All too often journalists sitting across the table from Arab leaders do their utmost to avoid asking any tough questions, lest they give “offense” to people clearly unused to being challenged. But now and then an intrepid interviewer does pose the uncomfortable question to a king or potentate.
Just such a case was Tom Brokaw's interview with King Abdullah of Jordan on Monday, June 14. The veteran newsman didn’t hesitate to ask the King the tough questions. For example, after Abdullah blamed Israel for most of the problems of the Middle East, Brokaw countered:
But isn’t a lot of the burden also on the Palestinians, particularly on Yasir Arafat, and then just this week again Hamas has said, “We’ll send more suicide bombers across the border?”
Brokaw also challenged the king on why he and other Arab leaders, supposedly friends of the United States, had not forcefully condemned the use of children as suicide bombers:
Why isn’t there more condemnation of the use of young Arabs, Palestinians particularly, as suicide bombers by you, by President Mubarak of Egypt, by the Saudis, by the other Arab leaders?
Brokaw also noted to an increasingly uncomfortable Abdullah that the leader of the anti-American insurgency in Iraq is a Palestinian from Jordan named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:
In this country there is the widespread belief that the principle leader of the insurgence in Iraq is a Jordanian by the name of Zarqawi who is ruthless and cunning and extremely effective in carrying out the kind of warfare that he has chosen. Is there no way that Jordanian intelligence can help the United States track him down?
Tough questions all. There was only one problem – if you watched the interview on Monday night’s broadcast, you saw none of this.
All the challenging questions, including those above, were excised, and all the criticism of Israel by Abdullah was left in, presumably with the express consent of Mr. Brokaw, who is the Managing Editor of NBC's Nightly News.
Surviving the editing process, for example, was Abdullah’s assertion that:
... if you want to deal with terrorism you have to deal with the core issue in the Middle East, which is the Israeli/Palestinian one. That is the main recruiter for terrorism. That is the main sore that we all suffer from in the Middle East... Why do we have terrorists? Why do we have terrorism?... [T]he answer for our part of the world is the Israeli/Palestinian issue.
How exactly do we know that Brokaw asked challenging questions of Abdullah if NBC edited them out? The answer is very simple – the network posted on its web site a transcript of what was apparently the full interview, rather than just the segment as broadcast. Whether NBC intended to post the unedited transcript or not, it is revealing that Brokaw had the gumption to ask challenging questions, but apparently not the gumption actually to broadcast them. (Click here to see the interview as broadcast and to read the unedited transcript.)
As a result, millions of TV viewers saw only the abridged interview, and the vast majority of these viewers will never see the full transcript. (Recent Nielsen Ratings surveys show NBC Nightly News drawing seven to eight million nightly viewers.)
Why were all the challenging questions excised from the broadcast interview? Did King Abdullah urge Mr. Brokaw to remove them after the cameras stopped rolling? Were there threats of no more exclusive interviews? Or will NBC claim that the questions were removed for "lack of time" or some other equally trite excuse?
We'll probably never know for sure the real reasons. But one thing we do know for sure – all too often, when interviewing Arab leaders on the Arab/Israeli conflict, one of the ground rules is to avoid tough, challenging questions. The other ground rule, apparently, is never, never broadcast them.
Will NBC break the rules by airing the rest of the interview, including the tough questions they asked King Abdullah? Stay tuned.