Not much is written about the shortcomings, gaffes or sheer Western media bias when the giants of broadcast news cover this part of the world. But recently we were treated to a real gem of absolute shameful hypocrisy by CNN that leaves the viewer with a dropped jaw, asking - can we really believe anything anymore from Atlanta, given that the dynamics of media - i.e. funding - have changed so dramatically? The day when CNN can point the finger at the financing and objective journalistic merit of new start-up broadcasters are well over. But it doesn't stop the mega stars of the network from trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Recently, CNN's shockingly unprofessional and biased reporting was exposed on air during an interview with one of its on screen legends which fabulously backfired when a series of painful truths were hurled at her.
Christiane Amanpour invited Russia Today's feisty political hack Anissa Naouai to discuss what the U.S. channel called "a heated propaganda war" by the Russian government, with the underlying message from Amanpour that networks like RT were not at all objective due to their paymasters. But Amanpour picked the wrong fight with the wrong "babe." The veteran journalist, struggled to cope with the ugly truth about her own objectivity when the Russian journalist got into full swing with what was a formidable character assassination, leaving Amanpour struggling to sound credible when she belittled her interviewee. But CNN viewers would not have seen any of this interview where both Amanpour's journalistic credibility was torn to shreds - based on her taking the U.S. state department's line on all of her foreign location reporting wherever she was - or even more recently for appalling blunders by other veteran CNN hacks like Jim Clancy, who mistook a YouTube clip of a downed Syrian helicopter (in Syria!) for a Russian one in the Ukraine.
CNN pulled the ultimate cheap trick, just another thing that has given it the reputation of being more joke than news: it simply edited the entire segment of Anissa Naouai out of the show all together manipulating the truth to such an extent that Amanpour's final edited show gave an entirely different impression, cheating hands down both those that it invited on the show and, more importantly, the viewers. While Amanpour tried to make the lame point that simply because Russia Today was sponsored by the Russian government that it, by definition, could not be objective about its policies - a short-sighted view that doesn't wash with the BBC as merely one example - Naouai countered by shaming the U.S. network for taking money off anyone in return for making propaganda films dressed up as legitimate reporting. Minutes later, when Amanpour asked her a question but then wouldn't let her reply, it seemed the gloves were off. But Amanpour soon found herself punching below her weight with the formidable Naouia, who simply outclassed her.
Quickly, the RT hack was able to point out that Russia Today's editorial policy on choosing stories is based on CNN's shockingly bad reporting on the same subjects. "We come to work and we see a lot of holes in the stories that you're telling your [CNN] audience, holes that can be easily closed by just going online, trying to verify videos, trying to get kind of different sorts of perspectives on the air" she said. "So that helps a lot in trying to decide what we're going to cover."
Then Amanpour tried to claim that RT had also used a fake photo in relation to the downed Malaysian Airways flight, an extraordinary assertion from a U.S. network that has filled the Internet with websites illustrating how it fakes the news - with just one example being a Syrian opposition spokesman who CNN used for months before he admitted to making all his claims up about the day-to-day fighting and who arranged in one live interview to have gunfire go off in the background during a live link. Or even a state department producer who, while in Morocco in 2011, entirely fabricated a report about al-Qaida bombing Marrakesh and, when confronted by a CNN freelancer based there, simply replied "but you know, this is what all our top reporters do, like Cooper, Amanpour, Clancy or even Parisa Khosravi - they entirely sex up their stories. How you think they won their awards? I'm just doing the same!"
CNN not only makes appalling mistakes based on its prejudice and shoddy journalism. But as Naouia rightly points out, worse is their unrelenting inability to correct them. "...and I remember very well Jim Clancy of CNN showing a video in Donetsk in May of this year of a supposed helicopter being downed by these anti-Kiev fighters. We went online; we checked the video. The video was from Syria. We never even saw a retraction from CNN." The result had Amanpour in a bit of a state, to say the least ending the interview by patronizing her interviewee by calling her "babe" before cutting her off and telling her to get back to her work.
But had the "babe" proved an invaluable point about CNN and Western media in general? Could we learn from this highly amusing tirade that non-Western governments, including Russia, have had to fund state run media simply as a counterweight to the extraordinary narrow editorial mindset which has ruled the airwaves for decades, largely dictated by Washington's infamous state department? And it's not just CNN. Turkey for example, has experienced its fair share of biased reporting on everything from how the press is handled to human rights - with varying degrees of CNN-like bias based on the line taken by the government which hosts the media in the West. Much of it is simply lazy journalism. Media is in crisis and organizations have long since been able to really fork out the money on fact checking harder stories so prefer the soft targets of liberal countries which straddle the old and the new, like Turkey.
Case in point Iran. How much do we really get in terms of decent coverage by Western press? Almost nothing. Not because there's not much there but because it's too hard for foreign journalists to work there and much easier for them to take advantage of Turkey being an open and more or less Westernized society, which allows foreign hacks to wander about and investigate whatever they want. There have not been better examples that the recent feature stories on Turkey's problem with illegal smuggling of ISIS oil, or for that matter the so-called ISIS extremist enclave in Istanbul where an entire recruitment camp processes foreign jihads' applications before dispatching them to the southern border.
Nice stories, right? Both feed Western racist bigoted ideas about "Muslim" countries aligning themselves to terrorist organizations and the hypocrisy of a NATO country and others. But neither one is accurate as carefully crafted writing and the freedom to, at least, show the reader that the journalist was there on the ground - both liberties afforded to foreign hacks in Turkey - play a huge role in endorsing the story as entirely true, in the eyes of readers whose vision of the Middle East is always kept ever so slightly blurred by editors who twiddle the knob that has "awareness" on one side and "bigotry" on the other.
But Iran is getting off lightly due to its draconian measures aimed at terrifying the press - either those who can't even get in the confounded country in the first place, or those who have to stay on its periphery [read Washington] and report on it. The recent case of the so-called volleyball girl was a good example in point. Most of what was reported about the "news" of Ghoncheh Ghavami was from either Iran news agencies (state) or from rights organizations shoveling out the empathetic rhetoric and calling for decisions to be overturned. Ghavami, a dual Iranian-British national, was arrested on June 30, 2014 after protesting a ban on women attending volleyball matches. She began a hunger strike on Nov. 2 to protest her detention, her brother Iman Ghavami told Human Rights Watch. "The list of people Iran has jailed for demanding their rights is a long one," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. "To that list we can now add a courageous voice for women's right to watch a sporting event."
Just a few days ago, after paying a $30,000 bail, she was released. The very charge that was leveled against her - which, when demystified translates to acting as a herald of free speech - was the real issue. Iran simply doesn't have any free press to really speak of and anything or anyone who represents an example to the younger generation is feared more even than an Israeli nuclear bomb. Just weeks before, a woman was hanged despite international pleas for clemency. She left her family a heartbreaking message several months before her death.
Reyhaneh Jabbari, 26, was hanged in Tehran's Evin prison after spending five years on death row for the 2007 murder of a man she said had tried to rape her. Jabbari confessed to stabbing Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi in the back in the apartment where he allegedly tried to sexually abuse her. She claimed that another man in the apartment was the one who killed Sarbandi, though she refused to identify him. According to Amnesty International, Jabbari's claims were never properly investigated.
Naturally, the human rights organizations are outraged and condemned them. Washington and the EU too seem to almost spew out press releases that to the trained eye almost look as though they have been created by new software developed by a nerd in California. But the real issue is what precisely is the EU doing about journalists' freedom to work in Iran? If Brussels really care about human rights then it is essential that journalists have access. It sounds incredibly simplified, but Tehran's policy on press is simply to let in as few journalists as possible and restrict the movement of the few inside. The result is remarkably effective. But why can't the EU make this a priority rather than, like Western media, take cheap shots at Russia and in some cases Turkey over its human rights incidents? How can the EU scold Turkey on human rights but seem to appease Iran when the latter is hiding a myriad of human rights atrocities?
Evidently, the laziness of the cash strapped Western media not only has an impact on the EU but actually sets the example for lazy MEPs who can't be bothered to leave the comfort zone of Strasbourg or Brussels in preference for reading their preferred press. Recently I contacted a Dutch Liberal MEP about the plight of Ghavami while she was in jail. Marietje Schaake MEP was very happy to be updated about it and to be put in touch with the girl's brother in London. A few days later I discovered that the MEP, who is part of an Iran committee in the European parliament, wrote a letter to the new EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini urging "action" but not actually going further than that. But that was the extent of the work done by Schaake. And it is this mentality from MEPs - the same ones who chastise Turkey - that is the culprit. Armchair journalism of reporting on Iran from Washington is trumped by armchair political graft by Dutch MEPs who think they've done a great job by writing to one of their own on the Brussels gravy train.
The EU has an opportunity to insist on a new charter for countries like Iran, which starts with allowing journalists access to the stories they want to write. It can demand it now, while in the coming months a nuclear agreement is being thrashed out, as without such changes, scores of human rights atrocities will carry on behind closed doors - both those in Tehran and in Brussels.
* The Middle East correspondent for Deutsche Welle TV who often reports for the British weekly The Mail on Sunday, lives in Beirut
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