The controversy over whether CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan said American forces have intentionally killed journalists will further tarnish CNN — and now seems to be staining the reputation of Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz.



In the case of Jordan, the prevailing view seems to be that he put his foot in his mouth and either refused to back off or waited too long to clarify.



QUESTION: How could a news executive who understands sensitivities — and presumably knows that the 24 hour news cycle is accelerated now into near mega-seconds by the Internet — allow himself to either say or veer towards saying something so outright politically DUMB? Especially when CNN has suffered image problems and is locked in a mortal ratings battle with Fox News.



Even if you give Jordan the benefit of the doubt and say he was misunderstood, it indicates he lacks the caution needed for an executive talking in public who IS the voice of CNN (apologies to Aaron Brown).



In the case of Howard Kurtz, suspicions will automatically be raised about his enthusiasm for this story since he has a show on CNN and some already contend he balked at covering this story.



QUESTION
: For someone who covers the media and often writes about perceived conflicts of interest, didn’t he realize how his slow response to this controversial media story would look??



If Kurtz had been a bit wiser — or (giving him the benefit of the doubt) cleared his desk of some other work first, he would have jumped on this story MUCH sooner. Now it looks like he did it because he had to do it and by taking a traditional j-school straight-down-the-middle get-all-sides approach to it he’s looking (whether he is or not) like he’s doing damage control.



Kurtz’s new piece on this controversy is written in classic reporter’s style — looking at each side, going into all of the possibilities. The problem is: the headline reads:





Eason Jordan, Quote, Unquote

CNN News Chief Clarifies His Comments on Iraq”





That’s nice….except the headline coupled with his delayed reporting on this raging controversy now leaves him looking like his CNN boss’ p.r. person and as if he balked on this story. And parts of the story seem like the corporate stories newspapers officially put out when they assign an in-house reporter to report on a dismissed columnist, or to explain a major controversy over an error.



The most to the point comment on Kurtz’s piece comes from blogger Stephen Green:



I’ve read Kurtz’s piece — and there’s not one damn thing in it I hadn’t already read in the last week. There’s no “additional reporting” here that I can see. There’s nothing new in Kurtz’s news.



Kurtz is getting big bucks and WaPo-level prestige for giving us what the blogosphere had a week ago for free? Yesterday, when Will Collier (Green’s co-blogger) called Howard a coward, I thought that just maybe Will had gone half a step too far. I was wrong. Howard is an overpaid and overprivileged coward.



To paraphrase an old Nixon era comment: credibility is like toothpaste in a tube. When you get it out, it’s hard to get back in.



But if you just look at the story itself, what does Kurtz report? Glenn Reynolds notes that in Kurtz’s story “there are some disagreements. But the stonewall seems to have cracked.”



The crux is the statement Kurtz runs from Jordon:



Jordan denied that last night, saying he had been responding to Frank’s comment that the 63 journalists who have been killed in Iraq were “collateral damage” in the war. “I was trying to make a distinction between ‘collateral damage’ and people who got killed in other ways,” Jordan said last night. “I have never once in my life thought anyone from the U.S. military tried to kill a journalist. Never meant to suggest that. Obviously I wasn’t as clear as I should have been on that panel.”



In some of the cases, “with the benefit of hindsight, had more care been taken, maybe this could have been avoided,” Jordan said, referring to shootings that involved mistaken identity. But, he said, “it’s a war zone. Terrible things happen.”



And he notes that some who were there back Jordan:



Two other panelists backed Jordan’s account. David Gergen, editor at large at U.S. News & World Report, said he “sort of gasped” when Jordan spoke of journalists being “deliberately killed,” but that Jordan “realized, as soon as he said it, he’d gone too far” and “walked it back.” Jordan then expressed “a very deep concern about whether our soldiers on the ground level are using as much care as they should” when journalists are involved, said Gergen, who moderated the discussion.



BBC World Services Director Richard Sambrook, in a note to New York University journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen, said Jordan was objecting to the phrase “collateral damage.”



And how does he end his piece?



As a former fulltime journalist I can say that a final “kicker quote” is there for a reason. It’s the final, lingering thought — that phrase or image you hope they’ll remember either to drive home the story’s thesis, conclusion or get them to think about a concept.



So here’s what Kurtz choose to close it:



Gergen said Jordan had just returned from Baghdad and was still “deeply distraught” over the journalists who have died in Iraq. “This was a guy caught up in the tension of the moment,” Gergen said. “He deserves the benefit of the doubt.”



On the other hand, Kurtz does not exclude tidbits extremely damaging to Jordan. For instance, when you read THIS is there any lingering doubt that — at the very least — Jordan made a choice of words so clumsy that CNN’s CEO should demand his resignation today? Read this:



Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who was in the audience, “was outraged by the comments,” said his spokesman, Marvin Fast. “Senator Dodd is tremendously proud of the sacrifice and service of our American military personnel.”



So is this issue on the way to being settled? NO WAY:



  • Kurtz (and others) report that there is a tape of these comments. No matter what the excuse, if the tape is not released Jordon’s — and CNN’s — credibility will wane. Credibility was at the heart of the Dan Rather Memogate controversy. Jordan’s comments are at the heart of this: if it turns out a tape shows he said something from which he is now backtracking CNN will (rightfully) be flooded with demands for his resignation.
  • It’s impossible to understand how CNN’s top officials can allow this to go on. This will setback any of their attempts to rebuild its audience to offset Fox News’ gains among conservative viewers.
  • If you give Jordan the benefit of the doubt because he came back from Iraq you then have to ask: if someone came back from Iraq, wouldn’t they be more concerned about the overall deaths, or the U.S. miltitary deaths? Why would being distraught cause someone to come back and suggest or use language clumsy enough to imply that U.S. military officials are intentionally whacking journalists? (If that was true they have missed their biggest target — out there waving his hands, sticking his chin out in defiance: G-e-r-a-l-d-o).
  • Howard Kurtz’s writings will now be read more intensely and scrutinized by many, particularly on issues involving CNN. In the views of some, he has crossed the line on this one by seemingly flinching and doing what some already suggest is minimalist damage control.
  • If a tape comes out showing Jordan did say what he is alleged to say, or said it in a way incredibly clumsy with a tone of voice indicating he did have a certain attitude towards U.S. troops, there will be several “collatoral damage” injuriesThe victims: CNN and Kurtz.







UPDATE:

— The folks who have the tape now say they will NOT release it to blogger Sisphus as promised — but WOULD reconsider if the “participants” call for it to be released. Some now talk about a campaign demanding its release. So now the question will be: Why not? And CNN..and Jordan…will twist slowly, slowly in the wind…while Kurtz will undoubtedly be under pressure to do follow ups on this story.

–Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism prof, again offers a treasure chest of ideas and links on his site. His post is MUST READING on this issue. Rosen says he’s reserving judgement until he sees the tape:



The original account was too ambiguous for me. It had him saying United States soldiers targeted journalists, and then claiming that’s not what he meant. He later explained it as: the soldiers were trying to kill these people, but did not know they were shooting at journalists. Not much of a scandal in that.



These reservations are reflected in a summary by the National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, who was in Davos but not at the Jordan event…When I say: I want to know what happened, this is what I mean. Only the tape can tell us. Until then I don’t have too much to say in the category of “how outrageous was this?”



Rosen also wonders why the mainstream media hasn’t done more investigation on this:”Possibly the reason we haven’t seen the coverage is that they’re waiting for the tape, as bloggers are. But it is also possible that Eason Jordan’s comments tipped the press off to a bigger story involving the deaths of journalists, and the protests from news organizations.”



Jeff Jarvis has a lot of links and thoughtful things to say. A small part of it:




This is also about the speed of news. Back in the day of the news gatekeepers — now long gone, whether they know it or not — journalists could take their time reporting a story, for news wasn’t news until they said it was. And that wasn’t all bad: It allowed journalists to check facts, call sources, get it right. But news got faster. All in all, that’s good; we’re informed faster….



And this is about the death of off-the-record at any event citizens attend….The citizens in the room haven’t agreed to play by your rules the way journalists have. If they hear something, they’ll repeat it. If Jordan had, in fact, said that journalists were targeted as journalists by soldiers — which he didn’t; just speaking in the hypothetical here — then how can anyone expect the citizens, the citizen journalists, the bloggers in the room to remain silent? They shouldn’t. The off-the-record gate has also fallen.





–Michelle Malkin has many info-packed posts on this controversey — including her own exclusive interview with witness David Gergen which you can read here. Also read this, this, this, this, this and this.

Doug Fridley contrasts the unsolicited email CNN sent out to many bloggers saying Jordan’s comments were taken “out of context” with what is coming out now, concluding:



Think about this for a moment. CNN is seemingly guilty here of something far more serious than stonewalling to protect one of their executives. By my reading, they deliberately and (knowingly?) sent out false information about this story. They lied. Has there been a correction? Nothing of the kind in my inbox so far, which is CNN’s curiously preferred method of reporting this particular story.



CNN is the self-proclaimed “most trusted name in news.” Isn’t e-mailing out misinformation about a story (apparently hoping those receiving it would believe and/or publish it) itself a rather significant ethics violation for a news organization?



–Earlier, it seemed as if copy of the tape was going to be mailed to Sisphean Musings, which had been told it would get it by Wednesday. Something obviously happened to change their minds. (Link provided by Jay Rosen)

–Jordan insists he never said the military was targeting journalists, in an email to blogger Rebecca MacKinnon. Read his whole statement. Of course the BIG QUESTION then now becomes: if there is a tape, why not release it and verify what he said and his tone of voice? But here is the key part of what he wrote (link thanks to Jay Rosen):



First, I stressed insurgents are to blame for the vast majority of the 63 journalist deaths in Iraq. Second, when Congressman Franks said the 63 journalists killed in Iraq were the unfortunate victims of “collateral damage,” I felt compelled to dispute that by pointing out journalists in Iraq are being targeted — I did not say all journalists killed were targeted, but that some were shot at on purpose and were not collateral damage victims. In response to a question about whether I believed the U.S. military meant to kill journalists in Iraq, I said, no, I did not believe the U.S. military was trying to kill journalists in Iraq. Yet, unfortunately, U.S. forces have killed several people who turned out to be journalists. In several cases, the U.S. troops who killed those people aimed and fired at them, not knowing they were shooting at journalists. However tragic and, in hindsight, by Pentagon admission, a mistake, such a killing does not fall into the “collateral damage” category.





And, in a follow up email to her he flatly wrote:” Most importantly, I do not believe the U.S. is trying to kill journalists in Iraq.”

Daimnation:” Jordan is backing away from his remarks as fast as possible.”