NEW YORK (Jul. 2)
The head of CNN was on vacation this week, yet once again he found himself defending CNN’s coverage of Israel and the Palestinians.
Like other CNN executives have done in past weeks, Walter Isaacson was issuing a mea culpa in part about a controversial CNN International segment following the May 27 suicide bombing in Petach Tikva.
CNN ran a brief snippet of an interview with the mother of one of the victims — and a much longer interview with the mother of the bomber.
The report generated such heat in the Jewish community that CNN broadcast the Israeli interview in full, and issued a statement that it “deeply regrets any extra anguish” the report may have caused.
“Our goal is to be honest and truthful and fair,” Isaacson, chairman and CEO of CNN News Group, said in an e-mail interview with JTA.
“That goes beyond just a simplistic ‘balance’ that assumes there are only two sides and that all players are morally equivalent and playing by the same rules.”
In CNN’s coverage of terrorism in the Mideast and around the world, “we are trying to emphasize that, whatever the explanations, the random killing of innocents is, as Christiane Amanpour said recently on our air, a war crime.”
The CNN chief’s tough talk is part of an unprecedented public relations blitz the network launched last month with Jewish media, in part to douse a firestorm in the Jewish community that ignited after CNN co-founder Ted Turner told the London Guardian that Israel and the Palestinians are “terrorizing each other.”
But will CNN adjust its focus? And can the media in general turn a new page in covering the Middle East story?
Bret Stephens, editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post and a former Wall Street Journal editor, says he has not seen much evidence of a sea change in media behavior yet.
“This is a genocidal war against the Jews, and the media hasn’t recognized that,” he says. “It’s not boundaries and policies, but Israel’s right to exist.”
Like CNN, other outlets — including the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Public Radio — have come under a barrage of complaints about their Mideast coverage.
The wave of criticism has intensified in the 21 months since the Palestinian intifada erupted in September 2000, peaking with the furor over Turner’s comments.
NPR also has gone to the Jewish community to address these concerns. NPR’s CEO, Kevin Klose, addressed an American Jewish Press Association convention in May, and is set to join a panel on the media at Hadassah’s annual meeting in Florida.
Also on the panel are New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets and Columbia University Journalism School professor Samuel Freedman.
Hadassah spokeswoman Roberta Elliott says the pamphlets be examining the “balance or lack of balance” in media coverage of Israel. They’ll be certain to debate if journalists can — or even should — be balanced in working this story.
Stephens says the answer is clear: Journalists should strive to be “as truthful” as possible.
Yet that throws normal ideas of journalistic balance out the window: In this conflict, he says, being truthful “at some level means you have to make moral judgments.”
“This is a conflict that cannot be understood properly unless one is making a moral judgment, because this is a moral conflict” between Israeli victims and Palestinian aggressors, Stephens says.
The media often falls back on its reliance on balance as “a proxy for truthfulness, and it’s a very bad proxy for it,” Stephens says.
In covering a suicide bomb attack in Israel, reporters include news about Israel army blockades of the West Bank, military reprisals or targeted assassinations of terrorists. Boilerplate language such as the “cycle of violence” neatly sum it all up.
While the top brass at organizations such as CNN may have good intentions, Stephens says, many of the foreign correspondents covering Israel and the Mideast lack the historical knowledge to put the story in proper context.
These reporters “come to the situation with cliched views, they get some sources, and they persuade themselves that they’re conducting journalism,” he says.
Chafets, who headed Israel’s Government Press Office under the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, wrote a book about skewed coverage of the 1982 Lebanon War, “Double Vision.”
CNN’s coverage is especially unbalanced in the Mideast, where CNN International and not the U.S. version gets shown, Chafets says.
On a recent trip to Israel, Chafets said he was aghast at the difference in tone between the two versions of CNN.
“CNN International looked like Al-Jazeera compared to CNN in the United States,” he says, referring to the Arab-language network. “It was crudely propagandistic.”
The contrast arises largely out of a business calculation on CNN’s part, Chafets adds. CNN International can reach an Arab audience of 100 million, “who hate Israel,” he says, but only a few million Israelis.
The CNN International incident that sparked such outrage was coverage of the suicide bombing in Petach Tikva.
Chen Kenan was the mother briefly interviewed by CNN. Her 14-month-old daughter Sinai was killed, along with her mother, Ruth Peled, 56.
Isaacson acknowledged some mistakes, including “not airing the interview of a victim’s family when we said we would.”
Isaacson, however, says that as the suicide bombings multiplied, CNN’s coverage “was very vigorous in showing the victims of terror.”
Isaacson’s words are being accompanied by other CNN actions.
As Israel said it would accelerate the addition of the Fox News Channel to its satellite package — and some Israeli politicians hinted that CNN would be dropped — CNN’s news-gathering chief, Eason Jordan, flew to Israel to meet with Israeli editors.
CNN anchor and star reporter Wolf Blitzer — who once worked as the Jerusalem Post’s correspondent in Washington — was sent to Jerusalem, where he broadcast a series of reports on Israeli victims of Palestinian terror.
And in June, Isaacson met separately with editors from JTA, The New York Jewish Week, the Forward and The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, among others.
As Isaacson said, “There is a commitment at CNN to get this story right.”
Media critics, though, are waiting to see the results in pictures.
Andrea Levin, executive director of the watchdog group CAMERA, lauds CNN’s attempts to redress “cursory coverage” of terror victims.
“They’re not bending over to satisfy the critics in the wrong way, but they’re making an effort to give adequate coverage to the context” of Israel’s story, she says.
Still, Levin sees some lingering problems, such as the recent on-air comment by Amanpour: “Unlike Al- Qaida, which has no grievance,” she said, “it is universally acknowledged that the Palestinians do have a legitimate complaint” against Israel.
In fact, Levin says, not everyone agrees that the Palestinians have a valid complaint, and certainly not one that justifies targeting innocent civilians.
CNN and others must also work harder to examine “the roots of terror,” Levin adds.
She also feels the media as a whole has missed a big story.
“The greatest failure of the media in the last eight or nine years is the astonishing failure to cover the Palestinian Authority’s apparatus of hate indoctrination,” she says.
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, says CNN’s problem does not stem from journalistic laziness or bias, but from the demands of the business.
“CNN has the same problem most other cable news operations and 24/7 cable news operations have: They have to fill time,” Kalb says.
Kalb does agree that there is “an appearance of bias” in coverage of Israel and the Palestinians, in part because the media has reversed its onetime approach to Mideast coverage and decided that Israel is Goliath and the Palestinians are David.
He singles out coverage of the April battle in the Jenin refugee camp.
“There were stories all over the world that there were war crimes, massacres had taken place,” Kalb says. “But nobody has followed up with evidence.”
Insufficient coverage of Israel also stems from a gradual shift by U.S. media organizations, since the mid- 1980s, away from covering foreign news in-depth, Kalb says.
Indeed, many media critics such as CAMERA point to a trend of so-called “parachute journalism,” where correspondents are flown into a trouble spot and are expected to hit the ground running.
Foreign news bureaus once were staffed with experts who could speak the local language and were versed in local history, Kalb adds.
But “when the intifada intensified, reporters were sent in, many of whom did not have the history, language or skill.”
Ultimately, the nature of mainstream media coverage of Israel may never change, in part because most journalists follow certain rules, some critics say.
Freedman says journalists see their role as showing “a classic sense of balance — ‘on the one side, on the other side.’ “
That vision, he adds, “is seen as establishing a moral equivalency between suicide bombers and their victims.”