Why is CNN employing pro-Israel lobbyists and government spokespeople during an Israeli massacre in Gaza?
When CNN's West Bank-based reporters, Ivan Watson and Kareem Khader, bravely reported this 15 May story of the videotaped killing of two unarmed Palestinian teenagers by Israeli soldiers, it seemed as though a major breakthrough had taken place.
In spite of years of pro-Israel bias at CNN and most other major US media outlets, the reporters aired the segment showing the killings of Nadeem Nawara and Mohamed Daher – and the Israeli soldier shooting them – as they walked about idly following an unarmed demonstration. The final report included additional footage obtained from security cameras by a local NGO, with commentary gleaned from Palestinian medical staff who operated unsuccessfully on the boys and a heartfelt interview with one of the boys' fathers.
But despite the overwhelming evidence that the boys had been murdered on camera, pro-Israel pundits issued their knee-jerk response of spreading conspiracy theories. Like the killing of another Palestinian boy over a decade ago by Israeli soldiers, according to reporters and eyewitnesses, the response from Israeli officials and pro-Israel conspiracy theorists ranges from blaming shadowy Palestinian militants for killing their own people, to denying that the boys are even dead. Normally, such asinine extremism is restricted to internet blogs or the propaganda claims of the Israeli military – but not at CNN.
Immediately following the Watson-Khader report, CNN's pro-Israel lobbyist-turned-news-anchor, Wolf Blitzer, decided that the most appropriate way to cover the story was by asking former Israeli military spokesman-turned-CNN-contributor Michael Oren to give his "expert" opinion. Oren, like the conspiracy theorists, argued that the boys might not be dead. He even goes on to mimic a classic JFK assassination conspiracy theory by pointing to how the children fell when their bodies were pierced with Israeli bullets. As Watson is forced to defend the legitimacy of his meticulous documentation from Oren's propaganda, it appears there is no room for real journalism at CNN.
The media bias – like the bloodshed itself – never ends. Shortly after the murder of these Palestinian children, Palestinian lone wolves in the West Bank kidnapped three Israeli settler-colonists and killed them. Despite knowing in advance that the Palestinian killers acted alone, Israel "responded" by launching a massive invasion into the already-besieged West Bank, killing at least eleven unarmed civilians and arresting hundreds without charge. Soon after, Israel launched its indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Gaza and its ongoing ground invasion of Gaza, killing hundreds upon hundreds of people.
The bias is implicit when Blitzer's programme starts the clock of the latest escalation with violence against Israeli settlers – as though Israel had not killed Nadeem Nawara and Mohamed Daher on camera two weeks earlier, and as though Israel had not already killed seventeen other Palestinian teenagers until that point in 2014 alone. But whatever doubt could remain evaporates when Wolf Blitzer decides to tour the Gaza war zone embedded with Israeli soldiers. Indeed, Wolf Blitzer has consistently shown himself to remain an AIPAC lobbyist.
As of 7 August 2014, Israeli soldiers had killed upwards of 1,800 Palestinians, the vast majority of whom were civilians. Such has been done with indiscriminate strikes on children playing football, a police officer's family, a World Cup beach party, at least six hospitals including a geriatric hospital, multiple UN-run safe houses for civilians, journalists, survivors looking for family members, ambulances, an Aljazeera, survivors fleeing the war zone and civilians who remained in their homes out of fear and uncertainty. With each additional massacre came spurious claims that the civilians were actually "terrorists," that the "terrorists" were hiding behind the civilians and using them as human shields, and other knee-jerk conspiracy theories which Israel has issued following every massacre of civilians it has carried out since at least 1996.
But that has not stopped Wolf Blitzer from allowing Israeli military personnel to use his programme to flip reality on its head. After capturing a tunnel used by Hamas militants to smuggle everything from weapons to medical equipment and food into the besieged Gaza Strip – where Israel has imposed a blockade designed to "put the Palestinians on a diet" since 2006 – Wolf Blitzer decided to tour the tunnel with Israeli soldiers. One soldier claims that while he understands Hamas's right to use violence during war, the tunnels are being used to threaten innocent Israeli families.
He was lying. As Glenn Greenwald and the point out, Hamas tunnels have been used exclusively to target Israeli military installations as they threaten the people of Gaza. Indeed, the vast majority of the people killed by Hamas thus far have been soldiers – having killed only three civilians in the course of the current quagmire, by fluke. In contrast, Israel has killed over thirteen-hundred civilians using indiscriminate fire while systematically targeting civilian installations; Israeli forces even admitted to killing at least eight-hundred civilians (while dishonestly mischaracterising the rest as militants or terrorists). Many of the "terrorists" Israel has killed have in fact been Palestinians who were simply engaged in defending their homes from Israeli soldiers.
In reality, Blitzer's attempts to muddy the water about Israel and Palestine are not new. He has been a lobbyist disguised as a legitimate commentator for many years. During his stint at AIPAC, he would openly and unabashedly state his one-sided devotion to Israel. He would also lecture congressmen about the "right" of foreign states like Israel to lobby in the United States (a "right" that is, in fact, severely restricted by US law), and whitewash the actions – and damage – of Israeli spies arrested in the United States, like Jonathan Pollard. In years since, he has cynically exploited the existence of fringe Nazi figures to smear anti-Zionists and drum up support for the invasion of Iran; used his programme as a platform for right-wing conspiracy theorists to call the Department of Justice the "Department of Jihad"; uncritically rehashed the opinions of those who "got it wrong" about the AIPAC-sponsored US-invasion of Iraq; and even given a friendly opportunity to Israeli President Shimon Peres to whitewash the then-ongoing 2012 Israeli massacre in Gaza – while his CNN colleague Christianne Amanpour grilled Palestinian leader Khaled Meshaal and insisted that Palestinians have no right to return.
Following suit, former Israeli ambassador and military spokesperson Michael Oren has not truly left his job as an Israeli government advocate either. Indeed, Oren's demeaning comments about the Nakba Day killings are consistent with the pro-Israel extremism he has espoused for many years. Not long before joining CNN, Michael Oren was busy attempting to bully CBS "60 Minutes" into tabling a rare segment that exposed Westerners to the plight of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli military occupation.
As if degrading Christians in Palestine was not enough, Michael Oren can be fairly unfriendly to Jews as well – arguing that American Jews must uncritically support Israel out of ethnic loyalty. This is, in fact, an old anti-Semitic canard that Jews are disloyal. On the same token, Oren once argued that American Jews "betrayed" Holocaust victims – another canard which, despite failing the test of scrutiny, could in fact be applied to some Israeli leaders.
Oren has doubled down on his offensive Holocaust comments, arguing that recognising Israeli massacres in Gaza is equivalent to denying the Jewish Holocaust. Apparently, suffering is a zero-sum game between Arabs and Jews, and there is no way we can recognise the legitimacy and horror of Jewish suffering in Europe while also recognising the horror of Palestinians suffering in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli government.
When Michael Oren attempted to spread his inflammatory views during a government-sponsored PR tour, he was chided and heckled by a group of pro-Palestinian students. He sued them, claiming his civil rights were violated, as the disruption prevented him from extending his talk – even though investigative journalist Max Blumenthal revealed that the likely reason he cut the talk short was to make it to a basketball game. After a prosecution rife with misconduct, the students were convicted amid widespread condemnation. None of these instances or incidents made CNN think twice about hiring Mr Oren as an "analyst".
Such rampant media bias is not unique or new. Leaked documents from the archives of the American Zionist Council, the precursor to AIPAC, show that Israeli government representatives secretly – and illegally – financed the planting of propaganda articles and speakers within many major American media outlets. Although the conduit for funding was cut off, these propaganda activities have continued since the 1960s. Indeed, extensive evidence of pro-Israel media bias has surfaced from a number of sources. Such bias continues even as the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza has sparked intense international outrage over Israel's actions.
Considering these facts, it is disturbing, though unsurprising, that CNN continues to keep Blitzer and Oren in its employ. That is why a growing coalition of students, activists, and others – myself included – have created the Khalas! Blitzer-Oren campaign, demanding that CNN end its ties with Blitzer and Oren. Inspired by the Basta Dobbs campaign that pushed CNN to drop anti-immigrant conspiracy theorist Lou Dobbs, our campaign calls on all individuals to petition CNN head Jeff Zucker to stop providing the Israel lobby an uncritical platform for war propaganda. In addition, we have called on journalists, community organisations, and anyone directly affected by Blitzer and Oren's distortions to consider sending an endorsement of our mission statement.
Already, we've seen the encouraging development of CNN dropping Oren's title of "analyst" – implying independence or expertise – to "former ambassador," making his ties clear. Unfortunately, it is still not clear if his contract has been terminated or whether or not it is up for renewal. But it is clear that enough pressure and awareness may push CNN to make the right decision.
CNN made the correct decision regarding Lou Dobbs when they dropped him from their network. Racism and conspiracism have no place amid serious journalism. It is time that CNN make the same decision regarding Wolf Blitzer and Michael Oren.
Amith Gupta is a US-based Palestine solidarity activist. He is one of the members of the Khalas! Blitzer Oren Campaign.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.