Opinion: Living in an Anonymous World

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August 3, 2022

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(NEW YORK) — On April 11, 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, then-CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan wrote an opinion in The New York Times. The piece, titled “The News We Kept To Ourselves,” explained the rationale behind the heinous stories CNN chose not to pursue or publish out of concern for the safety of Iraqi civilians involved and detailed the dangers they faced when working with foreign news organizations like CNN.

The response from the journalistic community to Jordan’s piece was quick. Critics resoundingly accused CNN of sanitizing atrocities committed by Hussein’s regime and, in doing so, destroying its credibility by compromising the ultimate goal of journalism: to seek and report the truth. Most seem to conclude that it is better to be expelled from a country than to pander to a dictatorship in order to secure access. That to do anything less is a cover-up and propaganda.

Certainly, Jordan committed acts of self-censorship, but equating his self-censorship to a cover-up or propaganda, frankly, seems like an overreaction. Of course, I get to look back on those events with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, and through a lens that knows that much of the mainstream media coverage of Iraq (even going back to the Gulf War) was bad.

When Jordan wrote his piece, it was mere days after Baghdad fell following the U.S. invasion. At that time, we didn’t know yet that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that we had gone to Iraq under the premise of a narrative formed around the lies of one person — an informant known as ‘Curveball.’ No one knew the utter embarrassment that time period would become for the U.S. and U.S. media. So, naturally, at that moment in time, Jordan, in effect, sanitizing CNN’s coverage of Iraq and the atrocities of Saddam Hussein would have been completely unacceptable. Completely un-journalistic. 

But looking back in time, it’s very difficult for me to condemn Jordan and CNN because I can only see their actions within the context of all of the mainstream media’s actions at the time. I think instinctively we feel that truth should be a fixed object. If something is the truth, it just is. As black and white as the words printed on newsprint paper. But, because all these events are a world away under incredibly dangerous circumstances, there are always levels of shadowy gray. 

CNN hid the faces of Husseins’ regime to protect the anonymity of its staff. Maybe downplaying the atrocities we knew were happening (it’s pretty hard to prove a negative, though, so it’s hard to tell if they really did any “cover up”). But, all of the media (including CNN) portrayed government claims and allegations as fact. Which, we know now, was a government agenda hidden behind anonymous sources. 

All of this seems to be facets of the same concept: anonymity. 

The question of anonymous sources is a constant thought exercise for journalists. We are annoyed when an article over-relies on a non-specific anonymous “source said” because it makes the information less credible. We tend to think that if we simply put a name to the source/government official/entity then the information we get is no longer anonymous. We trust that if we support a war started by government officials saying, “based on our sources,” that there are actually sources. 

Which brings me back to Jordan and CNN. Specifically, a 1991 story first reported by CNN reporter Peter Arnett during the first Gulf War. At the time, Arnett was the only Western reporter in Iraq. Arnett was taken by (unnamed) Iraqi officials to a factory heavily damaged by U.S. airstrikes and allowed to film the damage to what the officials said was the only factory in Iraq that made infant formula. Arnett reported that story on January 23, and later that day, Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Gallaher told reporters in Saudi Arabia that the factory had barbed-wire fencing and was guarded by a military garrison. That “numerous sources” indicated that the factory was producing biological weapons. Gen. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed they were sure the factory was used to produce biological weapons.

The Washington Post reported that the factory was constructed to produce infant formula and the installed equipment could not have made biological weapons, interviewing (and naming) the French contractors and New Zealand technicians who constructed and visited the factory. One unnamed White House official claimed that the plant was converted the previous year for biological weapons, another unnamed government official from an unnamed government agency said that it was a backup plant, and yet another unnamed official from an unnamed government agency said the factory produced things useful in the production of biological weapons. 

But, the factory was built in the 1970s, and the technicians hadn’t visited the factory for almost a year when it was hit. The Washington Post had to include a line admitting that these contractors and technicians could not know what happened to the building after they left. Even if named, these sources did not add a whole lot of clarity to what had happened in January 1991. 

To say there is a fair amount of skepticism about this factory is an understatement. If true, the U.S. possibly targeting a baby formula plant is very, very bad. And yet, Arnett reporting the factory as a baby formula factory based on unnamed Iraqi officials certainly fits in with the charge that CNN went “soft” on Iraq and Hussein to maintain access. But, as Jeff Jacoby for The Boston Globe pointed out, maintaining access is important. “CNN wasn’t the only offender, and it doesn’t just happen in Iraq.” 

Like most things, we can’t know the real truth about the factory, but, to me, this incident merely highlights the inherent hypocrisy of anonymous reporting. We want you to believe our anonymous source because we know our person is credible, but how can we trust your anonymous source because we don’t know if your person is credible?

Unfortunately, I think it goes deeper than that. Everyone knows the word “hearsay” — basically, that you can’t testify in court and say that ‘X’ is true because ‘A’ told me one time. But in law, there’s also something known as “hearsay within hearsay” — you can’t testify in court and say that ‘X’ is true because ‘A’ read it in a letter that ‘B’ wrote and ‘A’ told me what it said. In both cases, it’s a problem because we can’t know if what ‘A’ or ‘B’ said was true unless ‘A’ or ‘B’ comes to tell us themselves in court. Each statement needs to be vetted. The 1990s and 2000s certainly proved the danger of not vetting ‘A’ or ‘B.’

But, often, it is dangerous for ‘A’ or ‘B’ to tell us themselves (and, I suspect, anyone who would willingly put ‘A’ or ‘B’ in mortal danger just for a story, very likely hasn’t had to make that call themselves). We simply cannot get away from anonymous sourcing. I wouldn’t even characterize it as a “necessary evil” because in an increasingly shadowy and complicated world, the less we can disentangle ourselves from using it. It is just… necessary. 

Instead, the real problem is the reporting done around that anonymous source. Everyone, including journalists themselves, has criticized sensationalism as a problem. It’s not a secret why the news gets sensationalized. News is a business and a business has to make money. The sensational sells. It is very, very easy to pick the more sensational phrasing. It is not always easy to stop to ask what we’re selling and what the price is. 

It’s a bit of a logical leap to conclude that not telling everything automatically meant CNN went soft on Saddam Hussein or they treated his authoritarian regime with kid gloves. The American public already knew about Hussein’s brutality and CNN did report on it. Granting anonymity to the sources of those stories did not guarantee their safety in those circumstances. Nor were the journalists themselves safe when they told those stories. So, in terms of truth and fact, did we really lose that much? 

Did CNN lose credibility when everyone was doing, and had been doing, the same thing? Jacoby pointed to Thomas Friedman’s admission in his 1989 book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” that the Western press “coddled” the PLO in Beirut during Yasser Arafat’s reign in order to play “the game,” but concludes that “When ‘the name of the game’ becomes ‘keeping on good terms’ with the world’s most evil men, journalism turns into something awfully hard to distinguish from collaboration. It didn’t start with Eason Jordan, and it didn’t end in Baghdad.”

It also didn’t end in the U.S. In truth, where American journalists really lost credibility was at home. In keeping on good terms with the U.S. government, the reporting on Iraq does look an awful lot like collaboration. Even esteemed journalist Dan Rather told John Pilger in a 2010 article for The Guardian, “‘There was a fear in every newsroom in America,’ he told me, ‘a fear of losing your job . . . the fear of being stuck with some label, unpatriotic or otherwise.’ Rather says war has made ‘stenographers out of us’ and that had journalists questioned the deceptions that led to the Iraq war, instead of amplifying them, the invasion would not have happened.”

Certainly, from a purely journalistic standpoint, what Jordan did was unethical. The journalism code of ethics prioritizes truth and information before all else, and if CNN didn’t seek or report all of the truth, then their actions certainly do not feel journalistic. But, on the other hand, the mainstream media took what the U.S. government fed them and just absolutely ran with it. Instead of doing the journalist’s job, the media simply accepted what the government said as true, going so far as to spin reports from the past to be more pro-war. That is also unethical.

The government will always give information based on anonymous sources for national security and whatnot. But the real question I have in reflecting on Jordan and his critics is how many layers the media need to pull back to avoid the mistakes of the 1900s and 2000s. I’m not entirely sure we’ve learned. So, at least for now, I agree with Jordan. Until we really start responsibly using anonymous sources, I’d rather err on the side of keeping my sources safe. Because the cost of getting that wrong is too many years, too much money, and too many lives lost in the sands of a foreign nation.

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