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TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now to further explore the reporting of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan; Alex Safian, associate director of CAMERA– Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America; Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of CARE– the Council on American Islamic Relations; and Martin Baron, the editor of the Boston Globe.
Welcome to all four of you.
Alex Safian, let me begin to ask you to briefly summarize for you what your objections are to the coverage that you see on CNN and elsewhere in the American media of this conflict.
ALEX SAFIAN: Well, I think there are many, many problems with the coverage. I think one general area is that the media has tended to airbrush away Palestinian extremism. And this is something not just that camera says, but in effect, Michael Getler, the ombudsman of the Washington Post, said something similar about the post coverage. He said that they don’t provide the proper context about a number of issues in the Arab- Israeli conflict.
I think one of those issues for which context is sorely lacking is Palestinian extremism. I’ll give you one very brief example. In the New York Times two weeks ago, they did a very interesting piece on possible successors to Mr. Arafat. And some of the people they listed were, first of all, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazan. They described him as moderate and pragmatic, and someone who had a Ph.D. in Zionism. What they didn’t tell their readers is that this Ph.D. on Zionism equated Zionism with Nazism, that it questioned the degree, in fact, even the existence of the Holocaust. It said that gas chambers could not have been used to kill Jews during World War II, and it cited notorious holocaust deniers as a reference to that.
TERENCE SMITH: All right.
ALEX SAFIAN: They also did a–
TERENCE SMITH: Go ahead. I understand but I’m trying to get, so this is an example then from your point of view of the–
ALEX SAFIAN: Exactly, an example… this is an example where a Palestinian is profiled as being far more moderate than he really is. There are many other examples, but I won’t go through them–
TERENCE SMITH: I appreciate it. Let me turn to Ibrahim Hooper and ask you essentially the same question. When you view the coverage– CNN, anywhere else– of this conflict, what problems do you have with it?
IBRAHIM HOOPER: Well, we actually see that the coverage is improving somewhat and moving toward a neutral status, away from a more pro-Israel bias. We’re seeing increasing stories about Palestinian humanity, the suffering they go through, the hardship of the occupation, but I think the problem is the spectrum of debate needs to be widened.
While you’re adding the humanity of the Palestinians, you’re not increasing the criticism of Israel’s brutal occupation. I think there’s still self- censorship in the American media that prevents overt criticism of the basis of the Israeli policies, the occupation, and even Zionism itself.
So I see that needs to be worked on, along with commentators. If the day-to-day journalists are doing a good job– at least trying to a good job to be fair and objective– commentators are, almost across the board, radically pro Israel. You can’t pick up a newspaper nowadays without having one of the editorials demonizing either Palestinians or Islam or Muslims or Arabs, and praising Israel’s benevolent action. So that’s the problem.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Eason Jordan, let me ask you this. I know you’ve just been in Israel dealing with some complaints that were made against CNN there, and now you’ve heard them here. Are these criticisms valid?
EASON JORDAN: Well, I think both sides have some legitimate criticism of CNN’s coverage. I should stress CNN has done more than 5,000 reports from Israel and the Palestinian territories in the past year. Not every one of those is perfect.
On the whole, I would say that my colleagues and I are very proud of our coverage from the region and on the region. But is that coverage perfect? Absolutely not. There’s room for improvement. There is room for better context. We should provide better clarity and precision in some of our reporting. We need to do a better job of telling the human stories, very tragic stories, on both sides of this conflict. And so I think there is room for improvement.
But I should stress CNN is not anti-Israel, CNN is not anti- Palestinian. We are doing our damnedest to tell it straight, and it’s a very, very tough job, especially under these circumstances.
TERENCE SMITH: Marty Baron, from your perspective as an editor, you’re at the Boston Globe, what do you think of the criticisms you hear of the coverage?
MARTIN BARON: Well, we’re always interested to hear what people have to say about our coverage. And we take their criticism and we explore what they have to say. At times people raise legitimate points and we try to make course corrections if necessary.
But we devote a lot of resources to trying to get the facts on the ground in the Middle East in Israel, certainly, and in the Palestinian territories, as well. And we have reporters there who are themselves at great risk in trying to find the facts as they are. And that’s what we want to find is what are the facts and not sort of be balanced, to use that word, but really to be fair and to be accurate and to find out for ourselves what, in fact, is going on, and present that to the readers.
TERENCE SMITH: And have you, Marty Baron, made changes in either the language you use in pieces or corrections as a result of some of these complaints?
MARTIN BARON: Well, we’ve had to make corrections from time to time, certainly. I think having to make corrections is a sign of a good newspaper, that we will acknowledge error when an error is made.
We certainly always are looking at the language that we use. There’s certainly a lot of debate about the language that’s used in newspapers. Even the word… the term “occupied territories” is a matter of controversy. Some would rather say “disputed land.” Other people will talk about… some people will talk about an “incursion” into the Palestinian territories. Palestinians tend to prefer the word “invasion.” And so there’s a lot of debate about the terms that are used on this particular story.
TERENCE SMITH: Alex Safian, your organization and others have ratcheted up the pressure on news organizations using boycotts and the contributions and that sort of thing as a way to bring economic and other pressure on it. Why have you ratcheted up? Why now? What’s different now than before?
ALEX SAFIAN: Well, I think the situation– you’re speaking specifically with regard to NPR, where there has been an effort to have people not contribute any more and to also have underwriters, advertisers, no longer advertise. The reason for that, quite frankly, is because NPR’s coverage has been a problem for a very long time, but it’s gotten worse over the years rather than getting better.
And because of that, we’ve decided that the only thing to do is to increase our efforts and to hit them in a place where perhaps they’ll understand. NPR is very resistant to change. It’s very resistant to taking input from listeners.
Contrary, for instance, to the New York Times and the Boston Globe– which we have problem with some of their coverage, sometimes we have a lot of problems with their coverage– but they do listen. NPR has decided not to listen, and so therefore, they leave us no choice but to reach them in other ways.
TERENCE SMITH: I should point out here that we invited representatives of NPR to join this discussion, and they did decline. Now, Ibrahim Hooper, does that mean from your point of view that you applaud the coverage on NPR?
IBRAHIM HOOPER: By and large I find the coverage on NPR fair and balanced. And when he says they don’t listen, well, maybe that means they don’t take dictation from the pro-Israel lobby.
It’s always interesting to hear representatives of the pro- Israel lobby call for context in reporting. Well, we like context. We like the context of 50 years of occupation and dispossession and expulsion and all of these things suffered by the Palestinian people, not just whether a Palestinian child throws a rock at a tank and is called a terrorist. We need context to why that child is throwing a rock at a tank.
TERENCE SMITH: Eason Jordan, let me ask you what changes you’ve made in response to some of the complaints. We mentioned a couple in the setup, the series that you did on some of the Israeli victims. Are you going to do a comparable series, for example, on Palestinian victims?
EASON JORDAN: Well, I think we’ve done many, many stories on Palestinian victims, and we will continue to do so. Just in the week I was in Israel over the past couple of weeks, we actually did a series of reports out of Jenin.
There was a really tragic incident where an Israeli tank fired on a marketplace. Some civilians were killed. Israel said it was an accident. We reported it with that attribution, as Israel said it, but it was a tragedy and innocent civilians were killed. We did, of course, did a week- long series of reports on Israeli victims, but there’s a big difference, I would state, between what’s happening in Israel and what’s happening in the Palestinian territories, because while it’s disputable whether Israel is targeting civilians, there’s certainly no irrefutable evidence of that in the territories. There’s no doubt that suicide bombers are going into Israel and intentionally killing civilians at random. I met with a number of those people. I met with victims on both sides, and there are really tragic stories to be told.
And we’ve made one big change in policy, Terry, and I wouldn’t say it’s in response to viewer complaints. It’s because we felt it was the right thing to do. And that was we decided that we are not going to allow suicide bombers and their supporters the same amount of access to CNN in telling their story as we would the victims of terror, because there’s no moral equivalence between the perpetrators of mass murder and the victims of mass murder.
TERENCE SMITH: But whether or not it’s in response, Eason Jordan, that did follow complaints about your airing such tapes of the relatives of those bombers, right?
EASON JORDAN: Well, CNN made, actually, a terrible mistake about three weeks ago, where we interviewed a victim, a woman who had lost both her 14-month-old baby girl and her own mother as well, and the woman gave a very emotional interview to CNN, and we made a mistake.
We aired… at the time the interview of the victim should have aired, instead we aired an interview with the mother of the suicide bomber who killed these Israelis, and it was very traumatizing for the family in Israel and not fair and really was not our intention. It was a mistake, and we wanted to put in safeguards to keep something like that from happening again.
TERENCE SMITH: Marty Baron, so much of this has to do with language, the choice of words. Is it a “suicide bomber” or is it a “homicide bomber”? How do you deal with that as an editor? How do you find the– what is it– neutral language?
MARTIN BARON: Well, it’s a very difficult subject, and the debate continues. We get advice from some of the groups that are represented on your program here today on what kind of language we should use.
Ultimately, we have to fall back on our own judgment and try to use language that doesn’t suggest that we are taking sides in this inflamed situation. And that’s all that we can do.
TERENCE SMITH: Alex Safian, have news organizations responded to your efforts?
ALEX SAFIAN: They have, they have. I think, you know, I’ve spoken, we’ve spoken to Marty Baron and to Eason. I’ve spoken to Eason more times than I could count, and I’ve never felt that Eason was the problem at CNN when there have been problems, and the same thing for Marty Baron who is fairly new here at the Boston Globe.
I don’t think these gentlemen are the problem when there is a problem. I think the problem at CNN is largely in the bureau in Israel, where there are some entrenched people who I think are somewhat problematic.
If I could though, I’d like I to remark very briefly on what Mr. Hooper said where he talked about the 50-year Israeli occupation. Israel has only been around for a little more than 50 years, so he let slip there, I think, that he does not accept the existence of the state of Israel. Otherwise, you can’t talk about a 50-year occupation. ’67 was not 50 years ago. So I think Mr. Hooper has made his position be very clear for everyone now.
IBRAHIM HOOPER: If you’re a Palestinian who was living quite peacefully in Jaffa or Haifa or another place of the 490 towns and villages that were completely wiped off the map during the creation of the state of Israel, you know, you would… your dating would go back to 1948, not to ’67. Having said that, everybody in the region has the right to live in peace and security, but they can’t live in a situation where one ethnicity, one religion, has a superior attitude, and the rest are merely there to be, you know, sub humans in the control of that one ethnicity.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, gentlemen, the issue remains as thorny as ever. Thank you all four for coming in to discuss it.