Between the Lines: Propping Yigal Amir, and dropping CNN

Any media coverage of the 'Free Yigal Amir' campaign could be seen as more exposure than it deserves.

October 25, 2007 23:29
Between the Lines: Propping Yigal Amir, and dropping CNN

trimbobler 298 ap. (photo credit: AP)


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This has been a tough week for the Israeli media, which have been accused of many things - but rarely any as serious as being a virtual accomplice to Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir. Or, more accurately, of the group of far-right extremists - including Amir's pregnant wife, Larissa Trimbobler - working to spring him from prison through a public campaign that includes extensive ads and the distribution of 150,000 videotape cassettes of a documentary plea for his release. The quandary for the media is that any coverage they give to this campaign - as well as that of the impending birth of Amir's child - could be viewed as abetting the effort by giving it more exposure than it deserves. Indeed, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof made just that charge in an interview with Army Radio this week. The media themselves did some soul-searching in discussions on this issue in several radio and television current-affairs programs. "The Israeli media have struck a serious blow to the Israeli democratic system," media adviser Motti Morell told The Jerusalem Post this week. "None of the things that deal with Yigal Amir should be published or covered. He should rot in jail, and be erased and forgotten from the Israeli consciousness. Journalists can reject news items about this person's life, but they don't do it, and they will bring about his release someday because of their irresponsible behavior." Prof. Yoram Peri, head of the Herzog Institute for Media, Society and Politics at Tel Aviv University, agreed, saying, "The media's considerations are not professional, but rather rating-oriented. It's a good story, it's voyeurism and pornography - it sells, but it has no journalistic value." Sorry, but those gentlemen are wrong, dead wrong. I agree that the decision by the justice system that allowed Amir to conceive a child was a travesty. But once it was taken, of course following the consequences became legitimate. And the fact that Amir has dedicated followers who are trying to free him is an issue with major journalistic value, provided it's reported in the correct context. I also agree that in past years, the media have sometimes strained to create new news angles about Amir at this time of year, simply because they feel they must do so on the anniversary of the Rabin assassination. This is particularly true of the polls that come out every year showing significant segments of the Israeli public either supporting Amir's release, or not even believing Amir was the killer. Even if accurate, similar results were already produced years ago, and simply repeating them without digging deeper into the phenomenon has little news value. This year, though, because of the obviously well-financed effort to free Amir, and the imminent birth of his child, there is a genuine news peg, and I don't think the media need to feel guilt over covering the story. What's more, the Amir campaign apparently spurred the police to finally make public - with legal prodding by Channel 2 News - a tape of the initial police questioning of the assassin. This footage, which illustrates his clear-headed and cold-blooded lack of remorse just hours after the murder, clearly should have been made public earlier. So, rather than ignoring Amir, or wringing its hands over the coverage it does give to Rabin's murderer, the press would do better to press on, to make sure any additional such material finally sees the light of day. BACK IN the summer of 2002, the senior editors of The Jerusalem Post were invited to meet with CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan. The reason was obvious: CNN had come under a firestorm of criticism for its coverage of the intifada (including in the Post), especially suicide bombing incidents in which the only family members interviewed were related to the bombers, and not the victims. To make matters worse, CNN founder Ted Turner was quoted at the time as equating IDF military actions with terrorist attacks. The situation got so bad that, reportedly, some Jewish board members of CNN parent corporation Time-Warner were personally expressing their outrage about the coverage. So Jordan dropped by the Post (and elsewhere in Jerusalem) to dutifully take his lumps as this paper's editors laid into him with the usual charges - CNN's failure to provide proper context and background in its reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; its disproportionate lack of coverage of neighboring Arab nations; the discrepancies between the reporting and tone of CNN's US and international broadcasts; and so on. Jordan, while admitting some specific errors of judgment, was for the most part either defiant or evasive in his replies. A few years later he was forced to resign after claiming that US troops in Iraq were deliberately killing journalists. (Earlier he had admitted that CNN had downplayed atrocities by Saddam Hussein in order to keep its Baghdad bureau open during the 1990s.) At that time, five years ago, there was even discussion about whether the Israeli broadcasters of CNN might drop the station from their programming. Now comes the news that cable franchise HOT may well be finally canceling CNN at the end of the month (it will continue on the Yes satellite provider). The dispute this time is not over coverage, but price. The cable company has tried unsuccessfully so far to negotiate a reduction in subscription fees with CNN, and HOT, as a budget-cutting measure, has already dropped such other Turner Broadcasting stations as TCM and the Cartoon Channel. While not a factor here, it's perhaps worth looking again at CNN's Israel coverage. After the initial wave of protests in 2002, the network did make a clear effort to be more "fair and balanced" in its reporting from the region - although no one would mistake it for arch-competitor Fox News, whose editorial viewpoint is clearly more sympathetic to Israel. But in recent years there there has been clear slippage by CNN back into a reflexive anti-Israeli slant. Some of its coverage of the Second Lebanon War was particularly problematic. For example, Lebanon correspondent Nic Robertson did a report on a bombed-out neighborhood in southern Beirut that his own colleague Anderson Cooper later exposed as having been thoroughly controlled and manipulated by Hizbullah. CNN's current Jerusalem correspondent, Ben Wedeman, though a veteran in the region who clearly knows his turf, has a habit of doing reports about Palestinian hardships which are virtually devoid of any background, context, or in many cases, any Israeli reaction. Take the report he did this summer on a Palestinian in the West Bank who had agreed to let his land be used as a dumping ground for Israeli trash. "This is the natural consequence of the economic crisis in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians who used to work in Israel can longer go there," Wedeman intoned to the camera. Ummm, why exactly can't they go there? Are Israelis trying to starve out the Palestinians? Or could it have something to do with, oh I don't know, those pesky suicide bombers? Anyway, you won't find in his report even a single word about that or any other plausible reason why most Palestinians can no longer work in Israel (the full transcript can be found at A similar lack of background and context afflicts some of the reports Wedeman has filed from Gaza, where the disengagement is apparently ancient history, and Kassams often don't rate a mention. Even more tendentious have been some of the segments CNN International has broadcast (presumably for budgetary reasons) that were produced by Britain's Channel 4, a station notorious for its pronounced ideological bias. On the plus side, CNN's new Marketplace Middle East program has done some excellent segments on the Israeli economy, not all of which feel obligated to mention that "Palestinians who used to work in Israel can no longer go there." None of this is to argue that HOT is right in dropping CNN for any reason, economic, ideological or otherwise. Putting Al-Jazeera English in its place, as HOT is planning to do, is not an acceptable alternative. Not because Al-Jazeera English's Israel coverage is substantially different from CNN's - in fact, it isn't, and sometimes Al-Jazeera at least seems more diligent about including an Israeli reaction in its reports. But, whatever it's shortcomings, CNN is still the premier international news network. Simply put, viewers in Israel, English-speaking and otherwise, should unquestionably have the opportunity to watch CNN - this HOT subscriber included.

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