“Every Journalist’s Worst Nightmare”: CNN’s Myanmar Misadventure

A screenshot of a CNN video report with journalist Clarissa Ward interviewing a Myanmar person.

On 30 March, CNN’s chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward tweeted out a photo of her boarding pass to Yangon. The image set off a wave of fear in Myanmar that the military, which staged a coup two months earlier and has killed over 700 people since, would use this visit to broadcast military propaganda to millions of viewers around the world. Thousands of Myanmar social media users began tweeting at Ward and CNN to express their concern that the arrangement CNN had made with the military to gain entry into the country would undermine the real story.

Driven in part by this fear, Myanmar civilians intentionally placed themselves in the CNN crew’s path, staging impromptu protests and insisting on speaking to Ward despite her warnings that doing so under the watch of military minders put them in danger. Allegra Mendelson, a journalist for the Southeast Asia Globe who also participated in this military-organised trip, said during a webinar afterward that civilians at a Yangon market kept coming up to the journalists and saying: “Please don’t listen to the military. Please tell our side of the story.” 

Ward was aware of Myanmar people’s concern that she would become an unwitting agent of the military junta. She even liked multiple tweets to this effect. But instead of seeing her presence as creating a problem so dire that Myanmar people would risk their lives to correct it, she interpreted their sacrifice as proof of the importance of her visit. 

Ultimately, 11 people who spoke with her at two outdoor markets were arrested by the military, and three of them are still in detention.

Reflecting on the arrests after returning safely to London, Ward said: “It’s every journalist’s worst nightmare…that somebody talks to you and faces a reprisal for doing that.”

Instead of engaging in journalism that serves viewers and the people of Myanmar, CNN made itself the story, misleadingly claiming exclusivity because “no other international journalists have been allowed into Myanmar”. 

There was nothing stopping CNN from producing stories about the Myanmar coup before Ward’s trip.

To add insult to injury, Ward’s participation in this nightmare of a trip produced little to no information not previously reported by local journalists. CNN endangered 11 people and their families just to pursue celebrity-driven, parachute journalism that serves no purpose other than chasing higher ratings. Ward’s in-studio colleague gave it away when the first question he asked her on air was: “Tell us why it’s so important for you to be there.”

The conduct of the reporters on this trip, the reportage that followed and their responses to the controversy they generated should serve as a case study on the harm journalists can cause when they allow themselves to become the story and forget their responsibility is not just to inform the public, but also to safeguard the security of their sources.

Rationalising Parachute Journalism

Both CNN and the Globe are now trying to justify their participation in a PR trip masterminded by Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli-Canadian lobbyist and alleged former arms dealer. The outlets have defended themselves by arguing that it was necessary for them to accept the military’s offer in order to cover the story of the Myanmar coup, that they could offer a “different perspective” on the story and that they could push back on the military’s claims harder and with less risk than journalists based in the country. 

To be completely honest, I also want to be in Myanmar covering the coup. I was there, until I had to flee for my own safety two weeks ago, and despite the terror of the 10 weeks I spent dodging projectiles and tear gas by day and hoping the house I was staying in did not get raided by night, a small part of me relished being in the middle of the action. So I can empathise with Ward and Mendelson’s desire to go to the heart of this exciting story. Many journalists share these feelings. But just because a desire is understandable does not mean it is not deeply selfish. Neither of them needed to go to Myanmar to cover this story. 

It is also a reflection of the orientalism pervasive in the field of journalism that, time after time, it is white people who are chosen to speak for and about Asia and Asians.

There was nothing stopping CNN from producing stories about the Myanmar coup before Ward’s trip. A quick search on CNN’s website shows 14 videos covering Myanmar since the coup, all of them containing footage and photos shot by professional or citizen journalists on the ground. Eight videos include interviews with journalists, activists, protesters and family members of people who were killed by security forces. 

In fact, I was one of the people CNN interviewed before their trip. I spoke on the air with CNN twice, and I also gave them an hourlong briefing on the situation during the early days of the coup. (The network did not pay me for any of this work.) 

CNN featured me without using my name or showing me on camera, demonstrating that they understood the risks people in Myanmar face for speaking out publicly and that they know how to report a story without one of their journalists flying in and placing more people in harm’s way. 

During the Globe’s webinar about the reporting trip on 9 April—two days after they published their first piece from the trip in partnership with Al Jazeera and with a grant from the Pulitzer Center—Mendelson said she did her research by speaking to reporters on the ground before going to Myanmar. Her statements showed that not only is this story already being reported on by foreign and local journalists who were based in Myanmar before the coup, but also that there are ways for those outside the country to report on the coup without being physically present

She admitted that the trip was the “only way I, as a foreigner, could go into the country”.

Mendelson’s observation is accurate, as is Ward’s obsessive characterisation of herself as the first foreign journalist allowed to enter Myanmar since the coup. But rather than justifying parachute journalism, these observations raise obvious questions: Why is it necessary for Myanmar’s story to be told by these people in particular? Who benefits from their presence?

Pointless Confrontation

Both Ward and Mendelson are white women from North America who have positioned themselves as more capable of telling the story of a Southeast Asian nation better than those who have spent their entire lives there. While Mendelson has at least completed an internship in Myanmar before, Ward has almost no experience with the country.

It is the height of arrogance for these journalists, especially for Ward, who neither lives in nor focuses on Myanmar, to think they have anything unique to offer this story. It is also a reflection of the orientalism pervasive in the field of journalism that, time after time, it is white people who are chosen to speak for and about Asia and Asians. To have lack of experience counted as a marker of neutrality and objectivity, not as a disqualification, is a privilege apparently reserved for white people. 

By announcing her trip to Myanmar, Ward stoked fear among the public that CNN might be fooled into uncritically airing the military’s version of events.

This is not to say that journalists should never accept invitations for these sorts of managed press tours. The most interesting parts of the CNN and Globe reports have been the glimpses they offered into the military’s propaganda machine. Mendelson quotes one of her military handlers saying soldiers are forbidden to speak to reporters because all “Western media is trying to convert us and change our views”. This statement supports a theory circulating in Myanmar that the military-imposed internet blackouts are just as much about preventing security forces from understanding the full extent of the violence being perpetrated against civilians as they are about disrupting the planning of anti-coup actions.

There is also real merit to the idea that having been invited into the country, these two journalists would be able to confront the military, with less risk of arrest or being disappeared than journalists based in Myanmar. Mendelson brought this up in the Globe’s webinar, as did Ward in an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter. However, the confrontations that played out only elicited the same talking points that the military has been deploying for weeks. After all, this was a tour planned by the military and their lobbyist.

Delivering False Hope

The most apparent achievement of this misadventure so far has been the arrests and endangerment of Myanmar civilians who interacted with the reporters. Though CNN has reported that the majority of those 11 people who were arrested have been released, the simple fact that they have been arrested once means they and their families are at greater risk of being targeted by the military in the future.

Ward reached out to me after I criticised CNN’s first report from the trip, telling me that her “primary objective is to put a spotlight on what’s happening in Myanmar, particularly in the US where it hasn’t been getting as much attention”. Yet when I confronted her on her role in the arrests, she refused to reflect on how she contributed to creating a situation in which a Myanmar person would risk arrest. She ended the exchange by simply saying that “the people responsible for those arrests are the military junta”.

The two reporters should not be held responsible for the actions of the Myanmar military, but they should be held responsible for the dangerous situations they created. By announcing her trip to Myanmar, Ward stoked fear among the public that CNN might be fooled into uncritically airing the military’s version of events. Then, “after days of pushing”, she and her team convinced their handlers to bring them to two outdoor markets, predictably creating the imperative for people—some of them trembling while they spoke—to risk arrest by talking to the reporters. 

In the end, Ward managed to make herself the main character of a story in which over 50 million people face the possibility of decades of brutal military dictatorship.

This is not the only time we see Ward showing her ignorance of the realities of Myanmar and a complete disregard for her responsibility to ensure her sources’ safety. When the owner of a garment factory torched by unknown arsonists says she hopes for assistance from the government, Ward asks: “Who is the government?” When the woman, surrounded by soldiers and minders, laughs nervously and says she does not know the answer, Ward seems to relish in having asked a “hard question”.

The question Ward asked would imperil the woman no matter how she answered. It was a question that had absolutely no news value—whose only purpose was to make a spectacle of the woman’s fear. 

In the end, Ward managed to make herself the main character of a story in which over 50 million people face the possibility of decades of brutal military dictatorship. She centred herself, falsely dismissing her critics as “white male academics/commentators” who are not in the country. She has repeatedly liked and retweeted fawning images of herself made by newfound fans in Myanmar, praising her for speaking up for their cause. She has transferred the false hope of celebrity journalism to a population desperate for a saviour.

This is where Ward’s lack of experience with Myanmar shines through the most. She ends her report by saying that people’s insistence on speaking to her shows “the desperation of a people who don’t have any other options and who are desperate to have the world pay attention”. She misunderstands that their fear is not simply that the world will not pay attention to the story of Myanmar; it is also that the wrong story will be told. 

Myanmar people know that the world does not often listen to the story of brown people until it has been repackaged by a white saviour. Ward’s shallow coverage, her endangerment of her sources and her embarrassing rationalisations only reinforced this bleak reality.

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