Our problem in the Middle East
I get it. My heart sank when I saw news coming from the Middle East again. It is such a difficult situation. It's frustrating and heartbreaking and, especially for someone without a religious compass, can be difficult to comprehend. Nonetheless, that doesn't absolve journalists of their duty to report fully and accurately.
Last week, I waited day by day for CNN to cover not just the ongoing military operations but also the complicating factors, such as the pending evictions of Palestinian families which the United Nations stated are illegal. Based on my time in cable news, I knew they’d resist spending time on it. I just didn’t realize CNN would nearly outright refuse to explain what is happening. MSNBC was slow but they stepped up, mostly thanks to Ayman Mohyeldin, Mehdi Hasan, and, to some extent, Joy Reid.
My guess is that varying degrees of fatigue, fear, ignorance, and "ostrichism" took hold. Journalists may feel fatigue after a lack of progress yet numerous attempts to achieve peace in the region over a span of many decades. To some extent, journalists also probably don't want to defend themselves against allegations of bias, which are bound to be made no matter how hard you try to be fair. For younger producers, because the region has been relatively calm (I emphasize relatively) for more than six years since the last major fighting in 2014, they may not be as aware of the various perspectives. Those who are aware may just want to duck, hoping this cycle will pass quickly so they don't step in it somehow. Dare I say, at CNN and MSNBC, I don’t think there’s inherent bias other than the prejudice one feels to meet quotas to please one's boss. The first thing most cable producers wonder about a potential segment is if people will watch or will they change the channel. And this being an international story that always seems to end in failure, I'm certain the producers in charge instinctually veered from the topic.
NPR doesn't have that pressure to "rate," nor does PBS, and both outlets have been much more responsible in their coverage. It might not be perfect -- news rarely is by its nature, since it's written and delivered so quickly -- but at least they dedicated some time to explain what's behind the new outbreak of rocket fire.
MSNBC primetime failed for the most part, though Joy Reid (technically not prime which starts at 8pmET) started tucking the topic near the end of her show midweek last week. CNN may have covered the military fighting overnight or during the day when audiences are the smallest -- but the topic was painfully absent in any form during primetime hours all week -- and I never saw a discussion on the network that featured Palestinian voices.
Based on CNN's coverage alone, you would have no idea why Hamas started launching rockets at Israel. Incidentally, over the last month, there were several events that could be interpreted as provocative. The NYT wrote this helpful little explainer. Never to justify violence, but those details make the attacks seem a bit less arbitrary. The violence didn’t erupt spontaneously but watching CNN, that’s the impression you would have had.
When I say Palestinian perspectives were omitted, that is a statement of fact. I’m not saying they are more deserving, that they are the bigger victim, or that Hamas actions are justified -- not at all. But this is an asymmetrical situation, and by blanking out half the story while showing the military retaliation, CNN created an unbalanced portrait, wittingly or not. So as a news outlet, they failed. Ultimately, that serves no one. It only prolongs the tragic struggle on the ground.
As we know, ignoring a cancer won't make it disappear. Everyone involved -- Israelis, Palestinians, and, yes, Americans (it's our problem, too) -- deserve more thoughtful and open discussions going forward. Instead of shying away from the region, CNN and all outlets should lean in to promote candor and transparency. That open dialogue is the only way we may achieve any fair and secure resolution.
Here is what I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review, which hopefully gives even more context on CNN's Israeli/Palestinian coverage. And as a bonus feature, here is what I wrote recently about the need for CNN to unionize (and how that would ultimately improve coverage).