Does the top brass at CNN care about criticism from American and Israeli Jews about an alleged pro-Palestinian bias?
In a 90-minute exclusive interview with The Jewish Week at his Midtown office, Walter Isaacson, the chairman and CEO of the all-news cable TV network, offered a spirited defense of CNN’s Middle East coverage while acknowledging that a conscious effort was made three months ago to focus more on the victims of Palestinian terror.
Implicit in his remarks was that he and other CNN executives were seeking to orrect an imbalance in coverage of the Mideast conflict, though Isaacson conceded only that “there is a misperception” among some viewers of such a bias against Israel. He maintained that CNN’s coverage has been “very fair.”
What has changed, Isaacson said, is that after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. and more specifically after the Passover bombing at a Netanya seder that killed 29 Israelis, CNN recognized the need to “emphasize the personal toll of these [Palestinian] bombings” on Israelis, in addition to its reporting of the military and diplomatic aspects of the undeclared Mideast war.
Isaacson insisted this decision was not in response to outside criticism or any slipping of CNN’s ratings but rather was internal, based on an editorial evaluation that “the situation had changed and the personal toll of the bombings had become a crucial element.
“Our coverage evolves as the story evolves,” he said.
# Whatever the motive, it is clear that CNN, long criticized in Jewish circles as biased against Israel, has taken steps to improve its image among Israelis and American Jews. These include:An on-air effort to highlight the plight of Israeli civilians, offering a more personal and sympathetic view of their lives in the wake of 21 months of uninterrupted Palestinian violence against them.
# The launching, in recent days, of a major section on CNN’s Web site (www.cnn.com) featuring victims of terror, including photos and brief bios of the hundreds of people, mostly Jews, killed by Palestinian bombings.
# A five-part series last week, hosted in Jerusalem by Washington-based Wolf Blitzer, on the victims of terror, interviewing close relatives of Israelis killed by Palestinian bombings.
In that context, it was not surprising to receive a call from Isaacson’s office last week offering a meeting and interview with the top CNN official. The public relations official who made the call said it was part of an effort to meet with Jewish opinion makers in the wake of Ted Turner’s recent controversial comments equating Palestinian and Israeli violence.
Turner, the founder of CNN, was quoted in a British newspaper as saying, “aren’t the Israelis and Palestinians both terrorizing each other?” The comments were made in April, during Israel’s incursion into the West Bank, and sparked a major outcry from the Jewish community.
CNN executives, including Isaacson and Eason Jordan, who heads the network’s international news division, took pains to note that Turner “has no operational or editorial oversight of CNN.”
Indeed, a subtext of what Isaacson was saying in our conversation last week — I was joined by managing editor Robert Goldblum and media writer Rifka Rosenwein — was that while CNN has had a problematic relationship with Israel and the Jewish community over the last 20 years, he has only been in his post a year, he is trying to steer the ship toward more equitable coverage of the Mideast, and he and the network should be given a fresh evaluation based on present performance rather than past grievances.
Isaacson never said this in as many words, even during his frequent forays into off-the-record comments. Rather, the polished Louisiana native, who most recently was editorial director of Time magazine, where he worked for more than two decades, vigorously defended CNN’s anchors and foreign correspondents as thorough, unbiased professionals doing a difficult job under enormous pressure. And he seemed to take care to avoid using words like “mistakes” or “bias” that could show up, unflatteringly, in a headline. But Isaacson did say he recognized that many viewers felt “we were telling the Palestinian story” more sympathetically than the Israeli story, while stressing he did not agree.
Perhaps more newsworthy than any specific comment Isaacson made during our discussion was the fact that he felt the need to make CNN’s case to the American Jewish community, where “CNN Lies” bumper stickers are not an uncommon sight. At the same time, Jordan had flown to Israel (on his 50th trip in 20 years, according to Isaacson) to meet with political leaders and media figures and apologize for lapses in coverage that may have appeared overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
Some media observers attribute this flurry of activity to finances, not fairness, pointing out that CNN, said to reach a billion viewers in 212 countries, has lost its ratings edge in the U.S. to the Fox News Channel, with its more favorable coverage of Israel’s views. But Isaacson insists CNN’s goal is to be objective and not wear its ideological heart on its sleeve. “We just want to get it right, straight down the middle,” he said.
Pro-Israel watchdog groups and American Jewish leaders credit Isaacson with being a serious, responsible journalist who has been responsive to their calls and complaints, and shown a willingness to improve CNN’s coverage of the Middle East. But they are careful to point out that corporate cooperation does not always filter down to on-air reporting, with which they still have problems.
“I agree CNN has done a better job since Walter came,” says Andrea Levin, who heads the pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA, a frequent and outspoken critic of CNN coverage over the years. She described Isaacson and Jordan as “good guys” with whom she talks frequently and who are “people of goodwill trying to take care of an issue.”
Levin also said she was pleased to see the network’s “heightened sensitivity to and awareness of the victims of terror, giving context to Israel’s actions of self-defense.”
But she noted CNN is a major operation — it has 4,000 employees worldwide — and “there are still problems in the field,” such as correspondents editorializing in their reports or making factually inaccurate statements.
Two weeks ago, she said, CAMERA found several reports “very objectionable” and encouraged several thousand of its members to send e-mails to CNN complaining about a report by Christiane Amanpour. The network’s chief international correspondent is widely considered to be biased in favor of the Palestinians, and the recent objection was to her making several references to the legitimacy of Palestinian complaints and distinguishing between American and Israeli efforts to combat terrorism.
“She may be a star, but we’ve long had objections to her reporting and she interjects her opinions all the time,” Levin said.
Another pro-Israel media watchdog, HonestReporting.com, reported this week that after recent meetings with top CNN executives in Atlanta, it found “a genuine sensitivity to Israeli concerns” at its headquarters. But it also complained of problematic reporting by several of CNN’s correspondents in the Middle East.
“It’s fair to say he’s trying to do a better job,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, when asked about Isaacson.
Isaacson seemed more frustrated with pro-Israel activist e-mail campaigns against CNN than with other forms of criticism. Well versed in the details of these charges, he insisted they were largely inaccurate, unfair and based on hearsay. He challenged the truthfulness of private statements reportedly made by Andrea Koppel, a CNN reporter, while visiting Israel in which she was said to have commented on her limited knowledge of the Middle East and her belief that Israel would not survive the next 50 years. And he went to great lengths to say how wrong it was for critics to attack Sheila MacVicar, a London-based CNN correspondent flown in to cover the Middle East recently, for one alleged gaffe about the status of Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood conquered during the 1967 war.
“Here she left her family for three weeks, was the first reporter on the scene of the French Hill bombing [of a bus in Jerusalem] and did 26 live standups [reporting that day], and all we heard about was this one line,” said Isaacson, referring to MacVicar’s comment that the Palestinians consider Gilo an “illegal settlement.”
In that moment, sounding clearly irritated with the unfairness of it all, Isaacson mirrored the sentiment of many pro-Israel viewers of CNN who have come to believe the network favors the Palestinians over the Israelis. Be fair, he was saying; give us a break.
That’s what Jews in Israel and the U.S. have been saying to CNN for years. Maybe now both sides will do a better job of hearing each other.
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