CAMERA Op-Ed: CNN’s Compromise

CNN executive Eason Jordan’s dramatic acknowledgment in a New York Times op-ed (“The News We Kept to Ourselves,” April 11, 2003) that for more than a decade his network concealed gruesome information about Saddam Hussein’s regime lifts the rock a notch off the dark underside of media collaboration with barbarous dictators.

Yet, according to former CNN reporter Peter Collins writing in the Washington Times (April 15, 2003), Jordan’s piece failed to convey the appeasement and fawning that marked network policies toward the Iraqi leadership. Collins tells of being instructed in 1993 by former CNN President Tom Johnson, under whom much of this activity apparently occurred, to repeat on the air “verbatim” the self-serving talking points of an Iraqi “Information minister” in order to advance the network’s chances for a personal interview with Saddam. When Collins shortly afterwards broadcast a story skeptical of Iraqi claims that Americans were bombing “innocent Iraqi farmers,” he was told by veteran CNN reporter Brent Sadler that the story “was not helpful.” Sadler wanted that interview with the Iraqi dictator.

The Jordan disclosures have prompted speculation about the conduct of CNN in other dictatorships where the network maintains bureaus, such as Cuba. A study by the Virginia-based Media Research Center found the network has given Fidel Castro a platform to promote his views unchallenged. According to the center, “just seven of 212 stories focused on the regimes’ treatment of dissidents; only four stories concerned themselves with the lack of democracy; and only two stories spotlighted the intimidation of journalists.”

That is to say, the practices employed in Baghdad characterize CNN’s kowtowing to dictators elsewhere. This extends to the autocratic regimes throughout the Arab Middle East, now being serviced by a recently launched CNN Arabic language division.

It is hardly surprising, then, that with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict CNN exhibits a tendency to prefer formulations agreeable to Arab leaders while minimizing realities that might offend. Thus, on the very day Eason Jordan unburdened himself, CNN analyst Bill Schneider declared “…there could be a fresh start [in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations], but only if President Bush decides to push for a peace deal, which means pushing Israel.” (Emphasis added) The notion that “pushing Israel” is the key reflects, of course, the Arab perspective, not the Israeli or American one, which sees reform of a corrupt and terror-promoting Palestinian Authority as the central task.

Nor are such CNN observations unusual. Shortly after Schneider’s comments, CNN anchorwoman Paula Zahn questioned Arab journalist Hisham Milhem about Arab-Israeli peace and its supposed role in placating anti-American sentiment in the Arab “street.” Milhem promptly responded: “…if you’re talking about people who need liberation, need liberation more than the Iraqis, they are the Palestinians, who are under tremendous occupation, brutal, Draconian occupation.”

The CNN host thanked Milhem, without a hint of disagreement that Israel’s conduct is worse than that of Saddam Hussein’s, and without challenging his one-sided criticism of the United States.

In contrast, in a segment that followed with Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas, Zahn was full of critical challenge, saying Milhem had “made it very clear that the Arab street will only have confidence in the United States and this coalition if there is some kind of peace forged between the Palestinians and Israelis.” She added for good measure: “And another point that he’s made in the past that he didn’t say tonight is the building of settlements has got to stop. Will it?”

When Pinkas replied, specifying that Israel has shown itself prepared to dismantle settlements in some areas in the context of real peace, Zahn asked: “What else is Israel ready to bend on? If there is this area of compromise… what else are you talking about, besides stopping the settlements?”

This snapshot of CNN’s coverage is indicative of certain distorted premises that apparently underpin the network’s take on the Middle East. Chief among these is the belief that Israel bears the onus for bringing peace and thereby softening Arab enmity toward America; that Israeli concessions, whether on settlements or on other issues, are the solution.

Notably, competitor FoxNews reports very differently, presenting Arab rejection of Israel’s rightful existence in the region as fundamental to the conflict. It gives serious, repeated attention to the ferocious, even genocidal, anti-Semitic propaganda generated, for example, in Palestinian and Saudi media, mosques and textbooks. CNN omits most of this.

Fox News has no bureau in Baghdad, Damascus or Havana, but the network is pummeling CNN in viewer ratings. There seems little question that the price paid in seeking to ingratiate oneself with dictators and medieval princes is not only an undeniable ethical one, but a practical one, borne out in CNN’s trailing a newcomer that readily reports essential, unpleasant truths.

Origianlly published in Jerusalem Post on May 9, 2003.

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