Jim Clancy and the tragi-comedy of American journalism

Jim Clancy and the tragi-comedy of American journalism
Jim Clancy's 'resignation' from CNN doesn't suggest that the US media is pro-Israel. It's much worse than that. It shows that normal journalistic standards in America may not exist at all.
7 min read
22 Jan, 2015
Clancy’s sin was that he sometimes expressed opinions that spurred discomfort among his viewers (Getty)

When Shakespeare scholars don’t know whether one of “the Bard’s” plays is a tragedy or a comedy, they cheat – they call it a “tragi-comedy” in the apparent hope that the rest of us aren’t paying attention. The same is true in politics, at the place where head-shaking reality rubs up against the barely believable.

This mix of tragedy with comedy was all too apparent on 17 January, when CNN, the international cable news outlet, issued a statement announcing the resignation (and, presumably, the retirement) of television correspondent Jim

     Clancy's views were far less offensive than those of other reporters whose defence of Israel bordered on the laughable.

Clancy, who wrote a series of tweets on the attack at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, that were viewed as offensive by defenders of Israel.

Clancy began his controversial Twitter postings on 7 January (the day of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices) by suggesting that the satirical magazine’s controversial cartoons on the Prophet Muhammad were not aimed at Islam, but at those who distorted his words – people who Clancy called "cowards". The cartoons "NEVER mocked the Prophet," he wrote. This, by itself, would not have led to Clancy’s resignation, nor would he have been castigated by a follow-up tweet a short time later: "The notion that every Muslim is a terrorist opponent of truth, justice and the American way needs to be tested. Methinks."

But a number of Clancy’s Twitter followers, including Oren Kessler – the head of research for the Washington, DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies – challenged Clancy’s views. "Absolutely untrue," Kessler responded. "The magazine was targeted in the past over an issue in which Muhammad was listed as guest editor."

Clancy, apparently riled with Kessler’s disagreement, responded to him with a single word: "Hasbara?" – and followed that up with another tweet, saying that Kessler and another of his critics (the pro-Israel twitter account @elderofziyon), were engaged in "a campaign to do PR for Israel".

Don't mention the propaganda

While this Twitter war of words went on for several more minutes ("Huh? What on Earth are you talking about?" Kessler tweeted, and Clancy responded – "It’s called satire" and "You and the Hasbara team need to pick on some cripple on the edge of the herd"), a veteran CNN reporter told me that "Clancy's goose was cooked the minute he used the word 'Hasbara'."

That seems right, for while it’s one thing to be known as an Israel sceptic, it's apparently not appropriate to accuse Israel's defenders of engaging in propaganda – which is what "Hasbara" is.

Then too, we note, outliers on the Israel debate (offended not simply by his suggestion that Israel's defenders are engaged in propaganda) castigated Clancy for his use of the word "cripple", which they deemed "offensive". We might ascribe this to piling on (proof, actually, of Clancy’s original claim), were it not for the fact that those condemning Clancy (as pointed out by Allison Deger on Mondoweiss) have their own ties to Israel. The criticism stands as an example of how pervasive Israel’s defenders in America have become, while wondering whether National Geographic announcers are now required to describe limping gazelles as “disabled”.

The tragedy in this is that Clancy was felled by a series of social media messages that ended a career that defined television journalism over the last thirty-plus years.

Clancy’s work includes reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Rwandan genocide, the Bosnian conflict and the Cairo protests of the Arab Spring. For global viewers, Clancy was the face of the network – and an imposing presence on CNN International. Unlike many television news anchors (referred to as "reporters" when, more appropriately, they’re "presenters"), Clancy's credibility rested on the fact that he'd actually been there.

It is here that the tragedy of Clancy's retirement (in truth, a forced resignation), becomes a comedy. For while Clancy's views on Israel made him easy pickings for Israel defenders (The Independent says Clancy resigned for "suggesting Israeli propaganda had [a] hand in [the] Charlie Hebdo attack" – a stretch, by any measure), his views were far less offensive than those of other reporters whose defence of Israel bordered on the laughable. Let’s check the record.

A telling record

This last summer, during Israel's attacks on Gaza, a number of influential American television journalists issued explanations of Israeli military actions that were as controversial as anything Clancy has ever said – and that make Clancy’s "insensitive" remarks of two weeks ago seem tame in comparison. At the height of the Gaza war in mid-July, for example, NBC News executives pulled reporter Ayman Mohiyedin out of Gaza, apparently because of his harrowing reporting on Israel’s military actions. Mohiyedin was replaced by Richard Engel, a much more Israel-friendly reporter. Embarrassed by the public response to their decision, NBC wisely reinstated Mohiyedin, but no one in the network was forced to resign, let alone make a Clancy-like "perp" walk.

Worse yet, in the midst of the Gaza war, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer (who, unlike Clancy, hasn't actually been anywhere) misrepresented a video of Palestinian victims of Israeli bombs as Israelis. Sawyer later apologized for the mistake ("I want you to know we are truly sorry for the error"), but critics of the network supposed the misidentification was much more than a simple mistake – particularly during a time when Israelis were complaining about the "barrage" of missiles that was actually, ah, something less than a barrage.

Then, on July 27, CBS's Bob Schieffer (the softest presence on American television since the days of Walter "Uncle Walt" Cronkite), told a national television audience that "the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause" – a statement so offensive that it spurred Peter Hart of Accuracy and Fairness in Journalism to describe it as "irresponsible in the extreme". Hart’s condemnation of Schieffer caused nary a blip on CBS’s screen, where Schieffer remains a celebrated and award winning presence – seven Emmys and the George Polk Award.

At the same moment CNN, Clancy’s former employer, was having its own problems. During Israel’s operation in Gaza the network hired Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador the US, as an on-air analyst to provide insights (to give "balance" to their reporting, as they said) on the conflict – spurring an internal rebellion among CNN reporters who questioned whether Oren could be considered an objective observer.

Causing discomfort

Shockingly, that Oren might not be the right person to give impartial analysis (at one point he repeated Shieffer’s claim that Palestinian took pride in the deaths of their own children), had apparently never even occurred to CNN’s news managers, who couldn’t bring themselves to believe that a man of Oren’s apparent stature would be biased. That said, the internal kerfuffle that greeted Oren’s hiring (as one CNN veteran reporter told me) became serious enough that the network managed his departure – while denying any responsibility for their poor judgment.

To say that it is unfair that a reporter as sophisticated as Jim Clancy can be forced to retire, while another with far less talent is showered with awards is only to state the obvious - if not the mundane. That kind of thing happens every day. The worry here is that Clancy’s forced retirement feeds irresponsible claims that, at worst, the American media is “controlled by the Jews,” or, at best, that it is “pro-Israeli”. Neither of those claims has the ring of universal truth.

The news about the news is, actually, much worse. Clancy’s sin was that he sometimes expressed opinions that spurred discomfort among his viewers, a habit that was once celebrated, but that has now gone out of favour. In fact, there isn’t anything wrong with America’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that can’t be resolved by a simple adherence to standard journalistic practices. Which is simply to say that the real worry is not that Clancy’s forced resignation shows that those standards are low, but that they might not exist at all.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.