Journalists will need to be careful how they report the developing story of the deadly clash between Israeli military forces and a flotilla of aid ships that were headed toward Gaza. The Israeli government says that its forces were fired upon as they boarded the ships. A spokesperson for the aid flotilla denies it. Diplomats from Turkey and other countries are registering disapproval of Israel. There are calls for UN action. Protest demonstrations are in the works. The Israelis defend their actions and accuse the aid flotilla organizers of links with terrorists. Critics say Israel used disproportionate force against civilians. What really happened and what are the facts behind this incident? That is what journalists need to stay focused on. They need to be careful not to be manipulated by either side, but that may not be easy. If there were no independent journalists aboard any of the ships, reporters will have to rely on statements by both sides, and the trick is figuring out how to present those viewpoints fairly and as objectively as is humanly possible.
Based on my experience covering the Middle East for Newsweek and CNN, we are likely to see the Israelis make full use of their communication skills to spin the story their way. If the past is any guide, the Palestinians and their supporters will put out a confusing, conflicting story, will fail to provide English-speaking spokespersons who give a clear account, and may miss an opportunity to influence public opinion in the United States, although so far they may have aroused sympathy in other countries such as France. Already you can see how the Israeli version of what happened is influencing news coverage. The headline for the lead AP story Monday morning said: “Israel blames organizers for flotilla deaths.” The story quoted Israeli officials, and had no quotes from the other side. This could be due to AP bias or the lack of usable quotes from the other side at that time. As for possible bias, in my experience, American journalists or their editors often worry about appearing to be unfair to Israel, and tend to place heavy weight on official Israeli versions of incidents. The same AP report had a caption on a photo of Israeli troops aboard one of the ships. It said the photo from a Turkish ship “purported” to show Israeli troops. Would the AP say “purported” when using a comparable Israeli photo? I wonder.
Although there is turmoil at CNN (anchor Campbell Brown leaving, ratings dropping for CNN’s U.S. primetime shows, talks under way about a merger with CBS News), that turmoil may not be the whole story. A recent National Journal piece presents a far rosier picture, which is reassuring for anyone who wants to see quality, objective TV journalism survive. The article notes that CNN as a whole (not just the U.S. primetime operation) had its most profitable year ever last year. While primetime ratings are terrible, CNN earns only about 10% of its revenue from those shows, it says. The article quotes Jim Walton, President of CNN Worldwide, as adding: “…the remaining 90 percent comes from non-prime-time programming on the network, as well as HLN [Headline News], CNN.com, CNN International, CNN en Español, CNN Airport Network, and all of the other CNN-branded news and information platforms that together deliver more news to more people than any other news organization in the world.” The article reports another healthy indicator: “Despite the prime-time slippage, CNN continues to attract more unique viewers than its competitors overall, according to Nielsen surveys. In April, its 90.2 million viewers topped the 82.3 million who watched Fox News and MSNBC’s 74.8 million. And HLN’s 79.5 million viewers add to CNN’s bottom line.”
As CNN approaches its 30th birthday this June, the outlook is decidedly mixed, but at least it is not all bad. CNN does well when there is big breaking news, and according to this article it still does well enough even on slow news days. If it were not part of a publicly held company whose stock is traded, it would not have to worry about pressure to show higher earnings every year, and could just make sure it covers its expenses, like a nonprofit such as PBS, whose NewsHour show is another example of quality TV journalism that makes a good effort at objectivity. But since it does have to contribute to profit growth, there is that pressure. The hope is that CNN execs will resist the temptation to goose the ratings with fluff, sensationalism, high-priced anchors, and opinionated news items. In a sense, the worst thing that happened to CNN was getting the huge ratings boosts it experienced in the first Gulf War and on 9/11, because they created pressure to try to keep the ratings up, which is not possible without sacrificing quality. As someone who joined CNN in its first year, I salute its successes and hope that it keeps to its promise of good journalism (despite occasional lapses — see my previous blog post).
In a shocking lapse in journalistic ethics, CNN recently ran this headline on its news blog website: “Miss USA: Muslim Trailblazer Or Hezbollah Spy?” The May 20 item offered no substance whatever to the implication that Rima Fakih somehow had something to do with terrorists. It referred only to an unnamed rightwing blogger spreading this rumor. As CNN put it: “She became the center of controversy overnight after pole dancing photos surfaced and spread across the globe just as fast as a rumor started by a U.S. neo-conservative blog that she’s a spy for the Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah, designated by the U.S. and E.U. countries as a terrorist group.”
CNN did a disservice to ethical journalism by even mentioning this rumor. Good journalists don’t mention rumors. They know that any irresponsible person can start a rumor, no matter how unsubstantiated or farfetched, and once the rumor goes public it can go viral and cause lasting harm to someone’s reputation. Even worse, a rumor like this one plays into the hands of bigots who try to blame all Muslims for the actions of terrorists.
Although CNN retracted the original headline and replaced it with “Is Miss USA a Muslim Trailblazer?,” the damage had been done. As I write this blog on May 24, a Google search for the original headline turns up 8,700 results, so the “Hezbollah spy” language is still out there in cyberspace.
One oddity is that the original story was removed from the CNN news blog but it remained on CNN’s new religion blog, called Belief, and it still had the original, offensive headline. Then that headline was changed to conform to the revised news blog version. CNN added a note: “An earlier version of this post had a headline we thought was too provocative.” Asked by the blog TPM for a statement, CNN said: “Even before you asked about our provocative headline, some members of our team were discussing internally concerns surrounding the very same issue. In the process of editing the headline to something more appropriate, the posting was mistakenly pulled down from our breaking news blog, This Just In; and was left up on our newly launched Belief Blog. That was corrected quickly; and now you will find that the posting is back up on both blogs with editor’s notes explaining our headline change to ‘Is Miss USA a Muslim trailblazer?’.”
The revised story now added the words “outlandish” and “unfounded” to describe the rumor.
That’s fine, but it still doesn’t answer the question: Why did you ever include the rumor in the first place, and why did you continue to include it? A third version of the CNN story, dated May 21 and headlined “Miss USA says ‘American’ is her preferred label,” still refers to the rumor: “The rarity of a woman born in the Middle East representing the United States in the Miss Universe pageant spurred internet buzz. One rumor was that Fakih had family connections to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite group that the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization.” That wording was still on the CNN “breaking news blog” website three days later.
Because race remains such a sensitive issue in America, news media need to be especially careful, cautious and precise in reporting what a politician says about it and in putting his remarks in context. Shortly after Rand Paul won the Kentucky GOP senatorial primary, he indicated on MSNBC that he had concerns about some parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was referring to the provisions against discrimination by private companies. Among other things, he said this:
“I do defend and believe that the government should not be involved with institutional racism or discrimination or segregation in schools, busing, all those things. But had I been there, there would have been some discussion over one of the titles of the civil rights. And I think that’s a valid point, and still a valid discussion, because the thing is, is if we want to harbor in on private businesses and their policies, then you have to have the discussion about: do you want to abridge the First Amendment as well? Do you want to say that because people say abhorrent things — you know, we still have this. We’re having all this debate over hate speech and this and that. Can you have a newspaper and say abhorrent things? Can you march in a parade and believe in abhorrent things, you know?. . . “
Did that make him a racist, as some commentators said? Or did that make him a libertarian, like his father, opposed to what they see as too much government interference? Or was he simply naive to think that it is politically acceptable to criticize part of the historic legislation that has given hope for millions of Americans that the Federal government can step in to forbid discrimination and try to help alleviate the worst effects of racism? Whatever it says about him, Paul touched off a torrent of negative reactions. He had to cancel a scheduled appearance on Meet the Press, his campaign went into overdrive trying to explain his words, and Paul later said on CNN that he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. In this kind of inflamed environment, journalists can help by staying focused on just the facts and the proper context, quoting word for word what he actually said, explaining exactly what is in the Civil Rights Act, noting his past comments on it, and avoiding jumping to conclusions. Of course, it might be easier and simpler for journalists to summarize what he said and get quickly to the negative reactions, but that would run the risk that some readers would think he said something other than what he actually said. In fairness to him, and in the interests of fostering a calm, reasonable debate, journalists should do their job and give us all the facts, at the proper length, so that we can decide for ourselves what we think about Rand Paul.
A lot of nonsense has been written about Tuesday’s primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas. Some journalists says it’s good news for Republicans. Some say good news for Dems. Some say it sends a clear message about what will happen in the fall midterm elections. My own opinion is that journalists shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. Predicting what voters will do next November is like predicting what the weather will be like next November. Who knows? Journalists will be closer to the truth when they avoid drawing conclusions themselves. They should just state the facts, put the results in context, and quote respected experts on what they think it means, making sure to include a diversity of views. As for next November, I suspect that Robert Reich is right that the economy will still be a major factor, and I base that on historical evidence that high unemployment rates and recessions tend to hurt the party in power. And I agree with Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that journalists are making too much out of what is less of a clear outcome and more of a muddle. In a confusing situation we’re often eager, even desperate, for someone to give us explanations and point to broad sweeping trends that can predict the future. But sometimes there aren’t any clear guidelines for the future, and that is the truth that journalists should report. And perhaps journalists should spend less time on meaningless election punditry and more time focusing attention on the far more important story that meaningful Wall Street reform is stalled in Congress.
Update: The New York Times‘s public editor (ombudsman) has supported the paper’s handling of this story, and has rejected critics’ claims that the paper was biased and unfair to Blumenthal.
Kudos to the New York Times for revealing that Richard Blumenthal, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut, has falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam. In March 2008 he referred to “the days that I served in Vietnam,” but the Times story shows that he never was in that war. The Times does a careful, thorough job with this story. It goes over Blumenthal’s deferment records. It carefully quotes an expert on deferments, rather than the Times reporter himself drawing any conclusions. It gives Blumenthal an opportunity to respond. (He says lamely that he “misspoke.”) The Times further documents its story by providing an online link to a video from a March 2008 meeting where Blumenthal makes the false claim of service in Vietnam, so that readers can see and hear for themselves whether he really said it, and in what context. Blumenthal’s Republican opponent is now claiming, through a blogger’s post on her website, that her campaign helped the Times get the story. Whether or not that is true, the Times made the right decisions on whether to do the story, how to research and present it and how to play it (big, on page one). This is an important story because it could cost the Democrats a seat they have held for decades. And it is important because it is an example of one of the most important functions of journalists in our democracy: speaking truth to power, holding the powerful accountable, and serving as a watchdog on those in government.
The documentary film “The Most Dangerous Man in America” is a reminder of how important it is for journalists to have courageous sources willing to get the truth out to the public, and how important it is for the public to have courageous news organizations willing to publicize that truth. The film tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg, who risked imprisonment in 1971 when he leaked the secret history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam to the New York Times. The New York Times risked punitive fines and possible criminal penalties for defying the Nixon administration’s attempt to stop the paper from publishing the secret history, a document which made it clear how much the government had lied for years about our role in Vietnam (including false claims that the U.S. government sought no wider war). One of the heroes of this story is James Goodale, the in-house lawyer of the Times, who urged the publisher not to be afraid and to go ahead and publish the truth and fight the attempted censorship. The Times and the Washington Post eventually won in the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling against any prior restraint of the press. During the Pentagon Papers case, many other newspapers defied the Nixon administration and published parts of the secret history, and Sen. Mike Gravel read 4,000 of the 7,000 pages aloud in Congress, forcing it to be part of the official Congressional record which could not be censored. Ellsberg went on trial and faced the possibility of 115 years in prison but the case ended in a mistrial, partly because of shocking revelations of illegal FBI wiretaps and a break-in. (Nixon’s anger at the leak had led to the White House’s authorizing of a break-in of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, to look for dirt on Ellsberg. That and other crimes became known as Watergate and led to Nixon’s resignation, which was followed by the end of the Vietnam war.) What a story! It has many heroes, both whistleblowers such as Ellsberg and courageous journalists such as those at the New York Times. We need more heroes like that today.