CNN: From reporting to repairing its image. And David Bloom, the NBC correspondent who died covering the war in Iraq: From mortal to media colossus.
Much has been made of CNN news head Eason Jordan’s recent disclosure in a New York Times op-ed piece that he had made 13 trips to Baghdad in the last dozen years and that: “Each time I visited, I became more and more distressed by what I saw and heard. Awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff.”
Jordan cited specifics, including an Iraqi cameraman for CNN who he said was beaten and tortured with electroshock.
Critics from the right, left and points between hit the roof, most notably charging that CNN had withheld news of brutality under Saddam Hussein -- which would have affirmed reports from other sources -- primarily to stay on the regime’s good side and maintain access in Iraq for its journalists. Jordan denies it.
Cutting corners for what you perceive to be the greater good is always dicey and, case by case, something about which good people can disagree. Perhaps the story is worth the compromise, perhaps not.
Slipping through the cracks, though, is what Jordan subsequently told Howard Kurtz, and it was equally troubling. It came out at the end of an appearance last week on “Reliable Sources,” a CNN show that monitors media behavior.
Kurtz, who juggles two hats while covering media for the Washington Post and drawing a paycheck from CNN as regular host of “Reliable Sources,” asked Jordan about government criticism of retired military men who had second-guessed aspects of U.S. invasion strategy during initial TV coverage of the war.
The essence of Jordan’s reply to Kurtz was that he didn’t understand the fuss because he had received clearance in advance. According to a CNN transcript of the program, he said: “I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, ‘Here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war.’ And we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.”
Important in what respect? CNN viewers were not about to learn, for time had run out. “OK, we’ve got to leave it there,” said Kurtz.
Which was unfortunate, because Jordan had just revealed that he had asked the Pentagon, in effect, to vet and approve ex-military men that CNN hoped to use as analysts. That is getting cozy.
Such spit-and-polish multitudes were the backbone of coverage on all of the networks when the war was hot, and among the few who didn’t always fall in line with the Pentagon was retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the top military pundit on CNN. Clark was anything but a Pentagon patsy, pulling no punches on the air after combat began.
Based on Jordan’s own words, nonetheless, the news chief had asked the Pentagon to sign off on personnel assigned to a key element of CNN’s war coverage, the equivalent of consulting with the White House in advance about political or policy experts it planned to use on the air. And he regarded the Pentagon’s endorsement as “important.”
Not the best way to inspire confidence in the media’s independence.
Although CNN may have had just its toes under the sheets with the Pentagon in this instance, some charge that it was sleeping around in Iraq, based on Jordan’s revelations about what he and his people had learned there but did not report.
Here’s one vote for giving CNN the benefit of the doubt on that. After all, Hussein’s regime hardly treated CNN like a chum during the war, booting its crew from Baghdad fairly early in the combat. And it banned more than a dozen CNN correspondents through the years, Jordan told Kurtz.
“It was not about access,” he said about CNN withholding information it had about the regime’s brutality. “It was about keeping innocent people alive, not letting them get killed because of our reporting.”
That’s a wobbly high wire, to be sure. Yet, given how many journalists never consider the consequences of their actions, it sounds almost refreshing.
Promotion in death
If ever there were a metaphor for TV reporters becoming the message it’s the stereophonic send-off given the 39-year-old Bloom.
He died of an apparent blood clot April 6 after his prolific role in NBC’s war coverage, most notably reporting live from atop a tank -- nicknamed the “Bloom-mobile” -- while embedded with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division as it charged toward Baghdad.
In life, Bloom was an energetic, colorful reporter and “Today” weekend anchor with a strong screen presence and the aura of someone possibly going far at NBC.
In death, he earned a promotion -- to journalistic giant.
So much so that CNN’s “Larry King Live” spent much of an hour memorializing him, as if he were a major figure of the war whose life was worth remembering more than others who died in Iraq. And CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel carried live a portion of Bloom’s funeral at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral that included anchor Tom Brokaw eulogizing him as “the Ernie Pyle of his generation.”
Pyle was a widely celebrated newspaper correspondent who was picked off by a Japanese sniper in 1945 after spending much of World War II in foxholes, reporting the personal stories of ordinary GIs in a testament to their bravery and fortitude. Read his war reporting today, and it still resonates across the decades and affects you on an emotional level.
That’s not to diminish Bloom, who had a good career and a following that surely grew as a result of his few weeks of high-profile reporting during this war that included chats with soldiers along with those spectacular tank rides. Although many felt his loss deeply, however, he was a footnote here, not the war’s face that future generations will recall.
Although the camera conveys a level of celebrity on everyone it touches, the hyperbole accompanying Bloom reflects how TV news elevates its own to “American Idol” status, to the extent that anchors and reporters sometimes eclipse the stories they cover.
Also at work here is this culture’s eulogy phenomenon, wherein everyone, from the unknown to the famous, grows in stature when recalled in death. We have them not just walking but doing cartwheels on water.
It happened with Princess Diana, who in life meant no more to most Americans than any other celebrity but in death became our “princess of hearts.” It happened with John Kennedy Jr., who in life was a relatively obscure figure to most of us but in death became “America’s prince.”
It happened with Bloom as it happened to them, as if who they were in life was not good enough.
Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at email@example.com