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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 3 of 5
 
The easiest way to do this would have been through an on-camera interview. Approach any one of the people in the picture and shout a single sentence a them: "Are you celebrating the attack on America"? A "yes" would have been enough, though a follow-up would have been better. Anything else is the television equivalent of an unnamed source, an assertion without proof.

You can use unnamed sources in print. It's an accepted practice, used most often as a way of supporting attributed fact-gathering. But you can not use unnamed sources to send a whole country to war against a particular nation. And that's what CNN did.

Another thing CNN could have done to peg the time would have been to film Palestinians cheering as they watched television reports of the attack. I can't imagine that this would have been too hard. Every television in the city must have been on. It's quite possible that they tried and failed to catch anyone celebrating. If that's the case, I think the world had a right to know, had a right to see pictures of people not celebrating. It doesn't even matter that we'll never know now (with APTN and CNN issuing flat "no comments" about the shooting done that day in Jerusalem and Nabluz). The world needed to know that day. The peculiar nature of TV journalism makes it essential not to screw up at the moment, because it is impossible to undo the damage of doing a bad job once it's been done.

The irony here is that it would have been very easy to get a "time-pegged" shot of Palestinians reacting rationally and sensitively to the attack. I'd guess that the vast majority of Palestinians would have been willing to go on the record saying that they sympathized with the victims. That would have been true even for the great number of Palestinians who believe they have excellent reasons to hate the United States. There was a candlelight vigil in East Jerusalem on the night of the attacks; Yassir Arafat gave blood; schoolchildren around the country took part in moments of silence in reaction to the attacks. And a large part of the nation's public figures spoke sensibly and generously about the American victims.

CNN's decision not to show these reasoned responses underscores the anti-intellectual nature of television news -- and its ability to influence people in an anti-intellectual direction. A sudden outburst of emotion simply makes for better and more powerful television than a reasoned response. Conflict looks better on television than peace. The focus on this side of humanity (particularly when covering foreign peoples, who are more easily dehumanized) produces in viewers the habit of believing that emotional responses are more valid than reasoned ones.

The long-term effect of this kind of coverage was illustrated dramatically on the day of the attacks. Throughout the day, CNN restricted its visual reporting to a remarkably small number of video sequences. The number of images, in fact, was so small that I suspected -- and still suspect -- that there was some kind of government control, or at least a consensus between the government and the company, over which material would be transmitted. The actual attack on the World Trade Center was played over and over again, of course. There was footage of the Pentagon on fire, footage of the crash site in Pennsylvania, footage of the mysterious plane flying over Washington, footage of warplanes flying over New York, and significantly, these pictures of Palestinians celebrating in Jerusalem and Nablus. All of these pictures -- all extremely dramatic and/or inflammatory -- were interspersed with a steady stream of interviews with government and ex-government representatives, most of them Republican.

Amazingly, throughout the course of the entire broadcast of the first day, there was scarcely a hint of a reaction from an ordinary person, American or foreign. The commentary was restricted almost entirely to inflammatory images, warmongering questioning and commentary from television reporters, and right-wing government or ex-government spokespeople. In the first eight hours after the attack, there were only two people with even the vaguest associations with the Democratic party interviewed, Madeline Albright and William Cohen. And these two, it goes without saying, were hardly from the dovish side of the loyal opposition.


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