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Press Review September 20, 2001
 
Far Gone in 30 Seconds. CNN Sentences Palestine To Death
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
Page 2 of 5
 
More importantly, a print journalist always knows he can construct his narrative after the fact. He does not have to be concerned with the purely mechanical problems of story construction while he is covering the story. A print journalist does not lose his story if, for instance, he does not catch a defendant walking out of a courtroom. But a TV journalist covering a trial has to catch people going in and out of various buildings, walking their dogs, stepping out of planes -- all utterly meaningless events to the print journalist, but of critical importance to the TV journalist, who needs these moments to "establish" the outline of his story.

One last thing. Print journalists in some ways have much more room to lie. When a print reporter publishes a man-on-the-street interview, only God will actually know if that interview ever happened. There is no way to track down the those kinds of sources in print. But on television, you have to get a picture, and a picture is difficult to fake, particularly since it requires a conspiracy of many (the reporter, his cameraman, his producer, his editors) to make it happen.

On the other hand...

On the other hand, the very absence of a lengthy narrative instantly absolves the TV reporter of a great many ethical responsibilities. A print reporter has to work very hard to produce an effect. The most powerful print stories are almost always based on hard information, or specific quotes. But television, as the images last week proved, can change the course of history with a single picture. And unlike print, television does not have to explain its context in order to be effective -- not truthful or just, mind you, but effective, in stimulating a response.

In the case of the pictures last week, CNN had a responsibility -- particularly given the extreme gravity of the situation -- to provide an exact context for the footage it was showing. The man handing over the piece of pie -- why was he smiling? Who was he handing the pie to? The implication was obvious: this Palestinian was so happy about the bombings, he was giving pie away to strangers.

But how do we know that? Assuming it was true, CNN needed, at the bare minimum, to say so explicitly: "Our reporter on the scene observed this man, Saleem X, handing a piece of pie to a stranger for free. X said he was glad America was bombed, and that everything was on the house today."

But there was nothing. All we were told, by CNN, was that these were pictures of "Palestinians celebrating the attacks."

This kind of presentation makes it impossible for any individual, much less an entire nation, to defend himself against the media. The caf? owner has no deniability. He never spoke to the journalist. Indeed, there wasn't one there, just a cameraman. The cameraman, on the other hand, has total deniability. No one knows his name or will ever know it (APTN refused to release the cameraman's name, and refused all requests to interview him), and, what's more, he wasn't responsible for how his pictures were used. CNN is similarly isolated from responsibility: it didn't take the pictures, and the only information it needed from its video service was that these were pictures of Palestinians celebrating the attack on America. That's all it needed: one sentence worth of information about the story.

Therefore you get, in the end, a picture that in the context speaks literally volumes, and which may have actually finally engendered American hatred toward Palestinians, which rests on a single sentence worth of information.

But this is all standard television practice. None of what I've described so far departs very much from the ordinary. What was extraordinary about the CNN transmission were three things: the lack of a "time peg", the lack of balance, and the lack of editorial restraint.

The time issue was the one that made me suspect the pictures were faked. Given the situation, it seemed imperative that CNN establish on camera that the pictures were directly connected to the attacks in New York. Forget about a narrative attribution -- the proof here needed to be on the air.


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