I would have fired Eason Jordan.

Media criticism.
Feb. 14 2005 6:40 PM

I Would Have Fired Eason Jordan

On the difference between a mistake and brain rot.

Eason Jordan
Jordan: deserved a pink slip

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, never the most sympathetic venue for speakers who accuse the U.S. military of murdering civilians, thinks CNN wronged its chief news executive, Eason Jordan, by forcing him to resign over his statements at Davos.

Although the Jan. 27 Davos session was closed to the public, a consensus holds that Jordan claimed knowledge of 12 journalists who had been targeted and killed by U.S. forces. When challenged by fellow panelist Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., Jordan retreated into generalizations and claimed that some people believe the military has it in for journalists. The forgiving Journal editorialists write:

None of this does Mr. Jordan credit. Yet the worst that can reasonably be said about his performance is that he made an indefensible remark from which he ineptly tried to climb down at first prompting. This may have been dumb but it wasn't a journalistic felony.

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But the Journal oversimplifies l'affaire Jordan. Businessman Rony Abovitz blogged his first-person account of the session on Jan. 28, after which the blogstorm against Jordan started. Although CNN sent e-mail defenses of Jordan to bloggers as early as Feb. 2 pleading the "context" defense, Jordan didn't respond directly until a Feb. 8 Washington Post pieceby Howard Kurtz. He said:

I was trying to make a distinction between "collateral damage" and people who got killed in other ways. … 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.

What took Jordan so long to take a stab at clearing the air? I suspect that his Davos comment was neither a mistake nor taken out of context. Not even an octogenarian suffering a senior moment would uncork such a provocative comment before the international elite—as Jordan did—if it hadn't passed his lips before. The Davos remark has the smell of something he's probably said before, maybe to CNN staffers or others. Case in point: Bloggers are having a field day with this November 2004 Guardian story, in which Jordan teasingly tip-toes up to the Davos line, saying:

Actions speak louder than words. The reality is that at least 10 journalists have been killed by the US military, and according to reports I believe to be true journalists have been arrested and tortured by US forces.

If Jordan knew his previous comments put him in a poor position to clear his name, the best strategy would be to let the story blow over rather than fight it. Only a few marginal editorial pages and columnists (Washington Times, Toledo Blade, Riverside Press-Enterprise) were following the story with any sense of immediacy, anyway. But because of those pesky bloggers, the story didn't blow over! When Kurtz finally reported on the controversy, Jordan had ample opportunity to make unequivocal statements. Instead, he quivered and melted.

If Jordan ever harbored thoughts that U.S. forces had targeted journalists, a position that could be supported by the Kurtz story, then it was his duty as a newsman to pursue the story by assigning a CNN investigative team to it. If he did, I'd love to see the results. But it's fairly obvious that he didn't. Jordan's dereliction is less a mistake than it is proof of brain rot. The supreme editor of a news organization can't expect to make unsupportable inflammatory statements and maintain the respect of his truth-seeking troops at the same time. CNN did the right thing to show him the door. I would have done the same.

******

It troubles me that Davos policy prohibits attendees from citing specific quotations from its sessions and yet the proceedings are videotaped. What do they do with the videotapes of the "not for quotation" session after recording? Burn them? Send e-mail with your theories about what become of the Davos tapes to pressbox@hotmail.com. And don't even get me started on Jordan's April 2003 New York Times op-ed in which he confesses to having covered up Saddam Hussein's atrocities to 1) protect his Iraqi staffers and 2) maintain access to Iraq. This is a man with very strange news judgment. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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