Middle East news coverage challenges
By Walter Isaacson, Chairman and CEO of CNN News Group
EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson was
invited to give his view of the challenges of covering
the conflict in the Middle East to an October 7
meeting of AIPAC -- The American Israeli Political
The invitation was accepted with the presumption that
Mr. Isaacson would also accept an invitation to
address a major Arab-American organization's meeting,
at which time he would give essentially the same
This is Mr. Isaacson's speech on CNN's coverage of the
Middle East conflict.
Thank you very much for inviting me. It's an honor,
and a pleasure, to come before a group like this and
offer a few thoughts. And rest assured, they are the
same thoughts that I will convey to any Arab-American
group I talk to.
I'm happy to be here for many reasons.
I am happy to be here because I care deeply about
Israel and the Middle East.
I care deeply about a just and lasting peace coming to
that region someday.
I care deeply about journalism.
And I care deeply about CNN.
And I think all of these things are related. I believe
that reliable reporting leads to better understanding,
and I believe that better understanding helps make a
lasting peace more possible. I believe that the free
flow of information and ideas leads to greater
individual freedom -- it has done so ever since
Gutenberg's press help lead to the rise of individual
liberties -- and I believe that greater individual
freedom makes tyranny and hatred and intolerance less
This is why I have dedicated my career to journalism,
and I am convinced this is why my colleagues at CNN
have dedicated their careers -- and in some cases
risked their lives -- to journalism.
So let me begin by saying that I am proud of CNN and
proud of our journalists. We sometimes make mistakes
-- I know I do -- but I know that our journalists are
people of good faith who do not have any political or
ideological agenda other than the belief that the more
information people have about the world, the more
likely there is to be better understanding in this
That is why CNN, more than any other network, is
dedicated to covering the world.
That is why CNN tends to emphasize journalism more
than opinion and emphasize reporting more than
shouting talk shows.
That is why we are planning to increase our presence
in Jerusalem from two correspondents to three.
That is why this week Martin Savidge has gone into
Qatar, and why Brent Sadler is trying to get into
northern Iraq to report on the Kurds.
That is why we are in more places with more overseas
reporters than all other U.S. networks combined.
That is why we now put our reporters through a
rigorous war training course because we know -- and
our dear correspondent Ben Wedeman has the bullet
scars from his assignment in Gaza to prove it -- that
this dedication can be dangerous.
That is also why we have anchors who try to elicit
news and opinions more than push their own opinions
and ideologies. Some are new, others have been around,
but as you go through our day you know who they are
and you know them as journalists rather than
advocates: Paula Zahn, Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff,
Bill Hemmer, Lou Dobbs, Leon Harris, Darryn Kagan,
Kyra Phillips, Carol Lin, Jeff Greenfield, Connie
Chung, Larry King, Aaron Brown. They report, they ask
good questions, they are professionals.
We realize that this real reporting can make a
difference in this world, which is why we try to get
it right. For example, in the days after the IDF
military action in Jenin, there were wild charges and
countercharges about a massacre. Even the Israelis at
one point got the numbers of people killed inflated.
For a while, reporters were kept out. But when they
did, the truth came out. CNNs Sheila MacVicar, for
example, did a couple of extraordinary reports, with
much bravery, one of which was a remarkable 12-minute
piece. It showed that there was not, in fact, any
massacre of civilians but instead a heated
alley-by-alley battle. It aired all the issues,
including tough questions about Israeli tactics and
actions, but it put to rest the charges that there was
People sometimes ask me how we refute people who come
on and say things that are untrue, such as about
Jenin. You do it through solid reporting and
journalism. You go in on the ground and report what
really happened, and you have credibility so that
people believe you. And anyone who actually watched
us, and many watchdog groups did, will say that we
reported it right and fair and that we indeed
challenged and disproved those who were making false
claims, and we continued to challenge them repeatedly
with the facts.
That is why permitting rather than preventing
independent reporting is good for the side of truth.
And that is why, I may add, there are only three
nations that do not allow CNN to be shown: Iran, Iraq,
and North Korea, which happen to be, not purely
coincidentally, the three nations in what President
Bush has labeled the axis of evil. They are the ones
who do not want their people to see independent
reporting or a multiplicity of views.
Speaking of Iraq, that is why we are dedicating so
many reporting resources to covering what is likely to
be a war there sometime in the next several months.
Understanding the dangers posed by rogue states,
weapons of mass destruction and trans-national
terrorist organizations is the most important story of
our time. And understanding the debates on how to
counter these threats is crucial to understanding how
the world should operate in this new era.
We will be there, all over that story, all over that
region, making sure that people understand what is
really happening so they can form their own opinions
about why it is happening. I promise you that once
again our coverage of a conflict in Iraq will be
unrivaled and professional and, yes, brave. And it
will be important for the world to see.
I have been in the news business a long time. My hair
is now grey, but I hope my soul is no more jaded than
the day I covered my first police-beat story in New
Orleans 30 years ago. I've gotten to know the folks at
CNN, all over the world, and I know that they, too,
are not jaded. They are true professionals, dedicated
and brave. They try to be fair. And whenever any of us
detects something we think is unfair, they are very
open to talking it through and trying to correct it.
I was asked to talk some about how we pursue our
journalistic mission. It starts with these dedicated
and smart professionals, with a lot of experience, who
are based in bureaus around the world and have a deep
understanding of daily life and the political context
of the regions they cover and live in. It ends with
intelligent and open-minded anchors who are, at their
core, journalists, people like Paula and Wolf and Judy
and Aaron. In between there is a round-the-clock
staff, mainly in Atlanta, that vets every script,
pushes to make sure all sides are covered, and tries
to assure that every statement is correct and put into
context before the script of a report is approved.
There are also a team of standards and practices
people, who check to make sure that our procedures for
fairness have been followed.
We have produced, through this method, approximately
5,000 reports from the Middle East alone in the past
Sometimes, yes, these include reports that might be
uncomfortable, such as our report on the deaths of
Palestinian civilians in the IDF's most recent
campaign. Reasonable people must understand that the
role of journalism is not to please or placate by
whitewashing the world.
And sometimes, yes, we make mistakes and lapses. It
even happens to my beloved Atlanta Braves.
But when we make mistakes, let me assure you that it
is human error and not some hidden agenda. And we try
to correct them.
For example, we made a mistake, which got some
publicity in Israel, a couple of months ago when we
failed to air an interview with the family of a
terrorist bombing victim at the time we said we would.
We went back and made up for the problem by airing the
interview repeatedly over the next few days. And we
went back and looked at how the decision had been made
and corrected the policies that led to it.
We decided it was important to strengthen our policy
of personalizing the victims of terrorism and
personalizing the killing of innocents. We have also
made clear our belief that there is no moral
equivalence between suicide bombers and the innocent
civilian victims of terrorism.
We are clear about what terrorism is: It is the
intentional targeting of innocent civilians.
And as Christiane Amanpour has so forcefully stated in
her reports, whatever the political motivation it is a
war crime, a moral crime and a crime against humanity.
In the United States we are now, alas, even more
sensitive to that, because we have seen it in our back
At that time we made a policy decision at CNN, which
got some publicity, to keep a focus on the victims of
that terrorist attack as part of the context of our
coverage of the retaliation against Al Qaeda and the
Taliban in Afghanistan.
And it is in that context that we made a similar
decision to keep a focus on the personal aspects of
the innocent victims even as we covered the political
disputes in the Middle East.
This global struggle against terrorism and hatred and
intolerance has changed our world and will be the
dominant challenge of our generation.
When it comes to the political part of that story
involving government policies, we try to cover not
just both sides but all sides. Just last Friday, I met
with the new Ambassador Danny Ayalon, and he rather
humorously reminded me that in Israel alone there are
many sides to be covered when it comes to government
But we know that the story is not just about
governments and policy debates. It is about real
people. And so we have gotten off the rooftops more,
where we interview political leaders, and been down on
the streets with real people and real victims,
wherever they may be.
Because when it comes to innocent victims, we know
that there are not two morally equivalent sides, or
many morally equivalent sides, but one overriding
aspect that takes precedence: the personal human side.
We welcome constructive criticism from people. That is
why I am here, why I meet with many groups like this
on all sides and will continue to do so. I will add,
if you don't mind me being a tad defensive, that we
welcome criticism more from those who actually watch
our network, and watch it in full, rather than those
who catch a random snippet or who react to some
allegation they heard from a friend of a friend who
saw it in some e-mail from someone they don't know.
Many times I have gotten a letter or call from someone
about one of these things, and I ask them whether they
actually saw it and they say no. When I look up the
transcript, it's usually not anything like the rumor
circulating. Since that type of criticism has died
down these days, I won't complain too much about it
other than to say that spam e-mails have now lost
their effectiveness. I sometimes get 50 or so an hour,
and they are now, by necessity, filtered out.
But we realize that there are a lot of legitimate
passions and emotions that are aroused by the news,
especially from the Middle East, and they should not
be filtered out. That is why we have always been
willing to sit down with -- or read the complaints and
compliments of -- folks who have actually been
watching our whole coverage.
And fortunately, as I said, we've gotten a lot more
compliments than complaints from such viewers in the
recent months. Even in Israel, where for a while there
was as you know some controversy, our ratings are
higher than they are in any nation outside the U.S.
And the polls in Israel show, right now, that people
actually rate us extremely highly as being
professional and reliable, as indeed we are.
On that note, let me digress for a moment and address
a recent issue: Why we did not take a series of ads
regarding Israel. CNN has long had a policy of not
taking ads that are in any way related to the
international conflicts that we cover. Not long after
9/11, we were asked to take ads from an Arab-American
anti-discrimination group. Generally, they were
benign. The message was that "we are Americans." But
the ads had a subtle political component relating to
the Middle East. We invoked our policy. We did so even
when Egypt and Saudi Arabia asked to buy ads.
Sometimes, these ads fall into a gray area -- between
the absolutely benign "Come to Jamaica" ads and those
advocating friendship with a country in a region of
conflict. That occurred a month or two ago when the
emirate of Qatar asked to buy ads. At that point, I
sat around with some others in my office and we
decided to be absolutist given the current climate: no
ads, however benign, from regions where there are
conflicts. Then came the request from the groups
supporting Israel. We had a policy, we have a policy,
it is fair and applies to everyone -- and it certainly
is not a crass or commercial or profitable policy. And
we must abide by it. Advocacy groups can buy ads
directly on local cable systems. But CNN cannot and
should not take money from any of these groups right
now, on any side. We have a policy that applies to
everyone, and we have to stick with it. We have to be
fair. It is too hard to accept some ads and then
reject others based on their content or viewpoint.
Let me end on a personal note. I have been to Israel
often, with and without my family, and I have been to
other parts of the region. I have spent time in Tel
Aviv and Jerusalem and on the Golan Heights and
Masada, and I have spent time in Bethlehem and
Ramallah. I care deeply about peace and security. I
know there are good people of all faiths and
backgrounds in that region, and I know that there are
also other people filled or indoctrinated with hatred
And the more I go there, the more I am convinced that
good reporting and the free flow of information have a
role to play in reducing that intolerance and hatred
and preventing that indoctrination. I remember once
meeting with Bibi Netanyahu and listening to him talk
about how greater access to the Internet and multiple
sources of reporting would be the long-term impetus
for change in that region.
Like him, I believe that when there is open and honest
debate and discussion of issues from all sides, truth
will prevail over falsity and understanding will
prevail over ignorance. I believe that open and honest
and independent reporting is an important way to
empower all individuals and set minds free.
And I know the role that CNN can play in liberating
hearts and minds. I saw it in 1989 in Bratislava, when
I came to my hotel room and found local students
watching the satellite TV where they could see CNN
covering what was happening in Gdansk. And I saw it in
1999 in Kashgar when I watched Uighar students surf
the Internet and evade the censors by going through
proxy servers in Hong Kong to call up CNN.
I have over the past decade spent my free time writing
a book about Benjamin Franklin, and like any good
author cannot help from plugging the subject of a
forthcoming book. At one point Franklin was criticized
for some things that were in his Pennsylvania Gazette.
"There would be very little printed," he responded, if
publishers only produced things that offended nobody.
At stake is the value of free _expression, and
Franklin summed up the Enlightenment position in a
sentence that should be framed on newsroom walls:
"Printers are educated in the belief that when men
differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have
the advantage of being heard by the public; and that
when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is
always an overmatch for the latter."
But, he also knew that there was no moral equivalence
when it came to the issue of intolerance. He tried,
through all he did as a publisher and journalist, to
counter hatred. He knew that the greatest gift of the
Enlightenment was the idea of tolerance for all
religions and all tribes of people. He contributed to
the building fund of every single house of worship
that went up in Philadelphia during his lifetime, of
every sect and every creed. The last of these, just
before he died, was the Congregation Mikveh Israel for
its new synagogue in 1788. He made one of the three
And when he died shortly thereafter, close to 20,000
mourners marched as his body was brought to his grave.
And in the front of the procession were the clergymen
of the city, all of them, of every faith.
We know that someday the situation in the Middle East
will be resolved, and we even generally know what the
outlines of that resolution will be. We just don't
know how many years it will take, and how many
innocent deaths will occur, before we get there. That
will depend, as Franklin knew, on a lessening of the
scourge of intolerance.
And I truly hope that all of us, CNN included, can
play a role in that process. And if we do, we can help
hasten the day when we will see an answer to that most
wonderful of all prayers: "Grant us peace, thy most