There was little effort to identify the politics of many of the pseudo-experts who were trotted into the studios. Right-wing Lebanese Christians and representatives of Israeli-backed think tanks — both with axes to grind — were offered up as independent analysts. Anchors and reporters, meanwhile, frequently wore their politics on their sleeve. When an American woman trapped in southern Lebanon decried Washington’s failure to stop what she said was Israel’s brutal killing of civilians, CNN anchor Tony Harris snapped back, “That’s not the view over here,” and cut her off, saying he didn’t have time to debate the issue.
As is so often the case these days, celebrity reporters themselves frequently became the story. Anderson Cooper spent more time on-camera than the protagonists in the conflict, and MSNBC endlessly looped an outtake of Richard Engel repeatedly flubbing his on-camera standup as Israeli bombs fell behind him, much, I suspect, to his embarrassment. A failure to remain cool under fire is not something to be proud of.
NBC anchor Brian Williams made much of the fact that when he went on a helicopter flight with an Israeli officer to take a look at the fighting, “We got closer than we intended.” Turns out that some shells landed in the distance. War is Hell, Brian.
Even more troubling was the fact that the Williams segment, along with reports by several other NBC correspondents, ran on Scarborough Country, an overtly politicized talk show, further blurring the line between news and opinion and muddying the waters of cable journalism.
Amid segments from such stalwart NBC correspondents as Martin Fletcher, there was Scarborough describing Hezbollah as an “Iran-backed terror group” and throwing former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak softballs like, “Why is it the more Israel is willing to give up to the Palestinians, the more your country comes under attack?” Meanwhile, conservative iconoclast Tucker Carlson, sans bowtie, has been out there “reporting” from the Israeli border, asking real NBC correspondents such leading questions as, “Do we have any idea whether this city was targeted by Hezbollah because of its Christian population?” (This isn’t just about “good” Christians and “bad” Muslims, Tucker.)
There is plenty of room on cable television for politicized talk shows of all stripes. But in allowing — or, rather, ordering — its respected news correspondents to appear on such shows, the networks are trading credibility for ratings and cementing their transition from purveyors of news to citadels of infotainment.
Lost in the fog of hype and self-aggrandizement on the cable segments I saw was much of the subtle complexity of the conflict. Instead, it was too often reduced to the black-hat/white-hat characterization that has guided U.S. policy toward the region.
My view was one slice of the coverage. I did not see the main network evening newscasts or the morning shows. What I did was what so many Americans do these days — I grazed cable news in fits and snatches. And I came up hungry.
Lawrence Pintak is the director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent, his most recent book is Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas. He can be reached at lpintak ~at~ aucegypt.edu.