Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Year of the War Reporter - BURNS TREATMENT

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Year of the War Reporter - BURNS TREATMENT

Article excerpt

The 'most dangerous man in Iraq' returns with a few new warnings

John F. Burns sat back in a chair in a corner of the Algonquin Hotel dining room in midtown Manhattan, thousands of miles from his New York Times outpost in Baghdad -- his hand curled around a morning cup of coffee -- and spoke publicly for the first time about the ethical remonstrations he created via a taped interview published in the recent book, Embedded: The Media At War in Iraq (The Lyons Press). That oral history was first excerpted at E&P Online on Sept. 15, drawing extraordinary attention and praise, and criticism as well.

"I said some very edgy things about that period of time," said Burns, the 59-year-old senior foreign correspondent for the Times, who was in the U.S. for just a few days before heading back to Baghdad. "I had become known as the most dangerous man in Iraq. It was not a joke. And it put me under tremendous stress. So when I spoke harshly in the book, I had some very raw feelings about this."

The "this" was his contention that American journalists in Iraq often ignored the terror of Saddam Hussein's regime to avoid losing their visas, and plied his ministers with expensive gifts and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to stay on their good side.

"Yeah, it was an absolutely disgraceful performance," he told Embedded editors Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson. Burns also told them that a journalist he won't identify "from a major American newspaper" took his clips and those of his competitors to the Iraqi Ministry of Information to prove he was softer on Saddam than Burns and others were.

Burns sat down with E&P on Nov. 26, the day after receiving The Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at a Waldorf-Astoria black-tie dinner attended by representatives of the very news organizations he accused of paying off Saddam's deputies. The award was named for the late CBS News executive (and former CPJ chairman) Burton Benjamin, who became a symbol of integrity after attacking his own network for breaking its rules in producing The Uncounted Enemy, a documentary on the Vietnam War.

Months after making his initial charges, Burns wasn't taking anything back but he has forgiven everyone -- including that newspaper reporter in Baghdad who shared his clips with Saddam's officials -- mainly because of how journalists are now behaving in Iraq. "I've seen the same people back at work in a much more dangerous environment," Burns said. "I am seeing people who were not as assertive as they might have been, showing enormous courage in covering Iraq. People who made compromises I thought questionable are now being asked to confront Saddam in a different way."

He also said he was moved by the way the crowd at the awards dinner responded to him. "Editors, television executives, reporters, book publishers, they all came up to me at the dinner," he said. "There are people who are very angry with me, but there are very, very few of them."

But he warned American journalists against setting unethical precedents. "If we are going to hold our government accountable we'd better be pretty sure we don't make expedient compromises ourselves, which is a very hard thing to do -- very hard," he said. "You better get into these places to report on them. You have to get your visas extended to continue to report on them. It is not easy. It's a question of where you strike the balance. I don't think the balance was struck in the right way when Saddam was in power."

The Burns ethical rant in Embedded was actually an expansion of four pungent paragraphs in a 4,657-word story in the April 20 edition of the Times. In that piece, he mentioned the payoffs to Iraqi officials without indicting the reporters involved in it. "Bribes were endemic," he reported in the Times, "with some officials demanding sums in the thousands of dollars for visa approvals and extensions or obtaining exemptions from the AIDS tests required for any reporter remaining in Baghdad more than 10 days. …

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