Why is Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), the flagship publication of Columbia University’s prestigious Graduate School of Journalism, aiding and abetting the collapse of ethical journalism in favor of what Arab journalists working under repressive regimes call sahafat ath-thawra—“journalism in the service of the revolution”?
The Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics, which has been the guiding light of ethical journalism for more than a century, recognizes “public enlightenment [as] the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy” and “strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”
On the opposite end of the informational spectrum lies journalism in the service of the revolution. This model mandates withholding information and sculpting news to fit a regime’s agenda. For example, a senior Palestinian official once told Israeli journalist Yoni Ben Menachem, “We are in the middle of a revolution to establish a state and criticism of the regime and the leadership harms our struggle, and so we adopted the term ‘journalism in the service of the revolution.’” Any journalist who fails to live up to this standard, the official said, “is punished.”
“Instead of fighting back against the demise of journalism, CJR takes part in it,” I charged in June, when the prestigious publication not only failed to denounce, but embraced the open letter “From journalists, to journalists: Why reporting on Palestine has to change.” Signed by hundreds of renegade reporters, the signatories said journalists should report “contextualized truth”—that is, to report through the lens of “Israel’s military occupation and its system of apartheid.”
Journalist Jon Allsop’s May 13 CJR article, “The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh”—on the death of a Palestinian Al Jazeera reporter in a firefight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian terrorists—represents another CJR-inflicted blow against ethical journalism. Allsop, it should be noted, writes the CJR’s daily newsletter, showing that the ethical dereliction goes straight to the top.
A cursory peek under the hood of Al Jazeera, a key source in Allsop’s piece, underscores the extent of Allsop’s turn against professional journalism. The Qatar-controlled satellite news channel, akin to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda outfit Russia Today, is the antithesis of journalistic ethics.
According to Freedom House’ Freedom in the World 2020, in Qatar:
Both print and broadcast media are influenced by leading families and subject to state censorship. The international television network Al Jazeera is privately held, but the government has reportedly paid to support its operating costs since its inception in 1996. All journalists in Qatar practice a degree of self-censorship and face possible jail sentences for defamation and other press offenses. Access to the independent English-language website Doha News was blocked in late 2016 on the grounds that it did not have the required operating permit, and the blocking remained in place as of 2019. In April, the authorities closed the government-funded Doha Centre for Media Freedom without warning and arbitrarily terminated the contracts of its staff, giving no reason for the decision.
In short, there is neither democracy nor a free press in Qatar. How, then, can Al Jazeera possibly “seek truth and report it,” a core value established by the Society for Professional Journalists?
The answer is that it can’t. And this is reflected in Al Jazeera’s ugly record: It threw a birthday party for arch-terrorist Samir Kuntar, produced a video embracing Holocaust denial, accepted an award from Hamas and permitted host Yusuf Al-Qardawi to say on the air, ”Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers and kill them down to the very last one.”
In his account of Akleh’s death, Allsop gives no indication that Al Jazeera is a propaganda outfit engaged in incitement, anti-Semitism and the glorification of terrorists.
He is silent about the Qatari government’s control of the channel and the total lack of a free press in that country. The closest he comes to disclosing this crucial background is when he admits that Al Jazeera is “based” in Qatar.
Moreover, he goes all in on Al Jazeera as a source. He accepts as fact the network’s unverified claims of Israeli responsibility for the shooting of Akleh, citing “multiple witness accounts and Al Jazeera’s definitive statements.” In other words, they said it, so it must be true.
Not only does Allsop cozy up to Al Jazeera and accept the outlet’s unproven claims as gospel, but he also goes on the offensive against Western media outlets. About the cautious reporting of colleagues who abided by professional codes of conduct that preclude reporting unconfirmed claims as fact, he complains:
Despite the multiple witness accounts and Al Jazeera’s definitive statements, no little Western media coverage of Abu Akleh’s killing centered ambiguity, and was sharply scrutinized on such terms by numerous journalists and observers. An initial [New York] Times headline stating simply that Abu Akleh had “died at 51” came in for particular criticism (the headline was subsequently changed), as did various outlets’ use of euphemistic language, including the word “clashes,” a common feature of Western journalism on violence in Israel and Palestine. … Yesterday, another unfortunately worded Times headline referred to “dueling” investigations in the case.
What does it say about the state of today’s journalism that one of CJR’s most prominent writers attacks journalists who responsibly treat unproven claims as just that—unproven?
Allsop, however, did accurately report that Akleh’s killing brought tributes from the Palestinian Authority:
Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, described Abu Akleh as a “martyr for truth,” and awarded her the Star of Jerusalem, or Quds Star, an honor traditionally reserved for political dignitaries. One of her colleagues told the [Washington] Post that the public outpouring of grief was comparable to that which followed the death of Yasser Arafat, the former Authority leader.
This, however, perhaps revealed more than Allsop would have liked. As a star journalist for a Qatari-controlled network that embodies journalism in the service of the revolution, Akleh truly was a voice for Palestine deserving of state honors. But this is a partisan role that cannot coexist with ethical journalism.
With Allsop’s “The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh,” CJR embraces practices antithetical to ethical journalism, once again lending a hand to the demise of journalistic objectivity.
As “the voice of journalism,” CJR’s conduct carries great weight, setting the standards of behavior across the industry. The killing of ethical journalism and the free exchange of information poses a threat to both justice and democracy. Is that really the legacy the venerable publication seeks?
Tamar Sternthal is director of the Israel office of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
This article was originally published by CAMERA.