Diplomatic Controversies and Lazy ‘Journalism’ at CNN

An allied nation claims that the U.S. administration is delaying shipments of arms in its time of need. The administration denies it. Who is telling the truth? In a normal world, this would be a perfect story for an investigative journalist to dig up the details and shed light on that question for media consumers.

But rather than search for relevant information, journalists at CNN reacted to the story by simply repeating the claims of the two sides. It’s the equivalent of just retweeting someone else’s posts instead of adding any additional value or insight to the conversation. This begs the question: what’s the point of a journalist if all they do is what millions of social media users do every day?

The CNN article in question concerns the claim by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. administration has been delaying the supply of weapons to Israel (“Netanyahu defends decision to go public with complaint about US weapons supplies,” by Michael Schwartz, Tim Lister, and Alex Stambaugh, dated June 23).

The first half of the article is filled with quotes and paraphrasing from both sides. The second half shifts focus onto a tangentially related story, which sheds no light on the veracity of the claims made by either side.

If only there was some additional information that might help the audience understand what is actually going on.

In fact, there is. CNN either didn’t bother to investigate or deliberately chose not to mention it.

The information in question comes from a June 20 letter sent by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, to President Biden. The letter contains several details and explanations that shed crucial light on the seemingly contradictory statements by American and Israeli officials that CNN reported.

Consider those remarks first. According to the June 23 article, Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “About four months ago, there was a dramatic drop in the supply of armaments arriving from the US to Israel.” On the other side, the article includes a quote from U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein claiming the remarks are “completely untrue.” But in a June 19 CNN article (“Biden envoy told Netanyahu his comments about US-supplied weapons were ‘unproductive’ and ‘completely untrue’,” by Natasha Bertrand, MJ Lee, Arlette Saenz, Jennifer Hansler, and Kylie Atwood), another quote from Secretary of State Blinken was also included:

‘We continue to move these different cases through our system on regular order,’ Blinken said, noting that ‘it takes a long time to move these things, and a number of the things that are going to Israel won’t get there for years.’

Here’s how the June 20 letter helps reconcile these seemingly contradictory remarks and proves invaluable for those curious enough to seek the truth. According to Senator Cotton, the administration “is engaged in bureaucratic sleight-of-hand”:

“As you are aware, the Arms Export Control Act requires the administration to notify Congress before sending weapons to a foreign country. Your administration has manipulated this requirement by withholding this formal notification to Congress of approved weapons sales, including F-15s, tactical vehicles, 120-mm mortars, 120-mm tank rounds, joint direct attack munitions, and small diameter bombs. Your administration can then claim that the weapons are ‘in process’ while never delivering them.

But the law also includes an exception for ‘when emergencies exist,’ which allows you to waive the requirement for congressional review and expedite weapons sales. Your administration is obviously aware of this exception since you invoked it just last year. Yet, it appears that you stopped acknowledging the emergency in Israel after receiving a letter from nearly twenty congressional Democrats in January, urging you to end expedited weapons sales to Israel.”

Netanyahu claimed a “dramatic drop” began “about four months ago.” Senator Cotton’s explanation roughly aligns with this timeline, pointing out that “it appears that you stopped acknowledging the emergency in Israel after receiving a letter from nearly twenty congressional Democrats in January.”

Blinken claimed “[w]e continue to move these different cases through our system on regular order.” Senator Cotton’s letter provides an explanation for how this language may be technically true, but does not actually contradict Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim. According to the senator, the administration has “manipulated” legal requirements by withholding “formal notification to Congress” so they can claim “that the weapons are ‘in process’ while never delivering them.” The letter similarly adds clarity to Blinken’s claim that “it takes a long time to move these things.” Senator Cotton contends that this is misleading because the administration has the power to expedite the process, which it was exercising, but “stopped acknowledging the emergency in Israel.” In doing so, Senator Cotton explains, the administration willingly added unnecessary steps to slow down the process.

Of course, Senator Cotton is a political opponent of the administration, and so his remarks must also be subjected to scrutiny. But given his knowledge of the subject and his clear explanation of what is happening, the inclusion of at least some of his letter in reporting on this subject should’ve been a no-brainer for truth-seeking journalists aiming to inform the public. The CNN audience would have benefited from these details, which cut through the careful, but uninformative, diplomatic speak of the two sides, and help make sense of the competing claims. At the very least, Senator Cotton’s letter raises enough plausible explanations and questions that it should’ve spurred the journalists to investigate further.

Instead, the CNN authors found it sufficient to largely copy and paste from competing statements without adding any value.

To call this lazy journalism isn’t entirely accurate, though. After all, we know that the network will work overtime to concoct bizarre “investigative” reporting riddled with holes, dubious claims, and thin evidence. The amount of effort devoted seems to depend on who the story makes look good or bad.

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