Category Archives: CNN

Keith Olbermann was wrong

The third principle of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is “Act Independently.” The SPJ specifies that this means avoid any behavior that could create even the appearance of a conflict of interest. MSNBC’s own code of ethics says the same thing. Keith Olbermann has violated that principle of acting independently, and MSNBC was right to suspend him. But MSNBC needs to do more.

Olbermann was caught by Politico making political donations to three Democratic candidates, one of whom appeared on his show. Ordinary citizens can donate to political campaigns, but journalists who value their integrity cannot. Not even if these journalists are “commentators” or “analysts.” It is one thing to have a liberal or pro-Democratic outlook. It is quite another to give money to political candidates. Just because Faux News anchors do that does not make it right. And just because Bernie Sanders and Elliot Spitzer take Olbermann’s side, that still does not make it right.

The reason is simple. Journalists — even commentators — must behave professionally and avoid overtly partisan behavior, so that audiences will trust them as credible independent observers and not see them as individuals who are working for the election of certain candidates. Earlier in American history journalists were clearly partisan, but since the middle of the 19th Century the profession’s ethics clearly forbid giving money to candidates and parties, and taking other actions intended to benefit parties. Journalists concerned with ethics were up in arms when CNN’s Larry King literally embraced President-elect George W. Bush onstage while hosting a GOP event.

I supported CNN’s decision earlier this year to fire Octavia Nasr for tweeting a favorable comment about a Hezbollah leader, and I supported NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams, who was employed by both NPR and Faux News. While appearing on Faux, he had expressed fear of Muslim passengers of airlines. By the same token, I support MSNBC’s punishment of Olbermann. In each case, the journalist failed to behave professionally and avoid even the appearance of excessive bias.

But what MSNBC needs to do now is change its name, which executives of the parent company are considering doing. Never mind having the silly slogan “Lean Forward.” What the cable channel MSNBC needs to do is make it clear that it has nothing to do with the website msnbc.com, which is basically the website of NBC News. It is one thing to lean to the left (or “forward”) as a commentary cable channel with occasional news cut-ins. It is quite another to have the same name as a legitimate news organization which strictly avoids any partisanship in order to maintain its credibility.

If the cable channel wants to call itself the Lean Forward Channel, or whatever, that is fine. Or if the website wants to change its name to NBCNews.com, that is fine, too. But it is too confusing to have TWO separate and different organizations both called msnbc. Having the cable one be opinionated damages the credibility of the online one. And when the most popular anchor on the cable channel gives money to Democratic politicians, it further damages the credibility of the online news organization.

I would be even happier if all of the news-oriented cable channels forbade partisan bias by their main on-air personalities, especially the ones who also anchor major shows. And if they have guests with partisan agendas, when those guests are on-air there should be some visual cue that this is commentary and not news and information. For example, there could be a red border around the screen and the word COMMENTARY onscreen throughout this segment. Otherwise it is too confusing for the audience, especially when the same person is both reporting and commenting.

(Photo: capitalhillblue.com)

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Filed under CNN, live TV, media bias, media history, news media

Mideast: no peace, no process

I was going through some very old CNN tapes yesterday and came across a quote from U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in 1987 during a visit to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. In a speech that I covered, Shultz encouraged the Israelis to take a risk for peace. What struck me about that quote is that it was almost exactly what President Obama said this week about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“I think he’s willing to take risks for peace….”). Twenty-three years later and the U.S. is still saying the same thing to Israel.

Headlines from twenty-three years ago spoke of “Hope for Peace Talks” but it’s now clear that there never was any hope by anyone informed of the true situation. And can journalists really use the term “peace process” to describe the fruitless attempts at meaningful talks that have taken place decade after decade in the Middle East? There ought to be a more realistic, truthful term to describe the situation. “Peace process” has a nice sound to it, and serves as a reminder what the desired goal ought to be, but there’s no peace and no process, just a seemingly endless series of fits and starts.

A cynic might wonder whether U.S. politicians ever really cared about peace in the Middle East. One problem is that even if American officials wanted to do something meaningful, they can never get very far without running up against political reality. A first-term president is thinking about re-election and usually the main issue is the economy, not the Middle East. A second-term president is often a lame duck, and the politicians who are candidates to replace him do not place the Middle East at the top of their agenda because that’s not what wins them the votes they need. Unless the Israeli-Palestinian situation is on the front burner, it won’t receive much American attention.

Which brings us to the news media. Since politicians won’t focus enough on the Middle East to make a difference, journalists need to. Journalists need to keep focusing public attention on the human suffering in that part of the world, and on the cynical exploitation of it by local politicians. European news media do a much better job of this than American news media. American journalists oversimplify complex developments, often playing up the viewpoint of Israel, America’s ally, or getting sidetracked by trivial issues. Journalists need to report more seriously and more in-depth on the historical context for each news development. You can’t understand the Middle East without understanding history, and since our schools don’t teach enough history, the American public often learns about the world and its past largely through the news media — which is a sad commentary and one that doesn’t offer much hope for the future.

(Knesset, White House photos)

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Filed under CNN, Israel, Middle East, news media, Obama, Palestinians

King of bad journalism

Amid all the praise for Larry King as he prepares to depart, I hate to rain on his parade but the truth is that much of what he did was bad journalism. He used up an entire hour at an all-news network to give celebrities free publicity, at a time when I and other CNN Washington correspondents were trying to ask the tough questions that journalists need to ask. Most of the time King’s questions weren’t even softballs. They were  invitations to celebrities to tell us how wonderful they are. And the worst moment of all came on Jan. 18, 2001.

That was when King was on the stage with newly-elected President George W. Bush. It was at a pre-inaugural party paid for by Bush supporters and carried live on CNN. The decision had been made by CNN to let King host the event, a decision that CNN execs later regretted, since this clearly created the appearance of pro-administration bias by an employee of a news organization. Good journalists are supposed to not only be detached but adopt an adversarial relationship toward the powerful. That evening Larry King did the exact opposite.

To make it worse, at one point he rushed up to Bush and hugged him.

I watched in dismay, and so did most other journalists. As CNN reporter John King (no relation) later put it: “I watched in shame and horror.”

For the many people in this country who suspect that news media are biased, this seemed to be proof, live on TV, that journalists take sides in politics and distort the news. The reality is that I did everything I could in my thirty-four years as a journalist to be as objective as is humanly possible, and so did most other journalists I knew. But all of our efforts to be impartial seemed undercut by that one shameful hug.

To be sure, King did provide entertainment for viewers, and, at least until recently, high ratings for CNN. Occasionally he did ask a good question. But most of the time he missed opportunities to confront the powerful. Journalists are supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but Larry King just comforted the comfortable. What a shame.

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Filed under CNN, media bias, news media

Beyond Belief: CNN and rumors about Miss USA

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.

Beyond belief.

(Photo: ArabDetroit)

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Filed under CNN, media bias, Middle East, news media, Palestinians, terrorism