"One man's fact is another man's opinion."
That in a nutshell is Jonathan Klein's answer to the many questions and criticisms posed in this space recently by me and you concerning CNN's coverage of the ongoing war in Iraq.
To the president of CNN/US, we're "naive, highly partisan extremists," a "definite minority out on the fringe" whose tone is strident but whose criticism is insubstantial, and clearly out of step with "the vast majority of Americans who simply do not feel" the way we do.
After a lengthy negotiation with CNN publicists (see sidebar) Klein and I finally spoke over the phone last week. While he declined to comment on CNN's coverage of the start of the war, "since I didn't start working at CNN until December 2004," he was more forthcoming about his positive view of CNN's current war coverage, as well as his dismissive take on anti-war critics of the mainstream media in general, and CNN in particular.
"We're being very aggressive in covering the war at the moment," Klein began. "We have lots of people with lots of expertise on the ground in Baghdad now. Generally, I think we're doing a good job of daily reporting, and we also have the capacity to do in-depth reporting and documentaries. In fact we've aired five or six docs and specials already, including an hourlong look at WMD, two hours on how war is going, and so forth."
While praising his own, Klein was critical of his critics, saying, "It's naive for otherwise intelligent people to assume CNN has any role other than reporting the facts. They may oppose the war, but the conduct of the war is simply not up to CNN.
"Who is the 'anti-war crowd?'" Klein asked rhetorically. "Many people now oppose the war, but how many take such an extreme position vis-a-vis the mainstream media and complain about the war coverage? It's one thing to be opposed to the war, it's another to affix blame to the media. In any event, whether that is a valid point of view or not, it's certainly not shared by the majority of Americans."
As a case in point, Klein referred to questions raised about coverage of the so-called "Downing Street memo," which famously revealed the details of a meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that concerned Bush's intent to "fix" intelligence and facts in order to justify an eventual attack on Iraq. As I had noted in a question to Klein (question 10), the bombshell memo was "ignored by mainstream media until it became too embarrassing to suppress."
To Klein, however, the coverage of the memo is a "good example" of what CNN is doing right. "The Downing Street memo was reported on CNN," he said. "Perhaps not as often as certain partisan extremists would have liked it to be but it certainly was not ignored by us or by the mainstream media in general. "It's true the memo was also widely covered by alternative media," he added. "So does it matter if it was or was not covered enough by the mainstream to satisfy a highly partisan crowd? The great thing about the new media landscape is that people can get information if they need it. Thank God there is lots of opportunity now to get more information from sources other than the mainstream."
Can CNN do a better job of reporting on the war? "Of course we could do all sorts of things better," he said. "We want to add more depth and more analysis, for example -- NPR is great at that -- and we also want more diversity, because that makes us more interesting to watch."
When challenged about the lack of diversity (question 2) among his on-air war analysts, however, Klein averred, "Our list of analysts is very good. Yes, many have worked in government in the past, but that just means they have inside knowledge. And our top terrorism analyst Peter Bergen is certainly very independent.
"Look, an enormous amount of data comes through CNN on a daily basis -- video, audio, texts, graphics, you name it -- and just keeping up with it all is a tough job," he continued. "We're committed to getting better, but to do so we have to tune out the constant din of criticism from partisans on both sides and replace it with a good calibration."
I asked Klein to comment on criticism (question 3) leveled by star CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour at her own network for its coverage of the still-missing WMD. (While serving as executive vice president of CBS News from early 1996 through 1998, he brought Amanpour to 60 Minutes as a contributor.)
"I've known her a long time, I respect her a lot, and I debriefed her on how we could cover the war better when I first took this job," Klein revealed. He refused to share any details of what he oddly termed a "private conversation" but claimed "you can already see the results on air with better coverage "
I returned to the topic of viewer dissatisfaction with that coverage, but Klein again gave no quarter.
"Look, that's who you hear from," he told me. "An extreme wing gives statements of opinion to you. But I hear from both the left and the right, and the tone of the criticism is quite similar -- and not substantial. I get the same sort of questions from extremists on both sides, and I can't get engaged in that conversation. I'm not here to please the fringes."
Does he not see any sign of mainstream media complicity in its coverage of the run-up to and current conduct of the disastrous war in Iraq?
"That's what you're disposed to see," he countered. "What I see is that we go out in a very dangerous situation and do great reporting with experienced and knowledgeable correspondents like Christian, Nic Robertson and many others
"The vast majority of Americans do not feel the way your readers do, and do not express those feelings to us," he stated flatly. "In fact the number of people watching CNN today is higher than 10 years ago. There's no mass disaffection with either CNN or the MSM. The reality is that every week 66 million American get their news from watching CNN -- more than any other news network -- so we must be satisfying their needs for information. But we can't cover everything, and we can't please every fraction of the audience all the time.
"You're talking about a highly partisan and definitely minority point of view," the CNN/US president reiterated. "It's really just a certain segment of extremists who don't see their particular point of view reflected enough. And as I said, we hear similar complaints from extreme poles of both right and left."
To Klein, at least, the situation is eminently clear: "We're putting considerable resources into the story, but somehow it's still not enough to satisfy certain people -- even though we do more than anyone else! These people are definitely on the fringe."