In times of peace, CNN talk-show host Larry King’s interviews with celebrities, including political figures, can perhaps be dismissed as inconsequential fluff. In times of war, when he gives key Middle East players a forum to dispense outright distortions, journalistic standards surely require him to show both a modicum of knowledge of the issues and a bit of spine in challenging the anti- Israel and anti-American canards his guests purvey.
A striking exchange among several guests on the October 15 edition of “Larry King Live” demonstrated the difference between a journalist who adds to viewers’ understanding of a dangerous world and King’s fawning avoidance of facts which may make his guests feel uncomfortable.
New York Times correspondent and bioterrorist expert Judith Miller joined several other guests, including Dana Suyyagh from the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network, which has gained prominence in the Middle East as a freewheeling network not subject to the strict state censorship that blights other Arab media. Yet Al-Jazeera has also played a major role in inflaming the Arab masses against Israel, broadcasting lurid, one-sided scenes of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Americans have also been concerned about the network’s part in presenting a distorted picture of US actions. In a curious role-shift, the CNN host left it to Miller to ask the serious questions. She first challenged Suyyagh over Al-Jazeera’s providing a platform for Osama bin Laden’s video-taped invective against America, and then she questioned the coverage of Israel: “Do you call people who blow themselves up on the West Bank and in Gaza and in Israel martyrs?” Suyyagh: “Yes, we do. We do.” Miller: “And do you think that’s objective?” When Suyyagh answered, “Yes,” Miller continued, “Did you call the people who blew the Twin Towers up martyrs?” “No. We never called them martyrs. That is an act of terror. We go with international opinion on that one… The West Bank is a different issue altogether,” said Suyyagh. Miller pressed the point: “So terrorists who kill people, civilians in Israel, are martyrs, and terrorists who kill Americans are terrorists? Is that your news standard?” The Al-Jazeera reporter replied, “No. We have a standing policy that people who are martyrs are people who give themselves for a cause. What happened in New York and Washington, we believe, was causeless.” Miller continued to challenge Suyyagh about the contradictions of Al-Jazeera policy.
Unfortunately, this exchange, providing valuable insight about an important issue, would never have happened were it not for Miller’s presence. Far more typical was a lineup of panelists two days earlier on the subject of Islamic anger that included, among others, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi. To her claim that the Palestinian issue is the “heart of the disaffection with the US,” King offered not a word of dispute. At one point, referring to Islamic fundamentalists, he asked of Ashrawi: “You’ve got to be taught to hate, Hanan, is that correct? And the only way to stop it is to not teach it?” He did not, of course, even hint at the role of Palestinians themselves as purveyors of hatred.
Ashrawi’s reaction to King’s query was to prattle about how “the real antidote is genuine democracy, respect for human rights, the transition to an inclusive and tolerant culture.” Finally, King asked solicitously: “Hanan – who has gone through so much, seen so much on both sides – are you optimistic at all that we will live in peace?” The Palestinian speaker said she was “extremely concerned,” then picked up the cudgel against Israel once more, denouncing the “decades of brutal and cruel occupation that has led to so much hostility and fear and hatred.” Without a murmur, the CNN host went to his next guest.
Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on this date.