MIAMI HERALD -
Posted on Thu, Feb. 10, 2005
Blogger's news on news hits nerve
CNN's chief news executive is under fire after comments he made at a Swiss economic summit made their way round the world via Internet blogs.
BY GLENN GARVIN
A Broward County businessman has touched off a firestorm of controversy with an Internet report that the news chief of CNN accused American troops in Iraq of deliberately killing journalists.
''I'm about as apolitical a guy as you can get,'' said Rony Abovitz, co-founder of the Hollywood medical technology company Z-Kat Inc. ``I'm just amazed at the blood frenzy.''
Abovitz's account of remarks he heard from Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, during a panel discussion at an economic conference in Switzerland have not only rocketed around the Internet, but triggered fierce attacks on CNN from mainstream media critics.
They've also touched off another major credibility crisis for television news, still reeling from the scandal over a botched preelection CBS report on President Bush's military service. And they've demonstrated the new power of the independent Internet diaries known as Web logs, or blogs.
Jordan's remarks -- which he says were misinterpreted -- were not reported in the mainstream media until hundreds of blogs had been buzzing about them for a week and demanding explanations from CNN.
''When thinking people, especially journalism professionals, say something like that -- that U.S. troops might be war criminals -- and can't substantiate it, you've got to follow it up,'' said Jack Shafer, media critic for the influential website slate.com. ``Blogs always seem to ask much tougher questions of a powerful media figure than Time magazine or The New York Times or Newsweek do.''
At the center of the media hurricane is Abovitz, a mild-mannered 34-year-old specialist in computer-assisted surgery. He was invited last month to the World Economic Forum, a meeting of global movers and shakers, to pick up an award for technology developed by his company. While there, organizers invited Abovitz to write up his impressions of the forum for its blog.
During a Jan. 26 panel discussion of threats to reporters, Abovitz was shocked to hear CNN's Jordan say American troops in Iraq had ''targeted'' journalists and killed a dozen of them.
''He was going on and on about it,'' recalled Abovitz. 'My first thought was, gee, have I been missing something? And I stood up and asked, `Is this documented? And if so, why hasn't it been on the cover of Time magazine? Because if it's true, it's much bigger than [U.S. military abuses at] the Abu Ghraib prison.' ''
Jordan seemed surprised at the question, said Abovitz. ``He kind of froze, and then he started backpedaling. But the crowd included a lot of people from the Middle East, who were cheering him on, so then he wiggled back and forth.''
Jordan was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached for comment, but a CNN spokeswoman said he used the word ''targeted'' only to mean that the reporters had been fired on by U.S. troops who thought they were enemy combatants.
''Mr. Jordan emphatically does not believe that the U.S. military intended to kill journalists and believes these accidents to be cases of mistaken identity,'' the spokeswoman said.
But several others who were in the room, including Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, told The Herald that Abovitz's account was essentially correct.
''It sounded as if [Jordan] was saying the killings had been deliberate,'' said Frank, who was part of the panel. ``I sat up, and I said, `That's very troubling to me, I feel an obligation to act on this.'
'He answered, `I'm not saying this is American military policy.' And my recollection is that he next said that American military personnel had deliberately shot at journalists and not been punished.''
Frank said he asked Jordan whether he was talking about cases of mistaken identity or itchy trigger fingers ''in the heat of battle,'' and Jordan said no.
After the panel, Frank said he pressed for more details. 'I called [Jordan] and said, `If you think there are cases where American military personnel killed reporters and weren't disciplined, I want to know, and [Congress] will take action,' '' Frank said. ''He said he'd get back to me.'' But Jordan called only after the controversy surfaced, Frank said, and then to say he had been misunderstood.
Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who was in the audience, also agreed with Abovitz's account and ''was outraged by the comments.'' A spokeswoman for David Gergen, the U.S. News & World Report editor who chaired the panel, said that Gergen also felt Abovitz's report was generally accurate.
This is not Jordan's first brush with controversy over the intersection of journalism and U.S. foreign policy in Iraq. He found himself in hot water with not only political conservatives but many journalists last year over an op-ed page article he wrote for The New York Times shortly after American troops toppled Saddam Hussein.
CNN for a dozen years, Jordan wrote, had suppressed news of Hussein's atrocities -- ``awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff.''
POWER OF THE BLOGS
The outcry over that statement, however, has been dwarfed by the response to this one.
Since Abovitz posted his original account of the panel, more than 400 other blogs have taken up the cry. They located the first corroborating witnesses, pressed the World Economic Forum to release its videotape of the panel (Forum officials initially agreed, but changed their minds earlier this week and said the panel's ground rules prohibited any direct quotations) and taunted mainstream news organizations into covering the story.
That finally happened this week with stories in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and other papers, as well as on CNN's rival cable news networks.
Media critic Shafer said the sheer immensity of the blog response forced the story onto newspaper front pages. ''What they were practicing was virtuous pack journalism,'' he said. ``Everybody thinks pack journalism is bad, but sometimes, like on 9/11, you want a pack. This was pack journalism at its best.''
This marks the second time in a few months that blogs have surfaced a major controversy over television news. Blogs were the first to accuse CBS' 60 Minutes of using forged documents in a story last year on President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service.
Their claims eventually forced CBS to retract the story and launch an internal investigation that cost Dan Rather his anchor job and resulted in the dismissal of five other CBS staffers.
Abovitz, for one, is impressed. He plans to start writing his own regular blog. ''The blog swarm is now percolating into mass media,'' he said.
``This is a new era where you can't just make statements anymore. There are too many eyes. The blogs are like a million little cameras and tape recorders.''