CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter had to know his segment yesterday with the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald (which you can watch here) would cast judgment on his own employer. After all, Greenwald last week had written a well-circulated piece ripping CNN for various sins in its coverage of Paris and other issues.
Indeed Greenwald jumped platforms from print to television with little difficulty. “I think that CNN has actually unfortunately led the way in this,” said Greenwald — “this” being the failure to learn the appropriate lessons from cheerleading for the Iraq war. “You have had one intelligence official with the CIA or formerly with the CIA after the next gone on air, able to say all kinds of extremely dubious claims — that print journalists have repeatedly documented in Bloomberg News, in the New Yorker, on the New York Times editorial page are totally false — and there is zero pushback,” said Greenwald.
He wasn’t done.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has also threaded through post-Paris media coverage, and CNN, Greenwald argued: “I think the worst example, probably the most despicable interview we’ve seen in the last several years, were two CNN anchors, John Vause and Isha Sesay, who told a French Muslim political activist that he and all other Muslims bear ‘responsibility’ for the attack in Paris because all Muslims must somehow be responsible,” said Greenwald.
Stelter tried challenging Greenwald’s description. “But there is a difference between asking questions and making statements. You say they told him that — they were asking a series of questions,” said the host.
No, the record says otherwise. In the interview, Vause “asked” the activist, Yasser Louati the following “question”: “Why is it that no one within the Muslim community there in France knew what these guys were up to? It seems to me that this was a pretty big plan. Surely someone beyond the seven guys who’ve been killed over the last 48 hours would have to have known something and that was probably within the Muslim community but yet no one said anything.” Louati said the Muslim community had “nothing to do with these guys.”
Then Stelter grasped for a weaker defense. “But aren’t you cherry-picking here a little bit? Aren’t you cherry-picking from 24 hours of television coverage?” If CNN cannot stand behind all of its many minutes of coverage, perhaps it should produce fewer of them. Fill the air time with classic movies or something.
On the discussion went toward CNN’s policy of disciplining people for journalistic offenses. As he argued in his Intercept piece, Greenwald hammered CNN for suspending global affairs correspondent Elise Labott for having sent a tweet chiding a House bill to limit refugees from Syria and Iraq — and for not suspending Vause, Sesay and a number of others who Greenwald cites for opinionated coverage. “I could literally spend the rest of the day pointing to opinions expressed by CNN journalists for which they were not suspended or punished in any way,” wrote Greenwald.
Whatever the offense, suspensions are a self-defeating approach to cleaning up any problem in a newsroom, as this blog has written over and over again: They do nothing for the perpetrators, aside from bruising their confidence, and they do nothing for the organization, aside from postponing measures to correct the underlying problem.
Tougher to assess is Greenwald’s allegation that CNN has allowed officials in interviews to spread too much misinformation on its air. To be fair, this is a problem baked into television news: Anchors have to concern themselves with their questions and their time limits, which makes on-the-spot fact-checking a very difficult undertaking. As interim host of ABC News’s “This Week” back in 2010, now-CNN anchor Jake Tapper concluded a show-fact-checking arrangement with PolitiFact. And that’s sort of the way the system works; print outlets and fact-checkers pluck statements made on CNN and elsewhere, and subject them to rigor.
In any case, the Erik Wemple Blog urges more of these segments. Too few broadcasters, after all, allow this kind of back-and-forth on their own air. Just plop a chyron on the screen — “Brian’s Weekly Chat with CNN Ombudsman Glenn Greenwald” — and get out of the way.