Oct 1 1992

Can You Believe What CBS Says About Arabs?

Dan Rather, Fouad Ajami and Henry Kissinger in Arab-Bashing Israeli Fundraiser

Henry Kissinger (cc photo: Remy Steinegger/WEF)

Henry Kissinger (cc photo: Remy Steinegger/WEF)

The June 3 Jerusalem Foundation fundraiser featured an all-star media cast. Introductions were made by Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic. Concluding remarks were given by Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report. One keynote speaker was Fouad Ajami, CBS News‘ main analyst on Middle Eastern politics. The other keynoter was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who serves on the board of CBS, Inc. And the moderator of the event was Dan Rather, the anchor of the CBS Evening News.

With all these media powerhouses present, it was remarkable that no one found it newsworthy enough to report that Kissinger’s remarks included a slur against an entire ethnic group: “You can’t really believe anything an Arab says.”

Only after FAIR obtained a tape of the fundraiser from the Jerusalem Foundation was Kissinger’s comment brought to public attention–along with disparaging comments about Arabs made throughout the evening. And it was left to the syndicated column “Media Beat,” written by FAIR’s Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, to question whether it was appropriate for Rather to participate in a partisan fundraiser on a matter of controversy and conflict.

‘A Double Whammy’

The June 3 fundraiser, held in Manhattan’ Equitable Center, was billed as an “Israel Benefit” in a pre-event announcement in the New York Times (5/31/92).

The Times described the Jerusalem Foundation as an organization that “raises money to create jobs in Jerusalem for immigrants.” While the foundation, launched by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, also finances other projects in the city (including some that benefit Arabs), support for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia was the theme of the benefit.

This project is intensely controversial because, in the words of a Jerusalem Foundation official (Pacifica Radio, 8/5/92), “We define Jerusalem as Israel defines it”—including not only Israel’s West Jerusalem but also Palestinian East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since the 1967 War. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem has been condemned by the UN Security Council (e.g., Resolutions 267, 465), in votes that the U.S. government supported; Israel’s continued settlement of this and other occupied territory is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Dan Rather (cc photo: Peabody Awards)

Dan Rather (cc photo: Peabody Awards)

The political significance of Jewish immigration to Jerusalem was emphasized at the June 3 fundraiser. The New Republic‘s Peretz, moments before introducing Rather as “my favorite newsman,” remarked that “a Jewish immigrant to Israel is always an asset to Israel, but a Jewish immigrant to Jerusalem is sort of like a double whammy.”

Dan Rather’s participation in the fundraiser would seem to violate CBS‘s guidelines for employees’ involvement in controversial disputes. According to a copy of “CBS News Standards” obtained by FAIR (emphasis in original):

Employees who, in their private capacity, take a public position on a controversial issue…will either be removed from handling the news involving that issue or, if such reassignment is not practical, be required to take a leave of absence. The rationale behind this policy is that an employee who takes such a public position loses, at minimum, the appearance of objectivity.

In a subsequent interview with Knight Ridder‘s Marc Gunther, Rather claimed that he did not realize that the Jerusalem Foundation could be considered a partisan group. “It didn’t occur to me,” said Rather (Toronto Star, 8/9/92). “I saw it as a charitable enterprise. Who can be against parks, sports facilities, the beautification of a city?”

It wasn’t only Rather’s presence at the gathering that indicated he took a partisan position in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also several of his comments there. “Many of us celebrate 25 years after the city [Jerusalem] was united under Israeli rule,” he said in opening the evening. He read from a poem, described as “one of my favorite poems,” celebrating Israel’s taking control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Later, he warned that an Arab “population explosion” threatens Jerusalem.

Rather also stated that Israel gets unfair treatment in the U.S. press because “Israel believes in freedom of the press,” and therefore allows more negative information to be available. Actually, the Israeli government censors Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and has frequently prevented U.S. reporters from covering the Palestinian uprising there.

‘In-House Wise Man’

Fouad Ajami (Hoover Institution)

Fouad Ajami (Hoover Institution)

As moderator of the event, Rather was responsible not only for his own remarks, but for ensuring that others’ comments did not reflect ethnic prejudice. Yet Rather said nothing as both Kissinger and Fouad Ajami disparaged Arabs.

Ajami, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, is a consultant to CBS News on Middle Eastern affairs. His frequent appearances on CBS have made him one of the top ten “news shapers” (Mother Jones, 2-3/90); during the Gulf War, according to a study by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, he was the third most quoted commentator. Dan Rather introduced him at the Jerusalem Foundation event as “one of our in-house wise men.”

For years, Ajami has used his appearances on CBS to show his contempt for Arabic culture, particularly during the Gulf War. (See Extra!, 4/91.) The Lebanese-born Ajami’s recurrent put-downs of Arabs have resulted in some Arab-American critics nicknaming him “Uncle Fouad.” His comments during the Jerusalem Foundation fundraiser marked a notable increase in feverish rhetoric.

Describing himself as a “born-again monarchist,” Ajami declared, “I’ve never really wanted democracy in any Arab or Muslim country.” When pressed on the subject by a questioner from the audience, Ajami insisted: “Forget it!… It won’t work, it cannot succeed.” Rather cut short a follow-up question: “I think he said it: Forget it!”

Ajami seemed to deny that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had lost their homes in 1948, sarcastically referring to their desire to return to “the imaginary house in the imaginary town.” He drew laughs from his audience when he mockingly recounted a reluctant visit to a Bedouin Arab encampment: “I insisted on only one thing: that I be spared the ceremony of eating with a Bedouin.”

Far from rebuking Ajami for any of his disparaging remarks about Arabs, Rather lauded him as one who “speaks truth to power.” Although Ajami is one of the most frequently appearing commentators on network TV (thanks to CBS), Rather commented of Ajami’s view on the Middle East, “All this being true, why isn’t it part of what we read in the press, and why isn’t it part of what we see on television?”

In one of the few moments of disagreement during the evening, Rather questioned Ajami’s claim that “after the fall of Communism,” Arab nationalism is “the most deadly ideology in the world.” Rather argued instead that the most dangerous ideology is “fundamental Mohammedism.”

‘Can’t Believe an Arab’

It was the comment of Henry Kissinger that “you can’t really believe anything an Arab says” that drew the most attention. Kissinger’s defenders leaped to announce that FAIR had taken the quote “out of context.” The New York Post‘s editorial page editor, Eric Breindel (8/13/92), accused Cohen and Solomon of “Smearing Henry Kissinger.” U.S. News‘ Zuckerman called Pacifica Radio‘s Amy Goodman to insist that Kissinger was referring only to the “negotiating style” of Arab leaders.

Kissinger himself, in a letter to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), argued that “my comments were directly related to the conduct of statecraft.” Kissinger wrote that “a close review of the transcript…would put my remarks in their proper context.”

It is difficult to imagine any context in which it would be acceptable to question the trustworthiness of an entire ethnic group. In fact, the context revealed in the transcript was one of recurring mockery of Arabs as a group. Before Kissinger’s remark, “I tend to agree with Fouad, you can’t really believe anything an Arab says,” Ajami’s comments had focused heavily on the masses of Arabs–students, Muslim fundamentalists, the youths of the Palestinian uprising–not Arab leaders or Arab negotiators.

The question (from the audience) that gave rise to Kissinger’s comment asked about allegedly anti-Israel media coverage that “romanticizes” Palestinians. After long answers from Ajami and Rather, Kissinger weighed in: “One problem the press has or the media have is they report generally what is being told to them.” After drawing a contrast with the “Talmudic society” of Israel, which “can drive you crazy” but where the meaning of words “really is quite concrete,” Kissinger stated: “I tend to agree with Fouad, you can’t really believe anything an Arab says. But you can believe the mood he creates, but that is an intangible quality.”

Kissinger went on to recount an anecdote about the Saudi King Faisal, who allegedly told Kissinger one thing in public and another thing off the record. It would be considered anti-Semitic for anyone to conclude, based on an encounter with a disingenuous Israeli official, that “you can’t really believe anything a Jew says” or “anything an Israeli says.” The essence of prejudice is denigrating a group based on the faults of individuals.

At least one Kissinger defender, Moshe Kohn writing in the Jerusalem Post (8/11/92), supported Kissinger’s remark whole hog: “Lying is a widespread habit among the Arabs,” Kohn wrote, quoting a sociologist.

‘Not the Responsibility of CBS

In the wake of the Jerusalem Foundation fundraiser, FAIR asked for explanations and/or apologies from those involved in anti-Arab slurs, for steps to be taken to assure that Rather’s personal feelings do not result in biased coverage of the Mideast or of Arabs, and for a more diverse selection of Mideast experts on CBS News to balance Ajami’s prejudices. The ADC also registered its complaints with CBS, and asked for similar remedies.

But CBS‘s immediate reaction was to stonewall. In a letter to the ADC, CBS News president Eric Ober insisted that, despite being a member of the CBS board, “Dr. Henry Kissinger is in no way connected to this news operation,” and Ajami is “merely a consultant.” In any case, Ober claimed, “Comments made by individuals in their personal capacity are not the responsibility of CBS News.”

In a response to Ober’s letter, FAIR pointed out that CBS had suspended Andy Rooney and fired Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder for disparaging ethnic comments made as private citizens. In Rooney’s case, Ober’s predecessor, David Burke said (L.A. Times, 2/10/90), “I have made it clear that CBS News cannot tolerate such remarks or anything that approximates such remarks since they in no way reflect the views of this organization.”

In a later letter, Ober seemed to argue that CBS was institutionally incapable of bias: “The process by which the news is gathered, researched, written and produced virtually precludes the possibility of any individual’s biases (should such exist) to remain in the broadcast version.” Indeed, Ober claimed that none of CBS‘s critics “have found any evidence in our broadcasts of the bias of which you unfairly accuse these gentlemen.”

Actually, FAIR has long criticized CBS for reporting on the Middle East through the prism of Israel, while disparaging Arabs. During the Gulf War, for example, Ajami was given free rein to dismiss Arabs who protested the war as “the Palestinian mob” and “some few gullible souls.” FAIR found that during the first two weeks of the Gulf War, 12 percent of the CBS Nightly News’ sources were Israelis, with only 7 percent coming from all Arab countries combined–including Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries directly involved in the conflict. (ABC, by contrast, had 10 percent Arab sources and 6 percent Israeli sources.)

While CBS officials claimed, in an August 26 meeting with ADC representatives, that if Rather had sought permission to appear at the Jerusalem Foundation fundraiser, it probably would have been denied, CBS has still not dealt seriously with the issues of bias raised by the event. As Rather commented at the June 3 gathering, “One of the really great things about being a reporter is that you get to ask some of the tough questions; you don’t usually have to answer any tough questions. And that’s a mighty blessing.” The failure of CBS to respond adequately to charges of anti-Arab prejudice shows how right he was.

Sam Husseini is a FAIR associate and freelance writer.


Fouad Ajami: The Media’s Favorite Arab

“Israel’s whole security doctrine, its deterrent capacity, was at risk; still the Israelis hesitated before they struck back.”

–Fouad Ajami on the origin of the Six-Day War (U.S. News, 6/8/92)

“The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that [Egyptian President] Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We were about to attack him.”

–Former Israeli Premier Menachem Begin on the origin of the Six-Day War (New York Times, 8/21/92)


Tisch’s Tilt

It is sometimes suggested that a tilt in CBS’s news coverage toward Israel reflects the priorities of Lawrence Tisch, the network’s chief executive officer. In August 1986, shortly after Tisch had bought a major interest in CBS Inc., company chair Tom Wyman was said to have told a meeting of CBS bureau chiefs that “Tisch’s feelings about Israel could compromise the integrity of CBS News.” According to Peter Boyer’s Who Killed CBS?, the remark was a major factor in Wyman losing his job.

According to Ken Auletta in Three Blind Mice, Tisch argued at a dinner party hosted by Barbara Walters that Israel should ban television from the Occupied Territories (echoing an earlier suggestion by Henry Kissinger). Many guests, Auletta wrote, “came away deeply distressed by Tisch’s behavior. What disturbed them was that the president of CBS seemed to say that the perceived interests of Israel took precedence over the interests of CBS News. Tisch’s reflex, they felt, was to defend Israel, not his network.”

Auletta also reported that after 60 Minutes did a segment (10/23/88) critical of AIPAC, the main U.S. lobbying group for Israel, Tisch told the show’s producer, Don Hewitt, “I can barely see straight I’m so angry with you,” and referred to correspondent Mike Wallace as as a “self-hating Jew.”