No balance: CNN slobbers over Peres, grills Meshaal

Israel/Palestine
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Wolf Blitzer interviews Shimon Peres

In the news business, interviews are often judged by their ability to generate international headlines. If a reporter asks the right questions he or she can coax their subject into revealing new or previously unknown information to the public. But interviews also reveal a lot about those asking the questions. 

This was particularly clear during the latest violence in Gaza, when on the last day of fighting CNN lead anchor Wolf Blitzer sat down with Israeli President Shimon Peres. At the time, over 150 Palestinians were known to be dead and entire blocks flattened after 8 days of shelling and missile strikes on the densely populated strip from Israeli helicopters, jet fighters, land-based artillery and battleships.

 “You’re close to 90 years old,” Blitzer told Peres in the quiet calm of his presidential office. “It’s hard to believe you look so great. How do you feel?”

 “I feel that I’m too young for the job,” Peres replied coyly. 

But Blitzer persisted. This was not just a one-off nicety. Despite the bloodshed, CNN’s lead anchor wanted to take the charm exchange into the realm of the hypothetical exaggeration, asking if the 89-year-old planned on running for prime minister.

“Don’t you think I’m too young for the job?” said Peres again, smiling. 

Unsatisfied, Blitzer–a former employee of the Israel lobby (when he edited AIPAC’s publication) — repeated: “I think you look great.”

“Is there one piece of advice for our viewers who are watching right now that you want to share on how you’ve managed to stay so youthful, so energetic, so alert all these years?”

This was the opening up Blitzer had hoped for. Finally Peres spoke at length about the virtues of dieting, self-restraint, generosity, optimism even love.

“The best vacation is to work, to be engaged, to be curious, to care, to love people,” Peres concluded, after musing for several minutes.

Thanking the president, Blitzer ended the segment by taking his chorus of praise up an additional notch, transforming the career politician and former military leader into a veritable cuddly grandfather: Once back in the studio, Blitzer reflected:  “Hard to believe he’s 89 years old, almost 90. He’s amazing, amazing indeed.”

Of course many other questions preceded this part of the interview. They had been written almost entirely with a focus on the behavior of Israel’s neighbors and potential threats posed to the Jewish state. Among Blitzer’s questions: Would Hamas be able to control Gaza and comply with the ceasefire? If not, who should Israel negotiate with?

Was he worried about Hezbollah in Lebanon or Assad in Syria. Could the Syrian president lose control of his chemical weapons? Peres was not sure.

What about the role of Iran? Was Egypt playing a productive role? What about the United States. Was it doing enough to help Israel?

Only once during this detailed inventory of Israel’s concerns about the behavior of other nations is Mr. Peres asked about the destruction wrought by his own country’s military. But of course it isn’t framed in those terms. Rather the question is about “what’s happening” in Gaza, divorced of any direct Israeli role.

Blitzer asks unemotionally: “When you see what’s happening in Gaza, the pictures of innocent civilians who have been killed and children, families. What goes through your mind?”

Peres takes the question as an opportunity to blame Hamas, and Blitzer accepts this short response and the moves on to more threats faced by Israel: Hezbollah rockets to the north and the Palestinian Authority’s call for statehood, which Blitzer ponders: “Is that something acceptable to Israel?”

In fact it was the dangers facing Israel that dominated Blitzer’s journalistic curiosity. Nearly all his questions were posed with empathy toward the Jewish state’s struggles–no questioning, in fact no mentioning even, of its own aggressive actions or their motivations. Viewers were placed, so-to-speak, in Israel’s shoes.

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Unhappy body language between Amanpour and Meshaal

Contrast this to an interview conducted with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on the same day by CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

 In terms of challenges and threats, the people of Gaza obviously faced a myriad of them after eight days of punishing bombardments and decades of crippling economic blockade and various restrictions imposed by Israel.

But rather than ask about Gazan concerns as Blitzer had done with Israel’s leader, Amanpour lunged at Meshaal from the outset, firing a triple barrage of indictments: “Is it useful to kill civilians? Is that useful to you? Is it useful to create terror on civilians inside Israel?

Unlike Blitzer who only tepidly posed a question about violence, Amanpour seemed to be putting Hamas on a trial for war crimes. And while Blitzer accepted Peres’ evasive response without question, Amanpour barely listened to Meshaal’s answer, though it nearly mirrored that of Peres in denouncing civilian death and blaming the enemy. 

Hamas was responding to Israel’s assassination of one its leaders, Meshaal explained, adding: “I don’t like to shed any drop of blood.”

But Amanpour continued as if the question had gone unanswered: “Do you think its a legitimate part of what you call resistance to kill Israeli civilians inside Israel,” she repeated, this time pointing the earpiece of her eyeglasses at Meshaal for emphasis.

Again, the Hamas leader tried to explain his attacks as the only resistance available in an asymetrical battlefield yet Amanpour refused to accept it. This time she interrupted Meshaal mid sentence, adopting the Israeli argument of blaming Hamas for Israel’s airstrikes.

“When you make your analysis of how much pain you’re going to inflict,” she continued, squinting with incredulity. “Do you consider….how many Palestinian civilians are being killed because of your actions?” 

Amanpour would interrupt Mishaal nearly a dozen more times during the interview, at one point accusing him flatly of “making up excuses” and later questioning his arguments as illogical, when he demanded a return for Palestinian refugees. 

“Under international agreements, every Palestinian living in the diaspora is not going to be able to come back to Israel,” she said confidently, throwing her hands in the air. But Amanpour offered no reference to said agreement, deeming it only vaguely as “the parameters.” 

In fact, as recently pointed out by Yousef Munayyer, many UN resolutions support the right of return for refugees, and Israel’s refusal to discuss the issue has been one of the main obstacles to resolving the conflict.

 Thus not only did Amanpour’s approach show little of the patience Peres was afforded, she also reserved the right to attack her subject with unspecific and unchecked arguments. Would Blitzer have ever questioned Peres on Jews right to return to Israel?

 As the interview continued, Amanpour hounded Meshaal on Hamas’s recent actions. Why did they move their headquarters away from Damascus? Were they in disagreement with Assad? Certainly they must have distanced themselves from Iran? And yet they were still getting Iranian missiles? Was Hamas involved in a Twitter war, and “is that crazy?” 

Much to the contrary of the Peres interview, the questions focused entirely on the actions of Hamas. There were no questions about the threats it has faced, with countless members of its rank systematically assassinated by Israel, including its founder and former leader. 

 Exasperated by his answers, Amanpour harped: “What is your goal? You govern Gaza. What is the goal, endless resistance, endless fighting, endless death?

 Clearly fond of the term, Amanpour evoked the phrase “endless fighting” or “endless death” five times as a characterization of Hamas, in questions that began to resemble rhetorical statements, with no answer necessary. 

Would Blitzer have dared ask Peres to justify Israel’s “endless” harassment “endless” mass incarceration, “endless” occupation and indeed “endless” war with of Palestinians? In fact, Blitzer did not even interrupt Peres once during the interview, only silently nodding in agreement with his responses.

Instead of pestering the Israeli leader for answers over his government’s decades-old collective punishment of Palestinians, Blitzer pestered him for the secrets of youth.   

 But the climax of dissonance between the two interviews came at the very end, when Amanpour wanted to make absolutely certain the Hamas leader was done with politics.

 “You said you would no longer run to be President of Hamas. And yet you’re still here. Are you going to continue trying to be elected?”

 Meshaal replied by saying he would not accept nomination as Hamas leaders must be nominated.

 Amanpour was not satisfied: “But you won’t accept?”

 Again Meshaal repeated his answer, yet strangely Amanpour persisted:

 “So just to be clear, after this term, no more Khaled Meshaal, leader of Hamas?

 He replied a third time: “Yes. This is my clear standing.”

 How different a tone than that struck by Blitzer who not only spoke adoringly about his subject, remarking on his “amazing” energy, but even urged him to stay in politics, by suggesting he run for prime minister. Amanpour, on the other hand, wanted to make 100 percent sure she wouldn’t be interviewing Meshaal again. So seemingly relieved by the answer, she would not rest until she had heard it three times.  

The antics of Blitzer and Amanpour, CNN’s two most senior faces, shows the clear favor of Peres over Meshaal. More importantly, the questions aimed at the two leaders reveals an empathy toward Israel’s dangers and little mention of those facing Gazans. However it’s worth noting that the reporting of a few CNN journalists seemed to mitigate against this bias.

 Senior correspondents Arwa Damon, Ben Wedeman and Sara Sidner spent extended periods of time with Palestinians, offering some of the few detailed reports on the hardships of daily life under round-the-clock Israeli air strikes.

These reports were often juxtaposed with the fears faced by Israelis, though they had a billion-dollar missile defense system, alert sirens and readily available bomb shelters for protection, luxuries most Palestinians could only dream of. 

 By constantly juxtaposing the two sides, viewers may have assumed that Hamas and Israel were formidable enemies and their populations equally vulnerable to attacks from the other side. But there were no reports analyzing the asymmetrical power dynamics on the battlefield where the later, a hastily organized guerrilla group, relied on short range largely ineffective rockets; while the former, the world’s fourth most powerful military, wields some of the deadliest weapons known to man.

 Misleading as it may be, CNN seemed to completely abandon this “balanced” policy as it questioned the leaders of the two sides when the smoke had finally begun to clear.

Habib Battah is a Beirut-based journalist and author of the blog www.beirutreport.com He tweets @habib_b

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