CNN does not have a great reputation for a fair and balanced coverage of events involving Israel. Ten years ago, Israeli hip-hop group הדג נחש (HaDag Nachash) released a song called שירת הסטיקר (Shirat HaStikar). The song’s lyrics include the lines that were found on bumper stickers throughout Israel, namely “CNN משקר” (CNN Mishaker) – “CNN lies”. I don’t think anyone could have fathomed ten years ago just how true that line would prove to be.
On November 18th, 2014, American Israeli Rabbis Moshe Twersky (ז״ל), Calman Levine (ז״ל), and Aryeh Kopinsky (ז״ל), British Israeli Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg (ז״ל) and Druze first responder Zidan Saif (ז״ל) were killed during morning prayers at a synagogue in Har Nof, Jerusalem by Abed Abu Jamal and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal. These two Palestinian cousins attacked the Israelis with meat cleavers, axes and a gun. The first headline I witnessed from CNN read “Two Palestinians Killed”; the next said “Four Israelis Two Palestinians Killed”; and later, the story would also read that this attack took place in a mosque.
One month later, on December 21, 2014, over 700 Jewish teenagers from around North America gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, for United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) 64th annual international convention. During our convention, on December 22, after a study session about the concept ואהבת לרעך כמוך (Ve’ahavta L’ereacha Kamocha) – “love your neighbor as yourself” – I joined roughly thirty other USYers and staff in a conference room of the Omni hotel to listen to representatives from CNN, which has headquarters right next to our convention center. We gathered to learn about a modern application of this concept to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Richard Davis is the Executive Vice President of News Standards and Practices for CNN. He has held this post since 1998. He is known for launching many CNN programs such as Sports Tonight. During the hour that I spent listening to him and his colleague Etan Horrowitz, CNN’s Mobile Editor, I felt my jaw drop lower and lower in disbelief, and the scowl on my face grow increasingly intense in anger and frustration.
Davis told me and my peers and staff that it is up to us, and everyone else, as consumers to check other news sources if we think we may want more information. He said, “You can’t be in the news business and also be a babysitter to the people that only read the first paragraph”. I was confused. Isn’t it a news organization’s job to provide the facts? While an educated reader should always check a variety of news sources for different presentations, one should expect a leading news distributor to get the basic story right. And in a day and age where most people only read headlines, or maybe the first few lines or paragraphs if you’re lucky, shouldn’t CNN make sure that all salient and truthful information can be found there?
As a group of young Conservative Jews, our main motive for attending this meeting was to open up a discussion about CNN’s coverage of affairs in Israel. Amidst everything else that was discussed in that conference room, the conversation continuously circled back to the Har Nof Synagogue massacre and the abysmal media coverage of events on that day. Davis’ explanations for the aforementioned, horribly misleading and false headlines boiled down to human error. In an attempt to explain CNN’s headlines, which did not account for the terrorist actions or reasons these people were killed, Davis said that these headlines only surfaced for minutes before being taken down. However, he said, because of the world we live in, someone took a screenshot and circulated those headlines and spread them around the world. This, Davis said, was not CNN’s fault. To expound on how the words “mosque” and “synagogue” could have been swapped, Davis gave an even more infuriating response. Apparently, in the room where the headlines were written, there was some conversation taking place regarding a mosque in Damascus. “Haven’t you ever written something you heard instead of what you meant to write?” he asked.
As more questions came in from my peers, each response deviated further from the questions at hand and grew more negative toward Israel. As our time with the CNN execs came to a close, Davis explained to those of us who were still listening that we simply have opinions about Israel. And, he went on, when one person has an opinion about anything, a news report may seem wrong to that person. However, to everyone else, it could be perfectly right. I know I was not alone in feeling that his justification of CNN’s misleading reporting was a farce. Moreover, we were distraught about his implication that so many news sources have anti-Israel tendencies because Israel is in the wrong.
As everyone filed out for lunch, I decided to go get in one last word with Richard Davis. I questioned him on the HarNof headlines again. I first had to prove to him that I had in fact even seen the headlines I was questioning. When I managed to satisfy his questions, I wanted to know why CNN, when releasing the headlines at issue, couldn’t call it a terrorist attack. Davis explained that they would never jump to a conclusion that anything is a terrorist attack. “Okay”, I said, fully understanding the weight that the word “terrorist” carries. “But by the time it was known that it was four Israelis and two Palestinians, it was known that there were meat cleavers and stabbings involved. Why couldn’t you call it an ‘attack’?” I continued. His response? “You’ve got to be kidding me? One word? Are you brain dead?”
As I was already late to lunch, I found myself being pushed out of the room and toward the lunch line. As I shared this stunning question of Davis’ with my friends and staff, I was reassured that the only thing that could drive someone to ask me this was his knowing he had been defeated. While this thought was comforting, it didn’t shake my feeling that I needed to respond to his question.
Richard Davis – to answer your question, “Yes, I am serious. Yes, it’s one word. It makes a difference. No, I am not brain dead. I am a seventeen-year old girl from New Jersey who is appalled by the biased media coverage of Israel here in America. I am disgusted by the false headlines. I am pained by the ignorance of so many people, yourself included. And, most importantly, I am saddened and ashamed that there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
How many Israelis must be killed for the facts to be correct? How many innocent Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, or the West Bank, or within the land of Israel, must be caught up in this web of lies before their stories can be freely shared? How many mornings must I wake up in fear as I reach for my phone to scroll through countless stories, from countless news organizations, trying to get a complete picture of what happened in my homeland while I slept? How many hashtag campaigns, angry teenagers, nasty emails must you see before you understand that your news is not balanced, is not fair, and is not accurate?
I cannot sit back any longer and watch people like you continue to misreport the truth. In my fantasies, the answer to all of these questions is zero. The time for change is now, and if you are not prepared to be a part of the change, I ask you, ‘Are you serious?… Are you brain dead?’