Tag Archives: CNN

Daniel Schorr, a real journalist

Reading obits of Daniel Schorr, the independent-minded journalist who had the courage to defy the powerful (he was on the Nixon enemies list), I remember how Schorr stood up to Ted Turner in the early days of CNN.

When I joined CNN in April of 1981 I was worried that Turner, loud-mouthed and erratic, would do something so embarrassing that it would ruin the credibility of the fledgling all-news experiment. Soon after I joined, Turner almost succeeded in doing that. He did an on-air editorial in which he said that the producers of the movie “Taxi Driver” should be put on trial for John Hinckley’s shooting of President Reagan. Turner’s logic was a bit skewed. He said the producers were at fault because their movie had inspired Hinckley: “The people responsible for this movie should be just as much on trial as John Hinckley himself … Write your Congressman and your Senator right away, and tell him that you want something done.”

Just when I thought CNN’s reputation would be destroyed by this nutty comment by its owner, to its credit CNN ran an on-air reply by CNN commentator Schorr contradicting Turner. Schorr said having Congress take action against film producers could violate First Amendment protections against government censorship.

Schorr had a checkered career, and not everything he did was above criticism, but standing up to his boss at CNN was an example of Schorr at his best. He spoke truth to power, and in that he was a real journalist.

(Photo: NY1)

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Filed under live TV, 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

BP oil disaster: Joe Barton’s “kernel of truth”

New York Times columnist David Brooks, appearing on the PBS NewsHour, couldn’t bring himself to totally condemn Joe Barton. While saying Joe was politically stupid, Brooks said Joe was only two-thirds substantively stupid. And what was the smart one-third? “…we have a set of laws, when somebody does something bad, does something negligent, to force them to pay and compensate those who were damaged. And that’s all on the books. And what President Obama did when he very publicly and very brutally strong-armed BP into setting aside this $20 billion, is, he went around those laws.”

Brooks called that a “kernel of truth” at the core of what Joe said. But perhaps it’s more than that. Perhaps it’s a kernel of truth at the core of what the Republican Party stands for, and at the core of columnists like Brooks who support the conservative philosophy. Deep in their hearts they are more worried about government power than corporate power, even when corporate power takes the extreme form of the BP oil disaster. They would rather have BP’s victims use “the rule of law” (which means get lawyered up and spend twenty years in court) than get speedy, certain compensation.

CNN has an interview with the lawyer for victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster, and it provides a nice counterpoint to Brooks’s sympathy for  poor, misunderstood Joe Barton. The lawyer, Brian O’Neill, says he doesn’t expect his clients to receive the remainder of the payments due them until the end of this year. He says Exxon treated the lawsuits like World War III: “They spent over $400 million on lawyers, essentially defending [against] our claims. They took every appeal they could take and they took every delay they could take and filed every motion they could take. Don’t kid yourself: the oil companies have the best lawyers money can buy.”

CNN did the right thing by interviewing O’Neill to remind us what lies behind the “kernel of truth” in Joe Barton’s apology to BP. We need daily reminders of the excesses of corporate power, the ability of enormous companies to beat the rap in court at the expense of what BP’s chairman calls “the small people.”

(Photo: PBS NewsHour)

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Filed under BP, BP oil, news media

Marking media history: CNN’s 30th anniversary

There was a sense of media history in DC Saturday evening when former and current CNN hands gathered to celebrate the network’s 30th anniversary. The center of attention, as he had been three decades ago when he bankrolled the risky venture, was Ted Turner, 71 years old now, a bit subdued but still pleased with what he had done. “I’m very proud,” he said.

Chatting with him, I noted the three hundred guests milling around the National Press Club ballroom and said, “We’re all here because of you.” He shook his head. “Nah. You guys did it.”

Former CNNer Bernie Shaw, one of the network’s first anchors, acted as MC. Guests were so excited to reunite and talk that he had to ask them to be quiet so we could hear the speakers. When Ted Turner got up to speak, someone shouted: “You were cable before cable was cool!” — a reference to an early CNN billboard ad that showed Ted as a cable pioneer.

Judy Woodruff, a PBS NewsHour anchor, was one of the CNN alumni on hand. Wolf Blitzer, still with CNN, also was in the crowd. There were others, names not known to the public, who had been behind-the-scenes producers and camera operators and video editors, many of them having started at the new network when they were barely out of college. All of them helped this improbable upstart network (ridiculed by established media as “Chicken Noodle News”) get off the ground.

A blooper reel was shown, and it was a reminder how amateurish and slipshod the first programs were, marred by the wrong audio and camera shots that mysteriously drifted away from the anchors to show walls and doors in the background. A howl of laughter went up from the crowd when one camera mix-up on the blooper reel showed Larry King zipping up his fly. It was all part of the riskiness of live TV.

Other news organizations have reunions, but it’s doubtful any could match this one in emotion. Everyone there remembered how unlikely a proposition CNN had been when it first went on the air on June 1, 1980. It had not been until the 1991 Gulf War that CNN gained a large audience and was taken seriously by the other networks, so much so that imitators arrived in the form of Fox and MSNBC. Now twenty-four-hour television news is a fact of life, with both its harmful side and benefits, its sensationalism and mindless punditry on the one hand, and, on the other, its ability to bring distant events home to viewers around the world live as they happen. Like it or not, CNN has changed people’s lives, and Saturday’s event reunited some of the pioneers who helped bring about that change.

(Photo by Tony Umrani.)

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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