CNN Asked If I’m ‘Brain Dead’


Hayley Nagelberg, center, and friends at the USY convention in Atlanta. Courtesy of Hayley Nagelberg

Viral news stories have always fascinated me — How does something spread? Who will come up with the next viral trend? I never considered that my words could go viral. While my story about an encounter with a CNN executive did not break the Internet, it spread wider and faster than I ever imagined. 

In December I attended United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) International Convention in Atlanta. I am the region’s vice president of Israel awareness, and I was especially interested in hearing the presentation by CNN about the media’s coverage of Israel. (CNN’s corporate headquarters is attached to the convention center where our event took place.) About 30 out of the 750 teen delegates, and a handful of staff, attended the conversation with Richard Davis, executive vice president of news standards and practices for CNN. 

We spoke with Davis for an hour and were completely dissatisfied with his remarks about CNN’s headlines in the coverage of the terror attack on rabbis in a Jerusalem synagogue in November. In its coverage CNN initially reported an attack on a mosque; a headline later stated that four Israelis and two Palestinians were killed. The two Palestinians were the knife-wielding terrorists. We were not prepared to excuse CNN’s false headlines on the basis of human error. Davis offered poor justifications for the inaccurate and misleading coverage of this event. During the presentation, I texted his quotes to a friend expressing my frustration — quotes I later used when I blogged about the event.
After Davis’ formal presentation I approached him, with a few USYers, to ask for some clarification; specifically, I wanted to know why the network refused to call the massacre a “terrorist attack” or, at the very least, an “attack.” They were reporting death statistics, making it appear as if neither side was to blame at a time when it was suspected that guns, axes and meat cleavers were involved. Davis’ responses were defensive and did not address my questions. When I asked my last question, about just calling it an “attack”, he seemed to simply reach his end. His flustered reply to my questioning was to ask why I cared so much about one word. He spluttered questions back at me, finally asking if I was “brain dead” for getting so caught up in this.

I do not believe his intention was to be rude or to trivialize the incident. He seemed at a loss of how to respond and just wanted to move on with his day. His answer seemed like a response to my insistent questions, one after another, as I desperately tried to receive some sort of coherent answer. The room was filling for the next event and I never got a chance to respond to him in person, nor did he get an opportunity to say anything else to me. I do not think this exchange between us was me versus him. I do not think the entire encounter was teens versus CNN. The point of that day, and the point of my blogging since then, has been about media bias against Israel. 

I was furious and I am generally a pretty calm person. As soon as I walked out of the room, I texted my parents about what happened. They immediately understood that I could not leave this incident behind, and they encouraged me to put my story in writing. The convention kept me busy all day. By the time I was getting ready for bed, it was 1:30 in the morning but I knew that I had unfinished business. So I took out my phone and using the quotes that I had texted to my friend, started writing. I finished at 2:15 a.m. 

As I mentioned, I am fairly calm. I don’t jump to rash conclusions, I have a lot of patience and a serious fear of upsetting others. What I wrote at 2 in the morning, while entirely truthful, was harsher than anything I could have said in daylight, but I meant every word. After I explained the excuses Richard Davis offered for CNN’s headlines, I wrote that the media’s biased coverage of events in Israel must change, and if he is not prepared to be a part of that change, perhaps he is the one who is “brain dead.”

I sent the story to my parents and then to some of my staff who had been at the CNN appearance to confirm that I got the story right. I also sent the story to a few people I know who work in the field of Israel news and advocacy. With everyone’s feedback taken into consideration, I uploaded my blog to the Times of Israel. I wrote it because I wanted to chronicle what happened — accurately and honestly. I thought it would be read by a few friends and we would call it a day. I messaged my high school Israel Club board and said I wanted to talk about this experience for five minutes at our next meeting. I did not think that by the time I got back to school after winter break, over 40,000 people would have shared my story on Facebook — the original text and articles were posted by Honest Reporting, The Blaze, Chicks on the Right, and many other sites that picked up my story in Russian, Portuguese and other languages.

The response was more widespread than I ever dreamed. Professionals in the world of Israel relations and advocacy reached out to me and congratulated me on my actions. I didn’t, and still don’t, think I did anything heroic. And yet, I was so incredibly honored that these individuals took it upon themselves to look me up and thank me. From former staff members of Israeli politicians, to representatives from CAMERA, Stand With Us, AIPAC, Shalom TV, Forbes and so many more — I was simply flabbergasted. It hit me that my story really reached people when I found Wikipedia articles about the people messaging me. That, to me, was the ultimate sign that I did it: I made a difference.

While I received overwhelmingly positive comments, not everyone liked my article. Some people said that I was attacking a biased headline with my own biased headline. But the difference between my headline and CNN’s was that mine was truthful whereas theirs was false. In any event, my piece was an opinion blog whereas their stories were purportedly factual. Other people thought that my article was about my personal vendetta against Richard Davis when in fact my overarching point was the need for accuracy in reporting. 

Anyone can make a difference, make their story heard and go a little bit “viral.” The contacts I made from this experience and the friendships I have formed with individuals who share my passion for Israel will stay with me forever. Knowing that there are so many people like me around the world is an incredible feeling. It is remarkable that we are united in our commitment to a strong and secure Israel in spite of our vastly different cultures and experiences. I went from being a part of a dozen Israel groups on Facebook to nearly 40. I now read articles from sources I had never heard of such as,, and the Jewish Media Agency. I read comments from people I would not otherwise have known. This has only strengthened my love for Israel, and made it easier for me to be confident in my advocacy.

Now I understand that sometimes you need to say exactly what’s on your mind (provided it is accurate) in order to get your point across. Fresh Ink For Teens, Times of Israel and your school newspaper are excellent forums for discussing topics that are important to our generation. Do some research to make sure you have your facts straight; ask for comments from trusted friends and mentors; be thorough, thoughtful and honest. We can all make a difference, and I can’t wait to see what my future holds.