by Kim Petersen
April 7, 2003
There is something to be said for CNN anchor Aaron Brown agreeing to be interviewed by the left-wing media Democracy Now! Not only that but he went solo against three left-wing types. Interestingly enough Mr. Brown began by characterizing his role in which “the essential thing for [him] to do in this unique coverage is to make sure that no single image, no single moment overwhelms the broader picture.” (1) Protecting the big picture from being overwhelmed by any “single moment” or “single image” might best be construed as Orwellian phrasing for censorship. It evokes an image of Winston Smith in the Ministry of Truth manipulating the news according to the worldview of Big Brother.
Mr. Aaron’s job description went unchallenged but things got tougher from there on in. Mr. Brown went on the defensive. He weaved and ducked with effete protestations: “Wow, that's a long windup for a question.” “Wait. Stop - do you want to ask a question or make an argument?” “I have neither the time nor inclinations to make argument with you.” “Whoa, whoa, whoa - quote the question respectfully.”
Although Mr. Brown, caught up in the moment, had himself interrupted others, he took umbrage at being interrupted. “You just have to let me finish, then if you want to beat me up, you can beat me up all you want. You at least have to let me finish.”
At other times Mr. Aaron responded simply with bewilderment: “Tell me what your question is, I'd like to respond.”
But Mr. Brown tried hard to come across as credible when he dismissed as a “colossal red herring” the notion that packing CNN with paid ex-Generals was unbalanced. He maintained plausibly that the military experts were only “to explain what is happening on the ground.” This failed to mollify concern at the imbalance in news coverage.
Mr. Brown was flabbergasted by the prospect that war was “too important to be left to ex-generals.” His response was simply to tune in to the show.
Then there was the absurd assertion that asking the generals about the illegality of war was inappropriate because “it's just not their wheelhouse, and it would be unfair to do that.” This shows ignorance of Nuremberg history, which holds that soldiers are responsible for their actions in war.
Mr. Brown admits to an unbalanced portrayal of the broader picture. He even allows that not all the pictures are being shown as editorial considerations determine what is appropriate to show the viewers. He described some scenes of war as “pornographic.” This is disingenuous in an age where sex, violence, horror, and gore are standard entertainment fare. The modern viewer is deluged with such programming and many viewers must be inured to it. Nevertheless for sensitive viewers a caution as to graphic content could be issued prior to revealing such images. Otherwise the mainstream media only leaves itself open to charges of sanitizing the violence and censorship.
Mr. Brown’s glee, however, was barely concealed when questioned about Robert Fisk’s article on CNN’s new policy on reporters submitting articles for script approval by anonymous officials in corporate headquarters. “OK, I'm really glad we are going to talk about this … I said to someone who sent it to me, 'This may be the single dumbest thing I have ever read'. It's certainly in the top five.” Mr. Brown matter-of-factly said that this was a normal part of the business -- “as routine as toothpaste” -- and that is why media have editors.
This ignored Mr. Fisk’s caution of where such journalistic oversight heads:
Just where this awful system leads is evident from an intriguing exchange last year between CNN's reporter in the occupied West Bank town of Ramallah, and Eason Jordan, one of CNN's top honchos in Atlanta.
The journalist's first complaint was about a story by the reporter Michael Holmes on the Red Crescent ambulance drivers who are repeatedly shot at by Israeli troops. "We risked our lives and went out with ambulance drivers... for a whole day. We have also witnessed ambulances from our window being shot at by Israeli soldiers... The story received approval from Mike Shoulder. The story ran twice and then Rick Davis (a CNN executive) killed it. The reason was we did not have an Israeli army response, even though we stated in our story that Israel believes that Palestinians are smuggling weapons and wanted people in the ambulances."
The Israelis refused to give CNN an interview, only a written statement. This statement was then written into the CNN script. But again it was rejected by Davis in Atlanta. Only when, after three days, the Israeli army gave CNN an interview did Holmes's story run – but then with the dishonest inclusion of a line that said the ambulances were shot in "crossfire" (i.e. that Palestinians also shot at their own ambulances).
The reporter's complaint was all too obvious. "Since when do we hold a story hostage to the whims of governments and armies? We were told by Rick that if we do not get an Israeli on-camera we would not air the package. This means that governments and armies are indirectly censoring us and we are playing directly into their own hands."
The relevance of this is all too obvious in the next Gulf War. We are going to have to see a US army officer denying everything the Iraqis say if any report from Iraq is to get on air. (2)
This has in fact been borne out. The US and UK repeatedly blame President Saddam Hussein for all fiascos. No one is better aware of this than Mr. Fisk who revealed the mendacity of the so-called coalition claim that a missile that slaughtered 62 civilians in a marketplace was Iraqi. Mr. Fisk produced the smoking gun in the form of a piece of shrapnel with serial code that revealed its US origin. (3)
Mr. Aaron ignored this substantiated line of reasoning and dismissed the story on CNN scripting as a conspiracy. He tried to drive home his point by repetition. “[F]or [Mr. Fisk] to write what was a truly silly piece as if this were somehow -- as if Secretary Rumsfeld was actually sitting on the row making judgments about the appropriateness of something, was stupid.”
He didn’t refute the incident proffered by Mr. Fisk as an example of why the new CNN script approvals were suspect. A cursory examination of Mr. Brown’s background suggests why. Mr. Brown has a predilection to appear as an apologist for Israeli atrocities. (4,5)
A favored interviewee is Daniel Pipes, an ardent Islamophobe (6). In a January 2002 interview Mr. Brown lobbed Mr. Pipes some “hanging curveballs.” Mr. Pipes responded with two lies that Mr. Brown left unchallenged. Mr. Pipes asserted inaccurately that Palestinians still reject the Jewish state while ignoring the fact that the Palestinians still have no state. He iterated the lie that Israeli Prime Minister Barak had offered the Palestinians everything they wanted. Anyone peering at the maps, which were not shown in the US mainstream media, could see that under the generous offer of Mr. Barak the Palestinians would live in Bantustans -- non-contiguous cantons -- with Israeli settlements carved out from a large chunk of Palestinian territory.
Mr. Brown’s interview left one with the impression that the onus was placed squarely on Palestinians who would be seen as derailing any hope of peace if another suicide bombing should occur during the Zinni mission. There was no mention made of Israeli assassinations of Palestinians, firing missiles in Palestinian civilian neighborhoods, house demolitions, etc; clearly it was the Palestinians who were the party responsible for ensuring the success of the Zinni mission. (7)
Everyone knows what people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t do. Well, Mr. Brown has maligned the writing of Mr. Fisk (a PhD in political science) as stupid.
If stupidity explains the Fisk thesis of censored journalism as an outcome of CNN script reviews then what is one to gather from Mr. Brown’s feeble excuse that CNN was “a little late in coming to see an anti-war movement develop.” This was despite the anti-war movement beginning to coalesce in September 2002. The massive worldwide anti-war demonstrations of 15-16 February were of historical proportions and the re-unleashing of US-UK violence wasn’t until 21 March. What level of intellect was required to grasp the significance of what was happening?
To compound the intellectual vacuity of the late recognition was the lame attempt to transfer blame elsewhere: to the Democratic Party’s rollover and lack of center in the anti-war movement. This is slipshod journalism. It was an admission of media taking cues from the centers of power -- acting as a mouthpiece. That CNN couldn’t get off its collective duff to investigate what was happening in the anti-war scene was also an appalling admission. Surely every reporter worth his grain of salt knows from recent history that the waging of war is concomitant with the waging of peace.
According to Mr. Brown it is too late to make amends now. Balanced coverage is irrelevant because the war is underway. At the end of the day Mr. Brown goes to bed an honest man.
George Orwell wrote: “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
(1) Democracy Now! “CNN's Aaron Brown: On the Network's Coverage of the Anti-war Movement, Media's Sanitization of the Iraq War and Why This is an Inappropriate Time for Reporters to ask Questions About War,” 5 April 2003. Available on the Dissident Voice website:
(2) Robert Fisk, “How the news will be censored in this war: A new CNN system of 'script approval' suggests the Pentagon will have nothing to worry about,” The Independent, 25 February 2003:
(3) Robert Fisk, “The Ministry of Mendacity Strikes Again,” The Independent, 4 April 2003. Available on the Dissident Voice website: http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles3/Fisk_Hoon.htm
(4) Nigel Parry, “CNN: Your patently sheltered existence,” nigelparry.com, 23 July 2002: http://nigelparry.com/archives/00000015.shtml
(5) Aaron Brown with Daniel Pipes, “Assessing the Zinni Mission: CNN Newsnight with Aaron Brown,” January 2, 2002, Daniel Pipes.org: http://www.danielpipes.org/article/108
(6) Michael Neumann, “Who Hates, Ya, Baby? The Baffling Patriotism of Daniel Pipes,” CounterPunch, 7 December 2002: http://www.counterpunch.org/neumann1207.html
(7) Brown and Pipes, Ibid