Friday, September 14, 2012

CNN Charged With Censorship Over Mid-East Documentary

Last week media critic Glenn Greenwald of the UK's Guardian newspaper/website published a pair of hard-hitting articles aimed directly at CNN that received surprisingly little coverage in the United States given the severity of their charges, namely that CNN is engaging in acts of censorship to protect the patronage paid to them by foreign governments.

Greenwald's charges center around a documentary made last year about the democratic uprisings in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain called “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring”.  The documentary, which Greenwald describes as “unflinching”, centered on pro-democracy activists in the tiny kingdom and was highly critical of the heavy-handed government response, which ultimately put down the democratic uprising.  The Bahraini regime was criticized internationally for their methods, which included the mass arrests of protesters (including doctors who were attempting to help injured demonstrators) and the use of deadly force against unarmed and peaceful protesters.  The CNN documentary crew themselves were even detained at gunpoint by pro-regime forces intent on disrupting their attempts at telling the story of the pro-democracy activists.

“iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” would go on to garner critical praise along with a number of journalism awards. Yet despite this praise, CNN's domestic network would air the documentary only once, while CNN's international broadcasting arm, CNNi, the outlet for which “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” was originally produced, would not air the documentary at all.  The lead journalist on “iRevolution”, Amber Lyon, complained to CNN's upper management about the network's refusal to air the documentary.  Despite being groomed by CNN to become one of their star on-air personalities, Lyon was laid off by CNN earlier this spring after her complaints about CNN's internal censorship became public.

CNN, of course, has denied any attempt at censorship, noting that they have aired many stories about the uprising in Bahrain (just not “iRevolution” apparently).  But it is here, and in a companion piece, that Greenwald lays out his most serious charge against CNN – that CNN has entered into a number of paid partnerships with governments around the world and that CNN is allowing these partnerships to color their reporting from and about these countries.

The CNN “partnerships” with the governments of countries like Kazakhstan, Georgia and Bahrain has led to the production of a series of quasi-journalistic fluff pieces: reports that are meant to look like genuine CNN reporting – using CNN journalists/personalities - but that in reality are public relations spots that allow the “partner” countries to put their best foot forward, with no contrasting viewpoints offered by CNN's stable of journalists. For example, a series of paid reports aired under the “Eye on Lebanon” banner were touted by Lebanon's Tourism Minister not for their journalistic merit, but rather as a way “to market Lebanon as a tourism destination.”   

It's not surprising then to note that CNN has a long-standing partnership arrangement with Bahrain though the Bahrain Economic Development Board, the governmental agency responsible for promoting Bahrain to the world. CNN has included Bahrain in their “Eye on...” country series, among other paid-for network programming. It is not surprising then that CNN has been reluctant to air a documentary that is so critical of the Bahrani royal family.

There is an inherent tension between advertising and journalism, with the open question always being if the news organization will shy away from coverage that could reflect negatively on their sponsors.  But what Greenwald describes at CNN is something different, the countries in question aren't merely buying commercial spots on CNN, they are, in effect, directly paying for positive coverage of their countries. Worse still, the shelving of “iRevolution” and the subsequent dismissal of Amber Lyon is troubling evidence that CNN is willing to let these sponsorships affect their journalistic judgment beyond the paid-for beauty spots.  It is a troubling accusation to make against what has long been one of the most-trusted names in modern journalism, and is a sign of how far CNN has fallen from their own glory days.
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