If the interview New York Times reporter John F. Burns gave to the editors of Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq is completely on the level — and I have no reason to think it isn’t — the Times is sitting on a daisy-cutter of a scoop about perfidy and malfeasance by a member of the Baghdad press corps. And it’s not just the Times holding back. Few in the mainstream press seem interested in identifying the reporter Burns says ratted him out to the Iraqi ministry of information.
InsertArt(2023246)BURNS DETAILS the occupational hazards of reporting from a totalitarian, murderous country in his Embedded interview, excerpted in Editor & Publisher and on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. The Iraqi regime was ghastly, Burns says, but he saves his special scorn for the foreign correspondents who ignored how “Saddam had turned this country into a slaughterhouse.” They sucked up to the Iraqi minister of information, wining and dining him, “plying him with mobile phones at $600 each for members of his family, and giving bribes of thousands of dollars.” Burns, who names no names, says TV correspondents gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to senior members of the ministry and then “behaved as if they were in Belgium. They never mentioned the function of minders. Never mentioned terror.”
It’s not unprecedented for TV correspondents to bribe their way into a country or for reporters to flatter their handlers to win a visa extension, but Burns does visit new territory with his shocking claim that a correspondent “with a major American newspaper,” seeking the favor of the Iraqis, printed copies of his and other reporters’ stories and gave them to the ministry of information “to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state” — namely Burns.
Now, newspaper reporters slander the competition to their official sources all the time. But it’s one thing for the Gazette to tell a sewage commissioner bad things about the Clarion and quite another for a journalist reporting from a genocidal state such as Iraq to show authorities how unnecessarily critical his rival is.
That John Burns was unflinching in his reporting from Iraq and damned the authorities at every turn would have come as no news to his minders from the ministry of information. (“How Many People Has Hussein Killed?” reads the headline of a sample Burns article from Jan. 26, 2003.) But by performing his comparative literature review with the Iraqi ministry using Burns’ copy, did the unnamed American correspondent end up taunting the ministry for allowing Burns to write so damagingly? Did the unnamed American correspondent’s comparison draw an extra set of crosshairs on Burns’ forehead and put him in even greater peril? Did the unnamed correspondent encourage the Iraqis to further play one foreign correspondent off the other?
A RAT IN BAGHDAD
The Burns accusation places under a cloud every journalist who reported for a “major American newspaper” from Baghdad at the same time Burns did. The Burns accusation says to readers: An unscrupulous reporter for a major American paper sought official favor from a Stalinist regime by unfairly denigrating the work of a much-esteemed Times reporter and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize so that he could write softer pieces than Burns.
If the Burns allegation is true, elementary news judgment — at least from where I type — would dictate that any reporter who knows the mystery reporter’s identity and the circumstances surrounding the incident should clear the cloud by writing the story, or at the very least speak for the record. That of course includes Burns, who has not responded to an e-mail request for an interview, but who has also not disputed the accuracy of his interview, which have been discussed on the Fox News channel and written about in the New York Daily News, the Weekly Standard Web site, the New York Sun, and elsewhere. (The reporters interviewed for this story who worked alongside Burns in Baghdad either didn’t know the mystery reporter’s identity or declined to discuss the details of the incident.)
CLOAKED IN ANONYMITY
I’m certain that the accused reporter’s readers would like to know his identity, and I’m fairly certain his editors would, too. I stop short of accusing Burns’ colleagues of silent complicity in a cover-up, but not by much.
It’s a distinct possibility that Burns is mistaken about the incident. He is maddeningly vague in the interview about when it happened, which doesn’t boost his credibility. Also, if there’s something unseemly about an anonymous source flinging an accusation at a named person, how do we feel about a public accuser who lodges his complaint against an anonymous person? Whatever the merits of Burns’ accusation, the cloud will never be lifted unless some nosey parker journalist asks the questions or somebody in the know comes forward.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller says he can’t speak for Burns but says his reporter is under no “obligation to identify somebody who behaved badly.” In Keller’s reading, Burns didn’t sit down to write an expose of his colleagues in Baghdad but merely tossed out the anecdote to illustrate the point of how journalists were being too solicitous of Iraqi authorities.
“The victim of the offense is John, and it’s up to him whether he wants to press charges,” says Keller.
Channeling Burns, I come to a different conclusion. In his Embedded interview, Burns has this to say about journalistic accountability: 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.
Burns concludes by saying, “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.”
So, in a voice somewhere between a whisper and a hallo, I’m asking Burns, et al.: Who ratted on John Burns?
Jack Shafer is Slate’s editor at large.