Davos, Switzerland from the WEF 2005
(Reprinted from the original posting on www.forumblog.org on January 28, 2005)
This fiery topic became a real nightmare today for the Chief News Executive of CNN at what was an initially very mild discussion at the World Economic Forum titled "Will Democracy Survive the Media?".
At a discussion moderated by David R. Gergen, the Director for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, the concept of truth, fairness, and balance in the news was weighed against corporate profit interest, the need for ratings, and how the media can affect democracy. The panel included Richard Sambrook, the worldwide director of BBC radio, U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, Abdullah Abdullah, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and Eason Jordan, Chief News Executive of CNN. The audience was a mix of journalists, WEF attendees (many from Arab countries), and a US Senator from Connecticut, Chris Dodd.
During one of the discussions about the number of journalists killed in the Iraq War, Eason Jordan asserted that he knew of 12 journalists who had not only been killed by US troops in Iraq, but they had in fact been targeted. He repeated the assertion a few times, which seemed to win favor in parts of the audience (the anti-US crowd) and cause great strain on others.
Due to the nature of the forum, I was able to directly challenge Eason, asking if he had any objective and clear evidence to backup these claims, because if what he said was true, it would make Abu Ghraib look like a walk in the park. David Gergen was also clearly disturbed and shocked by the allegation that the U.S. would target journalists, foreign or U.S. He had always seen the U.S. military as the providers of safety and rescue for all reporters.
Eason seemed to backpedal quickly, but his initial statements were backed by other members of the audience (one in particular who represented a worldwide journalist group). The ensuing debate was (for lack of better words) a real "sh--storm". What intensified the problem was the fact that the session was a public forum being taped on camera, in front of an international crowd. The other looming shadow on what was going on was the presence of a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator in the middle of some very serious accusations about the U.S. military.
To be fair (and balanced), Eason did backpedal and make a number of statements claiming that he really did not know if what he said was true, and that he did not himself believe it. But when pressed by others, he seemed to waver back and forth between what might have been his beliefs and the realization that he had created a kind of public mess. His statements, his reaction, and the reaction of all in attendance left me perplexed and confused. Many in the crowd, especially those from Arab nations, applauded what he said and called him a "very brave man" for speaking up against the U.S. in a public way amongst a crowd ready to hear anti-US sentiments. I am quite sure that somewhere in the Middle East, right now, his remarks are being printed up in Arab language newspapers as proof that the U.S. is an evil and corrupt nation. That is a real nightmare, because the Arab world is taking something said by a credible leader of the media (CNN!) as the gospel, or koranic truth. What is worse is that I am not really sure what Eason really meant to communicate to us, but I do know that he was quite passionate about it. Members of the audience took away what they wanted to hear, and now they will use it in every vile and twisted way imaginable.
To me, what was said can not be put back into the genie's bottle. So here is my request as a U.S. citizen, and really only a minor, minor player in the whole WEF scheme of things: Congressman Frank and Senator Dodd, you both seem like good and honest men, and Congressman Frank especially seems like someone with a bit of courage (I'm sure Senator Dodd is brave as well). Clear up this mess, use your power and authority as elected leaders, and make transparent what really happened. You must do this to respect the 12 journalists killed and let the world know how and why. Here is another challenge, and this one is for the CNN and the BBC: What the hell happened? Is Eason right or is he wrong? Good journalism calls for digging into and revealing all of the facts (or was everything that was said in the mild part of the discussion about fair coverage and seeking the truth just verbage?).
If what Eason originally said was true, exactly what happened and why needs to become known to the American public and world at large. If it is not, it is an example of how "news" is created by the heat of the moment, without any bearing to reality. If it is true, we need to know if it was official or if it was just some random disgruntled soldiers. The dark scenario, what the rest of the world would love to believe, is that the U.S. is sinister and evil and this is just another example of Darth Bush. Is this the same U.S. that I know and love, or was this just someone accidentally becoming swept up in the anti-U.S. feeling that is all pervasive in Davos (but they love us too, especially Clinton).
The cherry on the whipped cream of this cowpie sundae was poor Abdullah Abdullah, a shining new, fresh scrubbed member of America's grand experiment to export democracy to the Middle East. Here is someone who seemed to be idealistic, full of hope and vigor. What is he thinking about all of this? What kind of role model are we presenting to the fragile new democracies of Afghanistan and Iraq? What we can do, what we must do, is show them how democracy works, and how in an open and free country the truth will get out, and those responsible will be held accountable. The U.S. makes no claims about being perfect - we only make claims that we are open enough to correct our problems, and to admit freely to ourselves and the world if we are wrong.
As a last note, I think that this article is a good pointer to the future of the news: average people, freely saying what they want, as they saw it, for anyone to see. To me, that is freedom of the press.