Reporters Trade Credibility for Access

The next time you see a network correspondent standing in front of a Baghdad backdrop, just think of those TV knife-set commercials, because the question of the day is: "Now how much would you pay?" In exchange for the appearance of being at the hot place at the hot time, the networks are paying a high price: their credibility.

The networks love to talk about their unselfish work of public service, and heaven knows networks hate to spend money on foreign reporting, which usually cause Americans to flip to game shows. But in a sad quest to be Johnny-on-the-scene and win higher Nielsen ratings, some are inflicting harm on the public with ridiculous reporting on the popularity of Saddam Hussein.

Public displays of affection for Saddam are a charade and the press knows it. Even if every poor soul who wants to be alive to see his kids later in the day lauds the Fearless Leader, why would reporters - with their mantra that if your mother says she loves you, check it out - simply pass it on as gospel truth? The answer is simple. If you report the truth, you get kicked out of the country.

A few years ago, ABC's Cokie Roberts was pasted by the accuracy police when she pretended to be reporting from Capitol Hill when she was really standing in a coat in the studio. But it would be much better if TV reporters stood and told the truth standing in American studios while pretending to be in Baghdad, instead of standing in Baghdad passing falsehoods and pretending to be reporters.

Take the ridiculous news that Saddam Hussein was "re-elected" by a margin of 100 percent to zero. How many idiots would buy that line? You'd be surprised. The Los Angeles Times noted that reporters were put on notice: "A message has been delivered that re-entry to Iraq may depend on how the vote is covered."

So American TV reporting from Iraq is so bad, it ought to be accompanied by pasting the reporter with rotten fruits and vegetables. "All 11,440,638 eligible voters went to the polls with one thought: Yes to Saddam Hussein!" NBC's Keith Miller clairvoyantly claimed on the October 16 "Today" show. "The government proclaimed it a victory of light over darkness, good over evil. It seemed more like a political miracle."

This is just embarrassing. If I were in charge of NBC "News," I'd be hiding in the bathroom. NBC could protest that they allowed the "other side" of the story, that the election was a farce, but they did this only by putting it in the mouths of the Bush administration and then acting as neutral as Switzerland between American reality and Iraqi fantasy.

ABC reporter David Wright, last noticed passing on highly questionable Taliban propaganda about massive American-caused civilian casualties from Afghanistan, showed an Iraqi man who insisted individual voters really could reject Saddam. "When the last referendum took place, Saddam Hussein won 99.96 percent of the vote," Wright noted, adding "it is impossible to say whether that's a true measure of the Iraqi people's feelings." Impossible to say? It's totally obvious to anyone with a working brain. Wright also asserted that Saddam hasn't made any public appearances in two years. Does that sound like a man who's secure in his allegedly massive popularity?

Let's give credit to CBS veteran Tom Fenton, who made monkeys out of the other networks by sticking to the real world. "It's no surprise everyone seemed to be voting Yes. You would be foolish not to. A U.N. human rights report said 500 people were jailed in the last referendum after casting a negative ballot."

With a war on Iraq sitting clearly in our crystal ball, it's hardly encouraging that the network sneak preview comes with awful references to how "President" Saddam was elected to "another seven-year term." I don't ever want to hear another network reporter make snarky references about George W. Bush's win in Florida.

In the last 11 years, as pictures of CNN star Peter Arnett hang in "newseums" for his Gulf War reportage from Iraq, journalists may have forgotten why so many reviled him and his ilk. They'd like to cast the disgust as an overreaction by American "superpatriots" demanding loyalty to the Pentagon story line. But what these reporters had no loyalty to was the truth. They uniformly came out of Iraq and admitted that either their stories were false, or nearly impossible to confirm as true. Arnett himself told the National Press Club he only passed on suppositions: "I didn't really have any equipment for digging." Americans ought to demand more than the clap-trap they're getting right now.