Veteran CNN journalist Jim Clancy’s resignation this week is one of the odder media fallouts from the Charlie Hebdo Paris attack. On January 7, Clancy got into a late night Twitter spat regarding the French satirical magazine with online adversaries. When he told them they were ganging up on him and practicing “hasbara,” the Hebrew word for “explaining” that describes pro-Israel advocacy often at the behest of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they lashed back as if the term were libelous. As it turns out, Clancy was not off base. Some who sparred with him have worked for the Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, and one online activist in particular boasts of a track record of getting journalists fired for their comments on social media about Israel and its conflicts in the Middle East.
Because neither Clancy nor his employer offered an explanation as to why he quit, much speculation has circulated. The reigning theory is that he was forced to leave because calling out online commentators for having a pro-Israel slant is seen as a redline for mainstream journalists. Clancy also made an ableist comment; he said his Twitter foes’ time was better spent by picking off a “cripple.” Within days Clancy’s Twitter account was suspended and he confirmed to TVNewer that he had left CNN after nearly 34 years.
The big question remain. Was Clancy correct when he said that a handful of those he was arguing with online were engaging in hasbara? And did they coerce a pink slip? The answer to both questions is likely yes.
First, let’s review the actual tweets. Everything started when Clancy tweeted to say that the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo depicting the image of Islam’s prophet were not offensive. “The cartoons NEVER mocked the Prophet. They mocked how the COWARDS tried to distort his word. Pay attention.”
In response, @Elderofzyion wrote, “You might want to actually look at the cartoons before tweeting about them. I have a collection: http://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-collection-of-charlie-hedbo.html …”
@Elderofziyon, an anonymous Israel supporter who does not live in the country, has a track record of getting journalists canned. He mans a blog of the same name that purports to be a right-wing fact check machine. For instance, Elder has blogged repeatedly and aggressively about Mondoweiss. In the past he has worked on an advocacy project with the pro-Israel group Stand With Us, which just announced a partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or as Clancy would call it, he volunteers in hasbara. On his blog Elder has also advertised a job opening with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On Friday Elder of Ziyon wrote in a post entitled, “Elder gets results! Jim Clancy fired from CNN” that “The respected CNN anchor who insulted me on Twitter during an epic and bizarre meltdown is now gone. Buh-bye!” He also bragged, “This is the second CNN personality that I’ve been involved in getting fired.” In 2010 he campaigned for CNN to let go of Senior Editor of Mideast Affairs Octavia Nasr after she tweeted praise of a lately-deceased Hezbollah leader. At that time, Elder boasted “That’s two high-profile people I helped to get fired this year for their impolitic comments and activities.” This was an apparent reference to Human Rights Watch’s Marc Garlasco.
Another challenge to Clancy over his comment about Charlie Hebdo cartoons came from pro-Israel advocate Oren Kessler: “Absolutely untrue. The magazine was targeted in the past over an issue in which Muhammad was listed as guest editor.”
To this, Clancy tweeted back to Kessler one fateful word, “hasbara?”
Kessler retorted, “you could admit that your tweet was mistaken, and your response to me was inappropriate.”
Clancy then doubled down on the hasbara accusations, and made his offensive “cripple” comment. He tweeted, “You and the Hasbara team need to pick on some cripple on the edge of the herd” and “The Hasbara (Israeli explaining the inconsistencies of Human Rights) team has declared victory over @ClancyCNN – next up, #ICC” and “Here’s the rub: @JewsMakingNews @elderofziyon are accounts with about 50 followers…who are also part of a PR campaign that is anti-Muslim,” and “These accounts are part of a campaign to do PR for #Israel @JewsMakingNews @elderofziyon Nothing illegal – but PR not HR : Human Rights.”
Hasbara team? Oren Kessler is a former journalist for the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz and now a think-tank man, working for the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which supports tougher U.S. sanctions on Iran and a strong pro-Israel line. Chief positions in the group were held by Clifford May from the Republican National Committee, former (W.) Bush security advisor James Woolsey, former aide to Dick Cheney John Hannah, and AIPAC staffer Toby Dershowitz, according to research from My Right Web, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies. The 2007 book The Israel Lobby calls the Foundation a part of the Israel lobby and notes that it urged “regime change” in Iran in the wake of the Iraq invasion in 2003.
FDD’s other campaigns have included “30-second television spots conflating Yasser Arafat with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The video’s producer was Nir Boms, FDD’s first vice president and a former officer for the Israeli Embassy in Washington,” per My Right Web.
After Kessler chimed into the conversation, journalist Yair Rosenberg, who writes for Tablet and works as an editor for the Israeli National Archives, took notice. Rosenberg has over 10,000 followers, and he propelled the story to an international attention by tweeting, “Wow, so this is an extraordinarily unprofessional response by a CNN anchor when faced with a factual correction,” and “Uh, after these incredibly biased and inappropriate tweets, I hope CNN won’t be sending this guy to cover Israel.” Rosenberg later said online that he was surprised Clancy had to leave his job over this row.
Meantime, the cripple remark caught ire from Jay Ruderman, the head of a family foundation that supports organizations that work with disabled persons, particularly youth. Ruderman tweeted at Clancy, “Cripple is derogatory term,” then repeatedly called for CNN to apologize for the offensive remark over Twitter, on Israeli television and in the pages of the Washington Examiner.
Unquestionably, Clancy’s cripple remark did warrant an apology. But as for the word, “hasbara,” which set everything in motion, Clancy was not off base with respect to Ruderman. For nearly six years Ruderman was employed by AIPAC, and he also was an IDF liaison with the Jewish Diaspora. In 2010 he was the vice-chair of international affairs for the pro-Israel, anti-Semitism watchdog the Anti-Defamation League [PDF].
Ruderman heads a charitable trust that embraces Jewish values, and he has spoken out in defense of Israelis with disabilities. Last October he said that the anonymous use of the word “Aspergery” by an Obama administration official to describe Benjamin Netanyahu was offensive to millions who have Asperger syndrome. What’s more, Ruderman’s organization maintains strong ties with the Israeli government. The Ruderman Family Foundation offers members of Knesset fellowships to speak at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. From the foundation’s website: “Ruderman Knesset Fellows” seeks to provide “a unique opportunity for Members of Knesset to acquire first-hand knowledge of the American Jewish community, its priorities, challenges and sensibilities.” Participants run the gamut in Israeli politics, from sponsoring members of the far-left group Mertez, to the far-right Jewish Home party.
After the now notorious Twitter debacle, Clancy’s only public comment was a confirmation to TVNewer that he was indeed leaving CNN. Here’s the goodbye note:
After nearly 34 years with Cable News Network, the time has come to say Farewell!
It has been my honor to work alongside all of you for all of these years. This is one of the greatest news organizations in the world. It has truly revolutionized information delivery while driving technological advances in how we gather the news.
Through it all, CNN has been a family to my own family. That means something.
As I reflect on all of the great adventures and achievements of the past, I wish you great success in the future.
The only comment from the news anchor’s former employer was a quick, “Jim Clancy is no longer with CNN. We thank him for more than three decades of distinguished service, and wish him nothing but the best,” given to TVNews.
What the future holds for Clancy remains a media mystery. He is, however, one of the most high profile journalists to resign after going head to head with advocates for Israel online. The right-leaning Honest Reporting, a self-proclaimed defender of “Israel from media bias,” which covered the story from the beginning, questioned if there was a “teachable moment” from the fiasco, as no one from CNN offered up a reason for Clancy’s departure, or an apology. Honest Reporting also admitted to drumming up a bombardment of complaints to CNN. Therefore it concluded that the real lesson-learned was “how force of numbers can have a tremendous impact. Between HonestReporting and a number of other concerned organizations, Clancy’s misdemeanor was exposed for all to see and led to a huge number of complaints to CNN.”
What remains is the question of whether it was the ableist comment, or the hasbara comment that forced Clancy to leave his job. If Clancy left over the “cripple” comment, that seems extreme. It is indefensible to use that term, but an apology should have been enough– and people say a lot of wild things on twitter. If he lost his job for calling out pro-Israel online advocacy in the midst of his own run-in with those advocates, that reflects a worrisome tightening of speech. They were Israel advocates. This element of his quitting or firing should not be forgotten as it does present a warning to journalists. As the hardly left-leaning Thomas Friedman has explained, even espousing the U.S. State Department’s official policy that settlements are illegal and East Jerusalem is an occupied city can stop a career before it starts.
The logical after-effect of this Twitter war is that senior journalists within major news networks will surely think twice before uttering the word “hasbara” from here on.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Yair Rosenberg as Israeli.