In 1959, A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times was expelled from Poland for writing a series of stories that angered Wladyslaw Gomulka, then the country's Communist leader. But the risks were far greater for those on whom he relied for aid and tips.
"Every day in a Communist country there are stories that a reporter must sit on for a while," Rosenthal wrote in an essay that year. "These are the traceable stories and a Western reporter owes it to his friends, and his own ability to live with himself later, to try to avoid getting people into trouble. We go; they stay.
Three decades later, that question of timing is haunting CNN. Eason Jordan, the cable network's chief news executive, last Friday triggered an outcry with a graphic account of Iraqi atrocities withheld by his network to protect the physical safety of sources and staffers.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Jordan uncorked these stories in dramatic fashion. In one incident, the Iraqi secret police abducted and tortured an Iraqi cameraman who was working for CNN. During another, one of Saddam Hussein's sons declared to the CNN executive that he would have two estranged brothers-in-law assassinated and the Jordanian king killed for harboring them.
A government official direly warned of "severest possible consequences" if CNN put reporters in the Kurdish-controlled north, and Kurdish leaders said they arrested several Iraqis intent on killing the journalists. None of these stories could be told, Jordan wrote, without imperiling the lives of their own employees or sources, though he warned King Hussein of the threat.
"As a reporter, you have to protect your sources," says Kevin Klose, the president of National Public Radio. People jeopardized their careers and safety just by meeting with Klose when he was a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post in the early 1980s, during Soviet rule.
When they wanted their stories told publicly, however, Klose said he felt obliged to do so. In one instance, a Ukrainian coal miner was seized by government agents and tortured with hallucinogenic drugs in a psychiatric ward after Klose interviewed him for a story on the clamp-down on trade union activists, Klose recalled.
Many journalists have condemned CNN and Jordan for failing to tell viewers of those episodes, which they say vividly demonstrate the brutality of Hussein's regime. Some critics work for competitors; some don't. Some are conservatives distrustful of CNN, some are not.
Mara Liaason of National Public Radio and Fox News Channel, a CNN rival, called Jordan's judgment "a deal with the devil, trading for access." Bill Kovach, the former New York Times reporter and editor who is now the head of the Committee for Concerned Journalists, told USA Today: "This seems to me to be allowing the ethics of other endeavors to trump the ethics of journalism: to seek the truth and make it available."
Columnist Eric Fetterman of The New York Post, a corporate sibling of Fox, wrote that Jordan's acknowledgement "wreaks incalculable damage on all journalists' ability to be trusted by the American people." In retrospect, The Washington Post editorialized, "some CNN reporting did seem deliberately unprovocative, given the true nature of the regime."
CNN has held a unique place among Western media outlets for its access in Baghdad; its bureau in the city was the only one maintained by a U.S. broadcaster over the past decade. Reporting from countries controlled by despots is a messy landscape riddled with trapdoors and quicksand. Articles and news stories can have lethal repercussions. As former CNN producer Robert Wiener wrote in his book on the Persian Gulf war, Live from Baghdad, CNN made complicated choices on the fly - compromises - in its pursuit of an interview with Hussein himself.
The crux of the problem remains: What's the point of having reporters based in the hottest spots on Earth if they can't report the news they uncover?
In an interview, Jordan said his controversial article was an effort to get some examples of Hussein's repression on the historical record without causing harm to innocent people.
Hussein's regime repeatedly forced the network's reporters from Baghdad for stories they put on the air, he notes. Despite the threat from the Iraqi Information Minister, CNN journalists have routinely reported from northern Iraq on activities of anti-Hussein Kurds. Last October, CNN ran footage taken by the network's camera crews of a rare protest by Iraqis, who were demanding information about their imprisoned relatives. It enraged the Iraqis, and led to the expulsion of CNN reporters. Staffers from ABC and NBC were also ejected.
"I don't know of any reporter, anywhere in the world, who would report something that could get people killed in order to prove himself," Jordan said. "Some people are coming away with the mistaken impression that CNN wasn't reporting on the brutality in Iraq in exchange for access ... The only secrets I kept in Iraq were events that would have gotten innocent people killed."
During one of Jordan's many trips to Baghdad, Abbas Al-Janabi, former press secretary to Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday Hussein, told him of the torture received at the hands of Hussein's police, for example. That didn't show up on the air at the time. But when Al-Janabi defected in the fall of 1998, Jordan made sure he landed one of the first interviews. According to a transcript, anchor Bernard Shaw introduced the piece this way: "For years, there have been reports that members of [Hussein's] family were responsible for unspeakable acts of torture. Now, a man who says ... he has witnessed such brutality."
Yesterday, Jordan said he had had three choices: He could have ignored the stories altogether; he could have told them whatever the cost; or he could have waited until it was safe to share what he knew.
Officials at several network and cable news operations, even those promoting their correspondents currently in Baghdad, say they have not been faced with quandaries like those Jordan described. None agreed to speak for the record.
But Rosenthal's essay suggested an underlying principle to guide decisions. Any time an individual story cannot be told, it places a burden on the conscientious reporter to find other related episodes - stories in the same family - to illustrate them. Oppressive regimes inspire that responsibility more than most.
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 410-332-6923.