CNN public editor: Palestinian voices, and historical context, are missing from CNN

As innocent lives are lost in Palestine and Israel, CNN is once again flubbing the coverage.

Most cable producers can’t ignore stories that show rocket fire. Military action dominates breaking news coverage of conflicts overseas, which perpetuates old narratives. The focus becomes the latest violence, the number of rocket attacks, and the ensuing death toll. That framing omits critical perspectives from the communities themselves, and continues a trend of presenting half-true storylines. (MSNBC has been slightly better, thanks to the hosts Ayman Mohyeldin and Mehdi Hasan.) 

Cable producers tend to believe that Americans don’t care about international news, so they don’t think it will rate. Middle East politics is enmeshed in religion, international law, and decades of failed policy, which requires dedication to learn and explain on air. Instead, producers are drawn to images of violence and destruction. It’s easier to spend time discussing what is happening at that moment and how to end the military action, rather than what precipitated it.  

Last week, after Hamas began firing rockets at Israel, CNN hardly reported on the causes behind the surge in violence. The network gave little time, for instance, to the pending evictions of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. CNN Correspondent Hadas Gold, reporting from Jerusalem, said, “Recently, there have been some clashes in a Jerusalem neighborhood called Sheikh Jarrah over the possible evictions of some Palestinian families living there.” That was the extent last Saturday, and the network didn’t cover the story at all that Sunday. (For comparison, see the useful perspective PBS provided in its coverage last Monday.)

Last Tuesday, CNN aired a two-hour special on the brewing crisis from 3pm to 5pm Eastern Time without explaining why it was happening. Almost every guest was located in Israel; the network didn’t feature a single person in a Palestinian territory or neighborhood. There were no questions about the recent Palestinian evictions or actions by Israeli police that instigated Hamas retaliation.

On Wednesday, Jake Tapper dedicated time to the topic, but half of it went to a correspondent in Jerusalem and the other half to the current Israeli ambassador to the United States, who discussed the fear he felt for his parents living in Israel. No one represented the Palestinian perspective. 

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Perhaps not surprising, social and print media have tended to give much more contextual information than TV news. Last Wednesday, conservative David Frum retweeted a video of an attack on a man a crowd believed to be Palestinian. The tweet read, “What looks like an anti-Arab lynch by a far-right Jewish mob on live TV.” However, that video was nowhere to be found on live American TV (the clip was cut from an Israeli source). The New York Times also provided this excellent explainer on why the violence erupted starting with events several weeks ago.

Jeremy Slevin, senior aide to Rep. Ilhan Omar, who issued a strong statement in support of Palestinians, says cable coverage has been worse than expected, given the shifting political sentiment in the wake of the Israeli bombings. In fact, ten representatives spoke on the House floor in favor of Palestinians last Thursday (a notable event that received no airtime on CNN). At a minimum, Slevin thought that the attacks by former president Donald Trump would have been considered made-for-cable material, but even that didn’t budge TV producers from their broken formula. 

Slevin told me the coverage has been “an outrage.” He said, “The politics are changing, but very slowly, and cable news is behind the curve.”

For almost fifteen minutes Thursday night, Chris Cuomo interviewed Tom Friedman, who covered the Middle East for almost a decade, winning a Pulitzer Prize for that reporting, and who wrote the best-selling From Beirut to Jerusalem.  And yet, in that whole chunk of prime time, Cuomo didn’t ask a single question about Israel. 

This week, the network aired video of Palestinan victims of Israeli bombing, but it still hasn’t discussed why rockets have started flying again.

This story is too big and too important to keep fouling up. CNN should stop over-simplifying the narrative by focusing on military operations and allow time for some backstory. They would only have to look back a couple of days to do so.

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Ariana Pekary is the CJR public editor for CNN. She was an award-winning public radio and MSNBC journalist for two decades. Now she focuses on the systemic flaws of commercial broadcast news. She can be contacted at publiceditors@cjr.org.

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