The Language of Bias at CNN
December 31, 1998
by Alex Safian
Violations of the public trust in journalism can take many forms, ranging from blatant fabrication, like CNN's now infamous Tailwind story, to more insidious abuses like carefully choosing words to subtly advocate a point of view.
Such violations are unfortunately not rare, especially at Cable News Network, and especially when covering Israel. Recent reports, most notably by Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers, only serve to highlight the network's continuing anti-Israel bias. On December 14, for example, following a press conference by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rodgers accused Israel of not reciprocating with a "confidence building measure" after a vote in Gaza affirming that anti-Israel clauses had been removed from the Palestinian Covenant. According to Rodgers, Netanyahu instead:
Rodgers' palpable scoffing at Israeli statements is in stark contrast to his respectful recitation of Palestinian claims. In a January 21, 1998 report, for example, Rodgers declared:
Thus, in the lexicon of Walter Rodgers, Israelis only "call" Palestinian obligations unfulfilled, while Palestinians "list" actual "Israeli violations," some of which are said to be "serious."
Similarly, on the question of the PLO covenant, and its call for the destruction of Israel, Rodgers consistently treats Israeli concerns as frivolous. For instance, in the recent December 14 report, he referred to the covenant as containing "clauses ... which the Israelis considered offensive." In other words, a document calling for Israel's destruction through "armed struggle" is not actually offensive, but is only considered to be so, and only by Israelis.
Unfortunately, it is not just Rodgers' language that is slanted to serve the Palestinian cause; his reports are regularly littered with false anti-Israel charges and distortions as well. In the January 21 report, for example, Rodgers charged that while Israel says it:
Without quibbling over the fact that Israel's President, rather than its Prime Minister, has the power to free prisoners, the question remains: had Israel imitated the Palestinian "revolving door" practice by jailing and then quickly releasing Jewish murderers of Palestinians? The answer is no. In the pardons to which Rodgers was apparently referring, two Jewish prisoners were released, not "at least half a dozen," and they were released only after having served four years of a ten year sentence — hardly an example of "revolving door" justice.
The bias evident in Rodgers' false charge about Israeli prisoner releases was also on display in his coverage of the recent Wye Accords. Thus, in a November 11 story, Rodgers informed viewers around the world that Israel was suddenly:
Rodgers here mixes both forms of bias — deceptive language and false assertions. Once again he refers to calls for Israel's violent destruction as something "the Israelis consider hostile to them," as if they are unreasonable for thinking so. But Rodgers also speaks of alleged "new conditions" demanded by Israel before ratification of Wye. In fact, rather than placing new demands, the Israelis merely pointed out prior Palestinian obligations that have yet to be fulfilled. This is in complete accord with the Wye Agreement, whose first paragraph states that it is:
Thus, rather than making new demands as Rodgers alleges, Israel has merely insisted that the Palestinian side comply with prior agreements under which Israel has already made far-reaching and tangible concessions.
These concrete Israeli concessions, routinely ignored on CNN, have led to Palestinian elections, a Palestinian legislature, installation of Yasir Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority, PA control of all major Palestinian population centers and most minor ones as well, an international airport and the development of a seaport in Gaza, a Palestinian airline, official Palestinian television and radio stations, internationally recognized passports, a Palestinian paramilitary police force of as many as 50,000 men (in violation of the agreements, which allowed for at most 30,000 men), and the release by Israel of almost 8000 Palestinian prisoners.
Each one of these Palestinian advances required difficult and even painful Israeli compromises, which were balanced by Palestinian promises. These Palestinian promises included fighting terrorism, outlawing the "military wings" of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, collecting illegal weapons, outlawing anti-Israel incitement (especially in PA-controlled media), extraditing to Israel Palestinians suspected of planning or carrying out violent attacks against Israelis, and formally repealing anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian Covenant.
Despite Israel's delivered commitments under Wye, the Hebron Accords, Oslo 2, and Oslo 1, none of these Palestinian commitments, with the exception of the PNC action on the PLO Charter, has materialized. In other words, there has been virtually no reciprocity on the part of the Palestinians.
It would take a special malice to portray this state of affairs as an Israeli violation of reciprocity. That, however, is exactly what Rodgers does in his report of December 14:
Rodgers even echoes Palestinian claims that Israel violated the prisoner release requirements of Wye. According to Rodgers:
It is noteworthy that Rodgers reports the issue of Palestinian prisoners without mentioning that thousands have already been released. Moreover, contrary to Rodgers' charges Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk stated "It is our understanding that the Israelis have done in this first stage what they have agreed to in Wye." (Deutsche Press-Agentur, December 7)
Also, as even CNN reported, Secretary of State Albright affirmed that "... the Israelis did what they said they were going to do on the prisoners initially." Thus, while senior US officials confirm that Israel has lived up to its present obligations with regard to prisoner releases, Rodgers adopts Palestinian claims to the contrary as fact.
In closing his report, Rodgers discusses the Palestinian-US relationship, once again adopting Palestinian claims as fact:
Notice Rodgers doesn't say "Palestinians claim," or "Palestinians charge," or "Palestinians say." He says "Palestinians ... know." The contrast with how he treats Israeli assertions is striking.
Walter Rodgers apparently has become so emotionally involved with the events he covers that he has abandoned even the pretense of objectivity. If he is unable to regain his journalistic bearings CNN should replace him with someone who can cover the important stories of the Middle East with candor, objectivity and balance.
Alex Safian is Associate Director of CAMERA - PO Box 428, Boston, MA, 02456-0428.
Copyright © 1998 by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. All rights reserved. This column may be reprinted without prior permission.
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