CNN’s Image Fetish

Mark Perry

Thursday, July 5, 2007 was a fairly typical day for the world. In Iraq, two American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb, while the U.S. military reported killing an al-Qaeda member in a military raid west of Baghdad. Seventeen people were killed in Dora — a neighborhood in southern Baghdad — by a car bomb. Scores were injured. In Gaza, the Israeli Defense Forces reported killing “eleven militants” during a “routine operation.” Here in the United States, the Pentagon announced that two American soldiers were indicted for the premeditated murder of three Iraqis in three separate incidents between April and June of this year. The indictments included three counts of covering up the murders.

On CNN — “the world’s news leader” — anchor Suzanne Malveaux led off the afternoon news hour with a segment on the freeing of BBC reporter Alan Johnston. The news clip showed a smiling Johnston waving to an assembled crowd in Gaza City and then meeting with an apparently jubilant Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Malveaux then appeared, on-screen, with the following question: “After last month’s brutal factional fighting, Hamas may be cleaning up Gaza, but can it clean up its image?”

To help unpack this shattering question, Malveaux turned to the inimitable Fawaz Gerges, as calm and educated an expert presence as can be found on television. And for good reason: any other analyst might have reached through the camera to strangle Malveaux. But Gerges is a gentleman. “Professor,” Suzanne (flash, smile) said, “I want to start off by noting that Johnston was released by Hamas. Does it score any political points with the United States, European allies or Israel?” Perhaps any other commentator would have taken a swipe at this (“sure, that’s just what they’re thinking in Damascus, let’s score some PR points in Tel Aviv and Brussels — that’ll make a big difference”), but Gerges, smiled, nodded knowingly, and peered intently at the camera. He then tried to explain — Hamas was ending lawlessness, had promised to release Johnston … “I think this is a very important start on the part of Hamas,” he said.

Ah … no. Suzanne (her reporter’s antenna up, on the trail of a story now) wasn’t buying it, not even a little bit. She didn’t win an Emmy for nothin’ ya know: “There are some reports that Hamas is linked to this group that kidnapped Johnston, the Army of Islam. Is this true to your knowledge? Does this seem to be some sort of show?” Gerges blinked, but only for a moment. A show? Yes, that’s it, Suzanne. You’re on the right track now: Hamas kidnapped Alan Johnston in order to release him in order to score points with the United States and Europe. For sure, it was all a show. Gerges, shook his head just a tiny bit, and smiled knowingly. Ever patient, ever put-upon, ever understanding, ever, ever, ever Fawaz Gerges: “No, Suzanne,” he said slowly, perhaps with just a hint of an uncomfortable laugh. “Based on everything we know, the so-called the ultra-militant group, the so-called Islamic Army that kidnapped Johnston is not part of the Hamas leadership.” Malveaux canted her head, her eyes narrowed. Was this true? Could it be? After all: Hamas was Islamic and the Army of Islam was Islamic. The two seemed to mesh. The two groups even shared the same word. After all, other top-notch CNN reporters had made the same connection — the bombers in Glasgow were doctors, and Ayman Zawahiri was a doctor … so …? No wonder she was skeptical.

But on the professor talked, desperate to explain, enunciating each and every word: “The Hamas leadership made it very clear that unless Johnston was released it was going to take military actions against this Islamic Army. I think I would argue that the role that Hamas played in the release of Johnston is part of a new image, is part of a new message that Hamas is trying to send to the international community. We are a power to be reckoned with …” And then he stopped. Did Professor Gerges say “new image.” This was right in Malveaux’s wheel house. She had heard this stuff about image somewhere before. Oh yes, now she remembered: she was back in college, back in Cambridge, back reading Emile Durkheim. She leaped at the professor: “How sincere would Hamas be in projecting the image beyond the image, if you will,” she asked. “I mean they could have released Johnston 114 days earlier, could they have not?”

But Suzanne, haven’t we already established that Hamas had not held Johnston? They couldn’t have released him 114 days earlier if they didn’t actually hold him. Or weren’t you listening? Didn’t you get that part? Or was it the “image” part that tripped you up? Or perhaps it’s their “sincerity” that you’re worried about. Okay, okay, sure Hamas released this guy Johnston, and maybe sure, they want law and order and all that other claptrap, but the real question is (and it’s one we all hang on and want to know the answer to) are they “sincere?” And then too, we need to know about what Haniyeh and Khalid Meshaal and all the rest of those fellas think about “the image beyond the image.” Gerges did his best, as if explaining it all once again: Hamas is a highly complex social movement he said (Suzanne began to drift, you could see it in her eyes), but they are highly disciplined. The movement, he said, may even be willing to make a historic compromise. “The challenge facing the international community particularly the United States and Israel [is] are they willing to engage the moderate and the mainstream political elements within Hamas?” Gerges said. “This is really the critical question.”

This was the payoff — and a question that keeps being asked, and not just by Gerges, but by nearly every thinking Middle East analyst. But it seemed lost somehow on the single-minded can-we-get-back-to-the-image-bit Malveaux. She was in her it’s-a-wrap mode: “And surely Professor, another critical question is Hamas willing to recognize Israel as part of that image change, if you will? What do you think?” What did he think? You could almost read his mind: sure they would recognize Israel. Sure. But inside what borders? But that question would only confuse her. And by now, and you could see it, he was nearly ready to surrender. Ah, but not quite. “I agree 100 percent,” he said, but then he added, throwing his verbal grenade,“and this is why I believe that engagement rather than exclusion is the way to go. Let’s engage Hamas and see whether Hamas is willing to really make a historic compromise. And I think as you know the Bush administration and Israel and even the international community after last year elections they took the decision and boycotted Hamas and look where we are today.”

Yes, look at where we are today — in which eleven Palestinians died in a “routine operation” in Gaza, in which two Americans were indicted for murdering innocent Iraqis, in which seventeen Iraqis were killed by a car bomb, and in which a leading anchor on “the world news leader” thinks that a movement that represents a people that are being regularly pulverized, butchered, eviscerated, crushed, manacled, hacked, gashed, shot, slashed, killed — and who are fighting every single day just to stay alive — should be concerned about their image. My God. Maybe Malveaux has a point.

Maybe Hamas should hire Israel’s firm.


  1. […] (Hello CNN, we’re talking about you.)  […]

  2. […] For an in-depth analysis of recent developments in Gaza, check out Crooke’s brilliant piece in the London Review of Books. Also check out Mark Perry’s acerbic take on CNN’s penchant for sensationalism, and its obsession with image (as opposed to reality). Posted by m.idrees Filed in Lebanon, Occupation, Israel-Palestine, War, Iraq, Middle-East, Media […]

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