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John Burns: 'There Is Corruption in Our Business'

Published: September 15, 2003

The following are the words of New York Times correspondent John F. Burns, on his experiences reporting from Baghdad during the war. Excerpted from the book Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, an Oral History by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson, published this week by The Lyons Press, used with permission.

From the point of view of my being in Baghdad, I had more authority than anybody else. Without contest, I was the most closely watched and unfavored of all the correspondents there because of what I wrote about terror whilst Saddam Hussein was still in power.

Terror, totalitarian states, and their ways are nothing new to me, but I felt from the start that this was in a category by itself, with the possible exception in the present world of North Korea. I felt that that was the central truth that has to be told about this place. It was also the essential truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents here. Why? Because they judged that the only way they could keep themselves in play here was to pretend that it was okay.

There were correspondents who thought it appropriate to seek the approbation of the people who governed their lives. This was the ministry of information, and particularly the director of the ministry. By taking him out for long candlelit dinners, plying him with sweet cakes, plying him with mobile phones at $600 each for members of his family, and giving bribes of thousands of dollars. Senior members of the information ministry took hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes from these television correspondents who then behaved as if they were in Belgium. They never mentioned the function of minders. Never mentioned terror.

In one case, a correspondent actually went to the Internet Center at the Al-Rashid Hotel and printed out copies of his and other people's stories -- mine included -- specifically in order to be able to show the difference between himself and the others. He wanted to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state. He was with a major American newspaper.

Yeah, it was an absolutely disgraceful performance. CNN's Eason Jordan's op-ed piece in The New York Times missed that point completely. The point is not whether we protect the people who work for us by not disclosing the terrible things they tell us. Of course we do. But the people who work for us are only one thousandth of one percent of the people of Iraq. So why not tell the story of the other people of Iraq? It doesn't preclude you from telling about terror. Of murder on a mass scale just because you won't talk about how your driver's brother was murdered.


In February I was denied a visa. Then I found there were visas available. I was in Amman. Some of my rivals who had omitted to notice that Iraq was a terror state were busy here sucking up. They were very pleased with themselves. These were people who'd argued that it was essential to be in Iraq for the war. I got a visa of dubious quality; it was a visa which allowed me to come in and cover the peace movement.

I assumed I would be thrown out immediately. I arrived only two weeks before the war. They accredited me. They took my passport away and held it for five days until a man who is said to be a deputy director of the Mukhabarat showed up one day -- a certain Mr. Sa'ad Mutana.

He was assigned to be my minder. He was an extremely unpleasant man. At this point a dozen people from the information ministry came to me and said, "Get out!" They said he was certainly a senior official. He introduced himself as a former general. The reason they kept me here is that when the war starts, I could become a hostage.

Well, I stayed. On the night of April 1, they came to my room at this hotel and said, "You're under arrest. We've known all along you're a CIA agent. You will now collaborate with us or we will take you to a place from which you will not return." They stole all my equipment. They stole all my money.

Then they left. The hotel had no electrical power at the time. They said, "You stay in your room." I assumed they left somebody outside. I went out into the darkened corridor. There was nobody there, so I slipped into the stairway.

To tell you the truth, I didn't know what to do. As it happened, a friend of mine, an Italian television correspondent, happened to be coming up the stairwell. She asked, "What are you doing?" I replied, "I really don't know. I'm at wit's end." She said, "You come to my room. They won't attack my room." She is a former Italian communist who had not challenged them.

So there's a strange inversion. I found my safety at a critical moment with an old friend who had not challenged them.

I then arranged a meeting with [General Uday] Al-Tayyib through my Italian friend. "Director," I said to him, "if something happens to me now, the facts are all well known to my newspaper and well known to people in Washington, and you will be held directly responsible. If something happens to me, you will go before an American military tribunal and I wouldn't be surprised if you were shot. So you better do something to stop it." He seemed frightened. The director said, "I'll see what I can do."

A week earlier I had been apprised by the Times that the ministry of information building was to be destroyed in twenty-four hours. We had a general notification that the ministry of information and the Al Rashid Hotel were not excluded from the target lists. But as long as we were all in those buildings, they wouldn't attack.

So we had moved to the Palestine Hotel, but the TV networks were still filing from the information ministry because they were not allowed to file from anywhere else. Which is why CNN got expelled. They refused to go on filing from there; they used a videophone to file their stories on the first heavy night of bombing on March 21. They were caught with a videophone and they were expelled by dawn.

So in the three or four days that followed, I got a call from the Times saying that they had certain indications from the Pentagon that in twenty-four hours the information ministry would be gone. So I got up at 2:00 a.m., and I said to people downstairs, "Get Mr. Al-Tayyib here." He arrived at 5:00 a.m and I said to him, "Listen to me and listen carefully. I'm not going to cause a panic among journalists. I remember what you did to CNN the last time. I don't want to be accused of spreading alarm and despondency, but you've got to close that ministry down, because anybody who's in that building tomorrow night will be killed. We have friends in Washington. People who are concerned about my welfare and that of other American correspondents. That's how we know it."

For twenty-four hours he said he'd see what he could do. They did nothing. That night at 8:00 p.m, I went to every floor of the ministry. I told everybody. "Get off! Get off this building. It's going to be attacked this night."

When I got back to my hotel room I got another call from New York saying it's been put off twenty-four hours because of weather. It was after my second meeting with Al-Tayyib that they raided my room. He shouted at me. He said, "We know you're a CIA agent because they attacked the ministry." I said, "You lying son of a bitch. I told you that because I come from a newspaper and a country who cares about people. We were told this on the basis of human decency. Not just for ourselves but also for Iraqis. They didn't want to kill innocent Iraqis. You failed to do anything at all about it."

I went there two nights running to get people out. As a result, there was only one person injured, a secretary to the minister, which is pretty amazing considering they hit the building with seven or eight cruise missiles. I said, "You're a son of a bitch. You know exactly what the truth of this was. I told you as a matter of decency and you did nothing at all. Now you invert this to say I'm a CIA agent." The end of the story was that on the night of April 8, he stole $200,000.

Now this son of a bitch sits in his home about three miles from here, saying he expects to be re-appointed director general of information. He has been meeting with director generals of ministries and is using a vetting process where they will disqualify only senior Ba'ath Party officials. I think this guy will be disqualified because he was a Mukhabarat official, but he is now saying to visiting correspondents, "Well, of course, we all knew it was time for a change in Iraq." This was a man who is incapable of telling the truth, who attempted at every opportunity to seduce Western women correspondents. He was screwing people in his office. He had photographs of himself and Saddam Hussein and a box of Viagra. This was a loathsome character altogether.


Now left with the residue of all of this, I would say there are serious lessons to be learned. Editors of great newspapers, and small newspapers, and editors of great television networks should exact from their correspondents the obligation of telling the truth about these places. It's not impossible to tell the truth. I have a conviction about closed societies, that they're actually much easier to report on than they seem, because the act of closure is itself revealing. Every lie tells you a truth. If you just leave your eyes and ears open, it's extremely revealing.

We now know that this place was a lot more terrible than even people like me had thought. There is such a thing as absolute evil. I think people just simply didn't recognize it. They rationalized it away. I cannot tell you with what fury I listened to people tell me throughout the autumn that I must be on a kamikaze mission. They said it with a great deal of glee, over the years, that this was not a place like the others.

I did a piece on Uday Hussein and his use of the National Olympic Committee headquarters as a torture site. It's not just journalists who turned a blind eye. Juan Antonio Samaranch of the International Olympic Committee could not have been unaware that Western human rights reports for years had been reporting the National Olympic Committee building had been used as a torture center. I went through its file cabinets and got letter after letter from Juan Antonio Samaranch to Uday Saddam Hussein: "The universal spirit of sport," "My esteemed colleague." The world chose in the main to ignore this.

For some reason or another, Mr. Bush chose to make his principal case on weapons of mass destruction, which is still an open case. This war could have been justified any time on the basis of human rights, alone.

As far as I am concerned, when they hire me, they hire somebody who has a conscience and who has a passion about these things. I think I was a little bit advantaged in this, because I am 58 years old.

Look, I don't believe in the journalist as hero, because I think that wherever we go, and whatever degree of resolve that may be required of us, there are always much, much braver people than us. I travel in a suit of armor. I work for The New York Times. That means that I have the renown of the paper, plus the power of the United States government. Let's be honest. Should anything untoward come to me, I have a flak jacket. I have a wallet full with dollars. I'm here by choice. I have the incentive of being on the front page of The New York Times, and being nominated for major newspaper prizes.

The people who we write about have none of these advantages. They are stuck here with no food and no money. I don't want to be pious about this, but for a journalist to present himself as a hero in this situation is completely and totally bogus.

We have the lure of a spectacular reward. That draws us on. I got a Pulitzer Prize in Sarajevo, which was awarded for "bravery" or something somewhere in the citation. I said, and I absolutely meant it, "I assume that we are talking here about chronicling the bravery of the people of a city that was being murdered. That was where bravery came into this. Then there were no rewards save the possibility of surviving." So I don't want to present myself here as anything like that. No, I don't. As a matter of fact, I think this vainglorious ambition is part of the same problem really. It is the pursuit of power. Renown. Fame.

There is corruption in our business. We need to get back to basics. This war should be studied and talked about. In the run up to this war, to my mind, there was a gross abdication of responsibility. You have to be ready to listen to whispers.
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