CNN Helped Cement Israel’s Ties to Atlanta

CNN Helped Cement Israel’s Ties to Atlanta

The cable network set a precedent by working out of Jerusalem, then motivated Israelis to work from Atlanta.

Dave Schechter

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes a Democratic congressional delegation led by Nancy Pelosi to Jerusalem on Monday, March 26. Netanyahu’s political rise paralleled CNN’s surge in importance in the 1980s, and he was a regular CNN guest. (Photo by Kobi Gideon, Government Press Office)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes a Democratic congressional delegation led by Nancy Pelosi to Jerusalem on Monday, March 26. Netanyahu’s political rise paralleled CNN’s surge in importance in the 1980s, and he was a regular CNN guest. (Photo by Kobi Gideon, Government Press Office)

In late 1989, Atlanta-based Cable News Network was ascendant.

Ted Turner’s 9-year-old creation had proved there was an appetite for around-the-clock news on television — and this was a year before its coverage of the Gulf War would make CNN an international phenomenon.

In the same period, Benjamin Netanyahu was ascendant, the deputy foreign minister a rising star in the Likud party.

Beginning with his tenure as Israel’s United Nations ambassador in the mid-1980s, Netanyahu, who lived in Philadelphia as a teenager, had become the English-language face of Israel’s government.

He appeared often on CNN and, when visiting Atlanta, would participate in what’s known as an “editorial board.”

In addition to Netanyahu, seated around the table would be CNN executives, international desk editors, producers of programs focusing on international news, and others with experience and knowledge in the region.

I fell into the last category, having been the Jerusalem bureau producer for the better part of two years from 1985 to 1987.

Editorial boards generally were off the record, meaning that a diplomat could speak less diplomatically than during an on-air interview.

After one such visit to CNN, I rode along as Israel’s deputy consul general in Atlanta drove Netanyahu to Hartsfield International Airport.

(The deputy consul general and I, along with our wives, were friends. Our daughters had been born within a few months of each other, timing that repeated with our sons a couple of years later.)

About this time, the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta was rumored (not for the last time) to be at risk of closing.

When that subject came up during the ride, I suggested that closing the consulate would be a mistake, if only because it provided Israel the opportunity for face-to-face contact with CNN executives.

CNN’s first home, at 1050 Techwood Drive, once housed the Progressive Club, established in 1913 by Jews of Russian descent (also referred to as Yiddish Jews), who felt unwelcome at the Standard Club, whose membership predominantly descended from German Jews.

CNN moved into its current home downtown in the summer of 1985, and today the building at 1050 Techwood is part of Turner Broadcasting’s campus.

The network premiered at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 1, 1980.

CNN’s first “live via satellite” transmission came a half-hour later from Jerusalem, where correspondent Jay Bushinsky reported on political problems facing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

That the CNN bureau was in Jerusalem was noteworthy, as ABC, CBS and NBC maintained their primary Israel offices in the Tel Aviv area.

Into the late 1980s, most reports were recorded on videotape cassettes that were driven to Ben Gurion Airport and put aboard late-night flights to New York, and the bureau there would transmit them on a fiber line to Atlanta.

Back then, reports that touched on security issues required approval by a military censor, a conversation that on occasion became testy.

For an important story, the international desk in Atlanta, which communicated with the bureau by telephone or telex machine, might agree to spend money and feed the story by satellite.

Yeshlanu lavion (Hebrew for “we have a satellite”) generally meant that a long day would become a longer night — no small matter, considering the seven-hour time difference between Atlanta and Israel.

As the years went on, censorship became rare, computers replaced typewriters, satellite feeds became less expensive and more common, and, eventually, digital technology made writing, editing and transmitting less cumbersome.

The importance of Israel, and in particular Jerusalem, for Jews, Christians and Muslims explains why the number of foreign correspondents posted in Israel exceeds that of all but a handful of world capitals.

Most reports filed from Israel involve its government, politics and military, relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and relations with neighboring Arab nations, as well as terrorism and conflicts ranging from street clashes to war. The necessity for such a focus — more common after the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in December 1987 — has precluded greater coverage of religious and cultural subjects.

CNN has been criticized by American Jews and, as the channel became available in country, by Israelis, often over the context in which events are presented. Similarly, Palestinians have complained that CNN’s coverage is biased in favor of Israel.

A former Israeli consul general in Atlanta, who asked not to be identified, offered his perspective on the relationship between the network and his nation.

“I found an open door and a fair attitude from the senior executives of CNN headquarters in Atlanta. Those senior executives exercised genuine willingness to listen and to being briefed on current affairs developments and strategic developments in the Middle East from senior Israeli officials whom I invited to Atlanta for working and official visits and from me personally. When major events in the Middle East took place during these visits, they also showed their interest to interview these officials on these events,” the former diplomat said.

“I also found amongst these CNN executives an open mind and readiness to accept, usually rare, criticism on certain elements of the CNN reporting, either by the poor choice of words and clearly unbalanced narratives of its reporters, especially from those based in Arab capitals, and/or poor choices of archive video footages accompanying certain reports. When I shared such a complaint about certain reporting, my complaint was seriously addressed and a correction made to make the report balanced in its wording and the accompanying footage,” he said.

Tom Johnson understood the perils of Middle East coverage before he became chairman of CNN in August 1990 — starting the job one day before Iraqi troops rolled into Kuwait, the precursor to the Gulf War.

During his tenure as publisher of the Los Angeles Times (1977-90) and at CNN (1990-2001), “news coverage of Israel was one of the most controversial of all topics for me and our news executives,” Johnson said, recalling advertiser boycotts and canceled subscriptions over the Times’ coverage of the September 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalange militias in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. (An Israeli commission of inquiry found Israel to be indirectly responsible for not deterring the militias. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was found to bear a measure of personal responsibility, leading to his eventual resignation from that post.)

“At CNN, our reporting about Israel was at times no less controversial,” Johnson said. “Various CNN staffers, including former bureau chief Robert Wiener, occasionally received blistering criticism for coverage. Criticism was especially intense during the first war in the Gulf in 1991. Israeli military authorities felt that our live coverage of incoming Iraqi Scud missiles provided Iraqi military with targeting guidance. We adjusted our reporting so as to not identify precisely where Scud missiles struck.

“One major Atlanta-based Jewish leader called my close friend Erwin Zaban to criticize CNN and me personally for our reporting.

“Both at Los Angeles Times and at CNN, my mandate to our staff was to be accurate in all our reporting. Ted Turner (the founder of Turner Broadcasting and CNN) gave us only one explicit rule: Be fair.

“At all times, I did my best to make certain that we were as accurate and as fair as humanly possible. We tried our very best, often at great risk to our correspondents and staffs, to present truthful reporting from all the countries and leaders in the region. We were often criticized for interviews with Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, and yet fairness demanded that the points of view of the fiercely different leaders were represented.”

Self-styled media watchdog groups, such as HonestReporting and CAMERA, routinely critique what they see as biased reporting by CNN and other news organizations.

Over the years, the large, red CNN sign outside CNN’s offices at the intersection of Marietta Street and Techwood Drive has been a rallying site for protesters on a range of issues, including pro- and anti-Israel rallies.

Andy Segal, a former senior producer in CNN’s documentary unit, who worked on programs about Israel, said, “I was well aware that the management knew CNN was under a microscope by Israelis, Palestinians and the American Jewish community.

“My only marching orders were to report and write stories as comprehensively, accurately and fairly as I could. If someone thinks there’s a CNN agenda, I never saw it.

“Did everyone on the production team always agree? No, but there was a premium placed on talking through the issues until there was consensus. Did we always get it right? No, and when we became aware of a problem, we fixed it.”

Segal added, “I’m proud of the work.”

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