By Rich Noyes, NewsBusters July 24, 2006.
Better late than never? On CNN?s Reliable Sources on Sunday, CNN?s senior international correspondent Nic Robertson added all of the caveats and disclaimers that he should have included in his story last week that amounted to his giving an uncritical forum for the terrorist group Hezbollah to spout unverifiable anti-Israeli propaganda.
Back on July 18, Hezbollah took Robertson and his crew on a tour of a heavily damaged south Beirut neighborhood. The Hezbollah "press officer" even instructed the CNN camera: "Just look. Shoot. Look at this building. Is it a military base? Is it a military base, or just civilians living in this building?"
In his original story, Robertson had no complaints about the journalistic limitations of a story put together under such tight controls, and Robertson himself at one point seemed to agree with the Hezbollah propaganda claim that Israeli jets had targeted a civilian area: "As we run past the rubble, we see much that points to civilian life, no evidence apparent of military equipment."
Challenged by Reliable Sources host (and Washington Post media writer) Howard Kurtz on Sunday, Robertson suggested Hezbollah has "very, very sophisticated and slick media operations," that the terrorist group "had control of the situation. They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn't have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath," and he even contradicted Hezbollah?s self-serving spin: "There's no doubt that the [Israeli] bombs there are hitting Hezbollah facilities."
But the closest Robertson came to making any of these points in the taped package that aired last week was admitting that "we [he and his CNN crew] didn?t go burrowing into all the houses," after pointing out (for the second time) that "we didn?t see any military type of equipment" in the area Hezbollah chose to let them tour.
Five days later, Robertson argued that "journalistic integrity" required skepticism: "When you hear their [Hezbollah?s] claims, they have to come with more than a grain of salt, that you have to put in some journalistic integrity. That you have to point out to the audience and let them know that this was a guided tour by Hezbollah press officials along with their security, that it was a very rushed affair."
While some viewers undoubtedly deduced out that it was "a guided tour" from the numerous sound bites from the Hezbollah press officer, it?s not as if Robertson ever complained about his limitations or explicitly warned viewers that there was no way he could confirm any of the claims.
Nic Robertson, of course, isn?t the only correspondent going on these Hezbollah-arranged tours, as CNN?s Reliable Sources noted yesterday. In a set-up to his interview with Robertson, Kurtz played clips of NBC?s Richard Engel and CBS?s Elizabeth Palmer relating their trips into the damaged areas, with Palmer providing the sort of disclaimer that Robertson failed to include last week: "This morning, Hezbollah showed journalists around the ruins of its former stronghold, but Hezbollah is also determined that outsiders will only see what it wants them to see."
Now, more of Robertson?s live interview (10:15am EDT) on the July 23 Reliable Sources (transcript corrected against the actual broadcast):
Howard Kurtz: "I want to go now to CNN's Nic Robertson, who joins us live from Beirut. Nic Robertson, we were speaking a moment ago about the way journalists cover Hezbollah and some of these tours that Hezbollah officials have arranged of the bomb damage in the areas of Southern Lebanon. You, I believe, got one of those tours. Isn't it difficult for you as a journalist to independently verify any claims made by Hezbollah, because you're not able to go into the buildings and see whether or not there is any military activity or any weapons being hidden there?"
Nic Robertson: "Well, Howard, there?s no doubt about it: Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operations. In fact, beyond that, it has very, very good control over its areas in the south of Beirut. They deny journalists access into those areas. They can turn on and off access to hospitals in those areas. They have a lot of power and influence. You don't get in there without their permission. And when I went in, we were given about 10 or 15 minutes, quite literally running through a number of neighborhoods that they directed and they took us to."
"What I would say at that time was, it was very clear to me that the Hezbollah press official who took us on that guided tour ? and there were Hezbollah security officials around us at the time with walkie-talkie radios ? that he felt a great deal of anxiety about the situation....But there?s no doubt about it. They had control of the situation. They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn?t have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath."
"So what we did see today in a similar excursion, and Hezbollah is now running a number of these every day, taking journalists into this area. They realize that this is a good way for them to get their message out, taking journalists on a regular basis. This particular press officer came across his press office today, what was left of it in the rubble. He pointed out business cards that he said were from his office that was a Hezbollah press office in that area."
"So there's no doubt that the bombs there are hitting Hezbollah facilities. But from what we can see, there appear to be a lot of civilian damage, a lot of civilian properties. But again, as you say, we didn't have enough time to go in, root through those houses, see if perhaps there was somebody there who was, you know, a taxi driver by day, and a Hezbollah fighter by night...."
Kurtz: "To what extent do you feel like you're being used to put up the pictures that they want ? obviously, it?s terrible that so many civilians have been killed ? without any ability, as you just outlined, to verify, because ? to verify Hezbollah?s role, because this is a fighting force that is known to blend in among the civilian population and keep some of its weapons there?"
Robertson: "Absolutely. And I think as we try and do our job, which is go out and see what's happened to the best of our ability, clearly, in that environment, in the southern suburbs of Beirut that Hezbollah controls, the only way we can get into those areas is with a Hezbollah escort. And absolutely, when you hear their claims they have to come with more than a grain of salt, that you have to put in some journalistic integrity. That you have to point out to the audience and let them know that this was a guided tour by Hezbollah press officials along with their security, that it was a very rushed affair, that there wasn't time to go and look through those buildings."
"The audience has to know the conditions of that tour. But again, if we didn't get all ? or we could not get access to those areas without Hezbollah compliance, they control those areas."