Media: First with the news - but are they right with the news?

CNN's international fixer has to run the gauntlet of sniper alley and sweltering marshes to get the story. But do they always get it right? asks Richard Cook
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The Independent Online
There's no getting around the fact that Eason Jordan doesn't look like your regulation Boy's Own adventure hero. The ever-present suit doesn't help of course, nor the glasses that frame a round, almost cherubic face.

Then again he also looks a little young to be boss of CNN's worldwide news-gathering operation, one of the cable giant's innermost cabal, reporting only to CNN News president Tom Johnson and to founder Ted Turner.

Jordan, 38, is president of international networks and global news gathering. He's the man, in other words, who heads the network's 250 international journalists based in 23 bureaux outside the US. But in fact he's more than that. He's a sort of media diplomat for the whole of CNN, a roving trouble-shooter who opens diplomatic doors for all the CNN stations in far-flung corners of the world.

In fact he's been in charge of CNN's international news coverage since 1989. He was famously the man who, at 29, directed CNN's Gulf war extravaganza, and since then he's led the network through all the more dramatic moments of its recent past: the US-led interventions in Somalia, Panama and Grenada, past Tiananmen Square and into Bosnia and the West Bank.

Last year he even became the first western TV journalist to report from North Korea after a series of natural disasters rocked the country. He formed a one-man CNN delegation armed only with his handicam, after the authorities refused to allow a regular crew in. His North Korean minder had to film his stand-ups.

But it wasn't always like that. Jordan started out in far more conventional mode. He worked night shifts at CNN's Atlanta headquarters for six years, in the early days when Ted Turner lived in the building and would saunter through the newsroom in his pyjamas looking for his morning coffee. And when Jordan first made it onto the executive floor he was comfortably directing operations from the air-conditioned sanctuary of CNN Centre. The turning point came in dramatic circumstances.

It followed a run-in with the celebrated war correspondent Peter Arnett, a man who reported for the wire services in the Vietnam War and who was to become the very public face of CNN in the Gulf war.

"There was some sort of episode in the early 1980s," remembers Jordan with characteristic understatement. " I was dealing with Peter Arnett, who was at that time reporting the civil war from El Salvador. He wasn't happy with me. Actually we had a pretty animated exchange and he at one point said he was going to kill me. I was truly very concerned. The argument centred around the fact that he was a seasoned field correspondent whereas I had no true field experience. The point is he was right, irrespective of the death threat. The premise of his argument was right and ever since that time I've made a real effort to spend as much time in the field as possible."

Since then Jordan has popped up everywhere from El Salvador to Somalia. Usually he's there to help fix things behind the scenes and to build up relationships with international government.

It's not all plain sailing though. The very nature of these missions can expose CNN to criticism that it gets too close to some questionable regimes simply for the sake of access. At the moment the US government is blocking moves by the network to open a bureau in Baghdad for instance, even if the nature of CNN's relationship with that country is considerably more ambiguous than might be supposed.

"We've had difficult times in Iraq that have never been publicly known," protests Jordan. "I was suspected by them of being a CIA agent, for example, which was an extremely difficult time and some Iraqi colleagues of mine have been tortured. But we persisted. After we were first expelled I went to southern Iraq to negotiate, to the no-fly zone and spent four days in the marshes in sweltering heat. But at the end of that mission the doors re-opened."

And of course not all the missions have the same sort of happy ending. Jordan went to Somalia at the height of the disturbances there to visit a Somali colleague who'd been shot. The man recovered but was then killed with five other people in a drive-by shooting a matter of weeks later. In Bosnia, CNN journalists found themselves at the top of the complicated bounty system devised by Bosnian Serb snipers. It was a system that had women and children at the bottom, journalists at the top, and CNN journalists at the top of that pile. And occasionally even that wasn't the most pressing of their problems.

"We had an extremely difficult meeting with Radovan Karadzic and his daughter," Jordan says. "He's not the warmest of fellows but he's a fanatical CNN viewer, so he was happy to meet with us. The biggest problem is his daughter, Sonia, who just absolutely rants and raves. She berated me in front of her father, who just watched with glee as his daughter called me every name in the book for several minutes because she felt that we had been biased in an interview. But I suppose we'd got the story."

When Jordan started at CNN in 1982, the station employed just over 200 people and was located underneath a wrestling arena. Now it employs more than 4,000 and its headquarters overlooks the centrepiece of Atlanta's Olympic efforts, Centennial Park.

Since Jordan's trip to North Korea, the service can now be received in every country of the world. Jordan remains committed to extending CNN's international coverage. He is opening a new bureau in Frankfurt later this year and now has his heart set on doing the same in Phnom Penh, Baghdad and Pyongyang at a time when many of CNN's US rivals are happier moving away from international news for reasons both of cost and of ratings.

"I don't know if you're trying to get the highest possible audience that the winning ticket is necessarily international news, but we play to an audience that is serious about the news," says Jordan. " We're not trying to win the majority of viewers. The world is important and we have to be serious about it and if that doesn't turn on every viewer then so be it. Our mission is not the dumbing down of the news - we want to smarten it up."

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