Saturday, June 14, 2008


By Jim Sutherland
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/01/08

In the weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, CNN's management held mandatory meetings for staff. They scheduled a half-dozen of them so that all shifts could attend.

In the front of the large room at Atlanta's World Congress Center, chief news executive Eason Jordan and President Jim Walton held court. Walton led off talking about the two of them: "He likes Springsteen. I am more of an Allman Brothers guy."

Then they proceeded to give us a pep talk about the upcoming coverage. CNN, they said, had to "own the war." That phrase later took some media heat, but I did not have a problem with it. That just meant that we wanted to be the source for coverage.

Then they started talking about how Fox News had recently pulled ahead of CNN in the ratings. (Fox had just bought the billboard across the street from CNN to tout their lead and rub CNN's face in it.) CNN execs were challenged to do something about it.

Some of us said that Fox was commentary, not news. Remember that Fox News Channel had eagles turning into fighter jets in their graphics at the time. We observed that the Anna Nicole Smith reality show at the time had better ratings than either Fox or CNN, and we didn't feel the need to compete with her. For that matter, professional wrestling had higher ratings than both news networks combined. CNN didn't see the need to emulate them!

But this was seen as an opportunity for these two executives. "No one wants war," Walton added, "but if there is going to be one, it is an opportunity to win back lost ratings."

That was their motive, and their modus operandi was to go along with the pro-war sentiment that was sweeping the country (and boosting ratings at Fox). Questioning the war was not part of the mission. There were some in the newsroom, for instance, during Colin Powell's speech to the U.N., asking who CNN was putting on the air immediately afterward to question what he said. The answer was no one.

This was, as I said, in the weeks before the onset of "shock and awe" —- a phrase that CNN is still using in its promotion of anniversary coverage of the war.

So now Scott McClellan says he was duped. Perhaps he was too blind or too intellectually challenged to see it at the time. But what about leaders of the news media? Were they duped, or were they simply complicit?

> Jim Sutherland, who twice worked at CNN, most recently as an international editor for 2 1/2 years, left the network in June 2004 after a dispute over pay and benefits. He now runs Arc Lightning, a media and communications consultancy in Atlanta.

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