the minor incident had been blown up into a firestorm and Dan Rather had to go.

The real issue isn't the exact words Eason Jordan uttered in Davos, but whether or not the US military deliberately targets or puts in harm's way independent journalists in Iraq. But the right wing attack on CBS news had its desired effect: the US media, which already treats the Bush administration and US military activities in Iraq with astonishing delicacy and caution, collapsed rather than risk another attack of the bloggers and of Fox News. There has been almost no examination of the deaths of independent journalists in the mainstream US press.

Three weeks after Eason's resignation, the whole matter was back in the news. On 4 March 2004, the car carrying Il Manifesto reporter Giuliana Sgrena was shot up by US troops in Baghdad, wounding her and killing Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari, who had just negotiated Sgrena's release from kidnappers. American officials said the car had been traveling at 100 milers per hours on a very dangerous road and hadn't stopped at a checkpoint. The soldiers at the checkpoint, they said, saw the oncoming car, worried that it might contain a suicide bomber, and fired in self-defense. It was, they said, an unfortunate accident, a misunderstanding. But Giuliana Sgrena has a very different version of what happen. They weren't on that road at all, she says. They were on a safe, protected road reserved for diplomats and other officials. They had already passed through checkpoints so there was no way a car with a suicide bomber could have been on that road. They were not driving at a high rate of speed. Furthermore, the tank that wounded her and killed Calipari was off the side of the road, not at a checkpoint at all. And, most important, she says the car was shot from behind, not from the front, so how could it have been a matter of self-defense if the car had already gone past the tank when the shooting started? As of this writing, American officials continue to treat the incident as an accident, and they have, thus far, refused to allow Italian officials to examine the car.

Was Sgrena deliberately targeted for death by American officials because they were angry that she had been freed after ransom had been paid to the people holding her hostage? Was it done to intimidate other countries who might want to negotiate with hostage-takers, which is against US policy? Was it to punish her for her writing? Was it simply a matter of inexperienced troops getting confused and firing in error? Thus far, the US government hasn't provided enough information for anyone to know. But the pattern of its previous investigations of unjustified killings in Iraq suggest that the investigation will end with the US government finding itself innocent, one more time.

Had Eason Jordan stuck a simple qualifier into his Davos statement, he'd still have a job. If he'd said, "I know of a dozen cases of journalists killed in Iraq by US troops where there are serious questions about how the killings happened and why they happened," the right wing bloggers couldn't have touched him. Had they attacked, CNN could have responded with a statement about those questions. According to people who were at the Davos session, Jordan did try to qualify his remarks, but nobody seemed to care. And afterwards, CNN found the culture of press intimidation in American so great that they decided to let a highly-valued employee fall on his sword instead of confronting a very real question.

Instead of hiding, CNN might have used to Davos affair to take a fresh look at the 8 April 2003 the deaths of Reuters's reporter Taras Protsyuk and José Couso of Spain's Telecinco: when they were killed and three others who were wounded by cannonfire from a US tank, they were simply standing on the balcony of their hotel room in Baghdad's Palestine Hotel. At first, US officials said the tank was returning gunfire from the hotel; witnesses and a French tv videotape put the lie to that. Then the story became that the tank fired into the Palestine Hotel because the commander thought someone there was looking at him with binoculars, perhaps spotting for a rocket attack. The tank commander's superiors knew that the Palestine Hotel was the base for 100 unembedded reporters and the reporters had been told that American troops had been told not to shoot at it. But apparently no one ever told the crew of the tank that fired the cannon shell. An unfortunate mistake, the US said, and the matter was closed.

Or they might have taken another look at the case of the A-10 Warthog bomber that attacked the Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad the same day, killing reporter Tariq Ayyoub. Al-Jazeera had, like other agencies, given US officials the exact coordinates of its office and, in theory, all pilots shooting their missiles into buildings were supposed to know where those protected locations were. An unfortunate mistake, the US said, and the matter was closed.

Time and again, the deaths of reporters—60 of them now—have been written off as unfortunate mistakes, as something that happens in a war zone. Mistakes they very well may have been, but thus far the US has been so secretive or lazy in its investigations of the incidents that it is difficult not to find a pattern in the killings, not to wonder if US officials are, if not deliberately killing independent reporters, then being criminally careless about the lives of those independent reporters.

For the US officials, it doesn't matter if the killings are deliberate or accidental: if enough independent reporters are killed with enough frequency, then fewer and fewer reporters will risk going out there and asking the hard questions that neither the US occupation command nor the developing Iraqi government want asked. At home, the press is muzzled because it fears attack from the right wing bloggers; in Iraq the press is crippled because the risks are too great for all but a very few.

The deaths of the journalists are part of as much larger context of careless killing in Iraq. This is a threat ordinary Iraqis live with every day. For a while, there were regular stories in the US press of families going to or coming home from a wedding or funeral or people going to or returning from work who were shot to death by US troops at a checkpoint because they feared the families might be carrying bombs in those packages or under their clothes. Such incidents were always dismissed as accidents, as misunderstandings, as moments of confusion by the military, and there were so many of them they became ordinary and after a while the US press stopped bothering to report them.

The real journalism atrocity story in Iraq isn't that Eason Jordan was sloppy when he spoke of the killings of journalists in Iraq; it is that most of the press and most of the American public are willing to accept the killing as if it were merely ordinary. Nobody coming home from the funeral of a brother or father or daughter who was also shot to death by a frightened soldier should be shot to death by another frightened soldier. Nobody standing on his hotel room balcony should be blown up by an artillery shell from a tank a mile away.

That entire culture of unaccountable killing is what Eason Jordan should have been talking about, what his colleagues in the US press should be talking about, what, in this time of fear and trepidation, no one in the mainstream corporate press ever talks about.