Skip to content

CNN, Anthony Bourdain and me

20 September 2013

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain launched the new series of his ‘Parts Unknown’ travel cookery show on CNN this week with an episode titled ‘Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza’. You can watch it here:

It’s had pretty positive reviews. The Washington Post thought it was “so good“. The Open Zion blog called it “groundbreaking reporting“. Amer Zahr, in +972 magazine, said: “Something amazing happened on CNN last night. Palestinians were portrayed as human beings.” The Jerusalem Post was tighter-lipped, glossing over the tougher issues, but even Jewish news site JTA found something to be enthusiastic about. Travel site Skift enjoyed it too.

Alongside it, CNN Travel published this piece, a punchy little travel round-up written by me and commissioned to complement Bourdain’s show. Originally, it ran like this, under my byline. But shortly after it appeared, I asked CNN to remove my name. Here’s why.

“Edgy issues”

Last month, a senior editor at CNN Travel approached me to write “10 Things To Know Before Visiting Israel”. I wrote back accepting the commission, but alerting the editor to the fact that the piece would inevitably raise controversy. It’s impossible to avoid politics when writing about culture and travel in that part of the world, but I would pick my words carefully – and the editor was very supportive. “Don’t shy away from edgy issues for appeasement’s sake,” he wrote.

Then I raised the issue of Palestine – if I’m doing ’10 Things To Know’ about Israel, how about a parallel feature on Palestine? The editor’s response was that they “didn’t need a Palestine-focused piece right now” because my piece would accompany Bourdain’s show, which “will be purely shot in Israel (I think)”.

He sent me a draft treatment for the Bourdain show. But of 14 scene descriptions, only 4 were in Israel. The rest were in Palestine – 3 in East Jerusalem, 3 in the West Bank and 4 in the Gaza Strip. I suggested retitling the piece ’10 Things To Know Before Visiting Israel and Palestine’, but didn’t hear back on that idea.

Garbled

I filed the piece shortly afterwards. Here it is, as I wrote it. I asked then, and several times afterwards, if I might be allowed to see the final edit before it goes live, to check all is well: this stuff goes out under my byline, after all, and though I have no objections to the edit process, sometimes things become garbled by mistake.

That didn’t happen. The first I knew about my piece being published was two weeks later, when someone on Twitter copied me into a link. Here is CNN’s version (it’s since been altered from how it first appeared). As soon as I read it I saw problems – factual errors that had been introduced, wordings and interpretations I would not use myself.

I wrote a quick email to the editor with half a dozen changes. That was fast-tracked up to one of CNN’s executive producers, who replied positively, adding that my piece had gone through numerous edit authorities within CNN, including Middle East specialists and legal teams, to ensure accuracy. He acknowledged, though, that I was right, errors did remain. He made three of my corrections, but disregarded the rest.

With hindsight, at that stage I should have provided a line-by-line analysis of the piece, pointing out every problem and every error, and providing rewrites.

But I didn’t. As a Middle East journalist I felt very uncomfortable at being placed on the record as saying things about the Middle East I did not believe and would not myself write – but I didn’t want to cause trouble. I let it lie.

That was September 11th. Two days later – still ahead of the Bourdain show airing – my piece had become the second lead item on CNN’s main US news front page. Heaven knows how many views it was getting. That was gratifying, but also unnerving, to have things which I knew were inaccurate and misleading being so widely read under my byline.

I should have acted then. But it was Friday evening and I was tired. This was a major global media client who had been very supportive in emails and explicitly appreciative of my skills in writing the piece. I didn’t want to sour a relationship. I didn’t want to cause trouble. I left it alone, and went to play with my kids.

Good manners

But by the end of the weekend it was nagging away at me too much. Late Sunday night I emailed the editor, asking for my name to be taken off the piece. The alteration was made within hours.

Since then, further changes have been made, correcting material introduced during the editing process. At this writing, the most recent change was made less than 12 hours ago on 19th Sept, nine days after the piece went live.

Meanwhile, many of the 1,100+ comments – made before my name was removed – attribute editorially-introduced errors and distortions to me. Almost all the commenters are barking mad, but you can’t blame them for thinking I wrote what appears under my name. I’ve also had a string of personal emails from similarly froth-mouthed right-wing nutters, objecting to various bits of the article. A pro-Israel media monitoring group has published ’10 Things CNN Needs To Fix”, criticising me for things I did not write, and their deeply flawed analysis has since been republished by the Jewish press in the US. I couldn’t care less about all this – it’s mendacious rubbish, most of it – but it’s all salt in the wound.

I know deadlines are tight. I know editors are under pressure. I also know that editorial departments have immutable, company-wide standards to follow (I’m not surprised CNN couldn’t stomach calling the piece ‘Israel and Palestine’).

Writers need editors – editing is absolutely vital for good writing, and the lack of it sticks out a mile (this blog post, for instance) – but editors also need writers. Editing should be a meeting of equals. Both parties have unique skills and perspective to bring to the final product. The hopes and interests of both should be respected throughout.

What CNN wanted here wasn’t a bylined piece at all. They wanted a small slice of travel knowledge – which, in truth, anybody could have got from googling – wrapped in CNN’s take on the basics of the Israeli-Palestinian political situation. I’m gratified they came to me, but disappointed they then felt free to put words in my mouth.

My sense is this kind of thing is getting worse, as editors are squeezed from two sides by shrinking budgets and increasing workloads. Writers are treated as copywriters. Freelance contracts demand all rights. I think publishers imagine they get away with this scot-free, but they really don’t. First, they lose respect from writers. Then, because of that, they end up buying worse copy. That, sooner or later, will kill them.

Contracts are another argument, but down at the coal face, as an editor, if you like what I write, run it. Tweak if you really need to, for clarity’s sake – but once you start moving things around, changing meaning or emphasis, and (especially) adding new material of your own, surely it’s basic good manners to tell me before you go and publish it under my name?

And if your deadlines can’t accommodate authorial review, then at the very least, show me your final version and give me the yes/no option of approving or removing my byline before it goes live.

You wouldn’t dream – I hope – of standing up in public announcing “In this situation, Matthew Teller would say…”

It’s my name, for heaven’s sake. As a writer, it’s all I’ve got.

.

.

I’ve posted my original “10 Things To Know Before Visiting Israel and Palestine” here. CNN’s version is here.

.

.

.

About these ads
28 Comments leave one →
  1. Your foodie friend in Dubai permalink
    20 September 2013 2.57pm

    Matthew, I’m sorry you had to go through this. It sounds really nerve-wracking and frustrating, and I’m glad you shared your lessons online.

    Rejiggering words until they’re no longer true to the spirit of what the writer intended to write is true not only when the piece moves from the writer to the editor, but also from the interviewee to the writer. I strongly believe that anyone interviewed should have a right to ask for the copy before it hits the printing press, no matter how time-consuming that sounds. Once I was misquoted on an interview piece (after emailing my responses to the publication!), and when I followed up with the writer, she ended up asking me for a freebie from my business. Her logic: to make up for misrepresenting my written words, she’d offer to write about my company. Totally unethical and unprofessional. The next time I learned my lesson and asked another writer to show me the copy before printing or to please not print at all – she chose to not print.

    Some of the local media houses in Dubai are particularly notorious for this. They seem to have such tight deadlines that they compromise the integrity of what they’re printing. I’ve learnt my lesson. Now I ALWAYS ask for a copy before it hits print, and if they’re not in a position to oblige, I request them to not print it at all.

  2. 20 September 2013 3.08pm

    Completely agree with you! am glad you have cleared the air here.

  3. 20 September 2013 3.09pm

    Thanks @foodie :) and you raise an interesting point – but I would say there’s a line there. If an interviewee wishes to have final copy approval, the answer is to write an op-ed themselves. Once they grant an interview to a journalist, and speak on the record, their words are ‘out there’, in the public domain. They cannot reasonably be withdrawn.

    A respectful, reputable journalist will endeavour not to misrepresent what an interviewee says – after all, it’s in their interests not to do so – but beyond perhaps informing an interviewee which quotes they intend to use, I wouldn’t say a journalist has any specific obligations to an interviewee post-interview.

    Editing is a collaborative process. An interview is not – and can’t be, without compromising journalistic integrity.

  4. 20 September 2013 3.10pm

    Thanks, Mahazareen – great to hear from you!

  5. 20 September 2013 3.24pm

    “Mendacious rubbish”, yes — and so typical. Why is it that anything written, uttered or broadcast about this corner of the world makes people crazy? And it seems the mass media is only set on muddying the waters, one way or the other.

    I couldn’t resist having a look at CAMERA’s “10 Things CNN Needs To Fix” piece. Their cherry-picked expert sources include an Israel Ministry of Defense web-site and arch-Islamophobe Daniel Pipes. Good grief!

    I applaud your journalistic integrity — my condolences on this convoluted ordeal! Thank goodness almost nobody ever finds their way to my humble web-log…

    TOM POWERS / Bethlehem

  6. 20 September 2013 3.52pm

    Thanks, Tom. I do!

  7. 20 September 2013 4.16pm

    That sounds incredibly frustrating and I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’ve been around the editorial side of a decision like that and I appreciate your writing generously about the possible reasons behind it – particularly in American corporate media I expect the editorial pressure on that web editor is pretty intense. However, I agree that there’s no excuse for significantly changing your work without consulting you. I’m glad they were prompt about removing your byline but really, it shouldn’t have come to that.

  8. 20 September 2013 4.22pm

    Thank you, Kerry. Consultation is the only issue I have: I welcome editing, and I understand that the editor is under an obligation to make my words suit their space (or their publishers’ outlook). I just would have liked to have had a stake in what went out under my name.

  9. 20 September 2013 9.19pm

    I, too, am sorry to hear that this happened. I enjoyed the Bourdain episode but it’s very irritating to see how they took your original piece – which was good, btw – “revised” it and sent it out under your name. They at least owe you a public apology.

  10. 20 September 2013 10.32pm

    Thanks, Lynette, much appreciated. But they don’t owe me anything (well, apart from the writing fee).

  11. 20 September 2013 10.36pm

    This is a common situation between editors and writers and it must have been frustrating for you. As a previous editor, I agree that a mutual agreement must be made prior to publishing any materials. It’s good that you clarify this issue here! Continue writing, I love your articles! :)

  12. 20 September 2013 10.43pm

    Thank you, Kaz. Yes, it was frustrating.

  13. 21 September 2013 6.54am

    Sorry to hear that. Can be terribly frustrating for a credible journalist.

  14. 21 September 2013 7.46am

    It must have been so frustrating for you. I admire your guts and your courage to stand up and come out with the real story in public. Hats off and good wishes to you for inspiring so many other writers to write all that is ‘fair’!

  15. 21 September 2013 8.01am

    Thank you, both. No guts needed. I just wanted to set the record straight.

  16. 21 September 2013 1.54pm

    Matthew, as an outsider who lives in Israel, I read both versions carefully. What parts of the CNN version are specifically “not your words”? The obvious one is the bit exhorting tourists to go see the security barrier. Other than that…it has nothing significant that you haven’t said yourself, it seems. Or am I missing something?

  17. 21 September 2013 6.44pm

    It’s a sad, bad world out there, Mathew, as I’m sure you know, so no surprises. Ride the tide, we know who’s right. Keep up the good work, we live in hope, Tony

  18. 23 September 2013 9.26am

    Thank you for your note. If you have read both versions carefully, you will, I’m sure, be able to see the differences. If you can’t, then perhaps you *are* missing something! It may be that you underestimate the changes made; in one instance, the addition of the single (erroneous) word “biblical” – which, perhaps, does not appear significant – in fact utterly changes what I say.

  19. 29 September 2013 11.35pm

    I find this entirely shocking. What it shows me is that you just have to be on their case, all the time. Not a way I personally like to work either.

  20. 1 October 2013 11.46am

    Thank you, Jenny. Me neither.

  21. 17 October 2013 6.40pm

    Wow Matthew I am also sorry this happened to you. I agree that as a writer your name is all you have and I completely understand the frustration you must have felt. I think a relationship of mutual respect between the writer and editor is a must but am very aware this is not always the case. It also makes me really question what I am reading in the news as I am counting on the facts being presented as truthful. It’s a shame but I think your integrity is admirable. It’s good that you set the record straight here.

  22. 20 October 2013 9.06am

    I really appreciate your opinion. There are not so much people who dare to say this.

    Big Ups & keep working. Thank you very much.

  23. Daniel Adamson permalink
    25 October 2013 12.54pm

    Weighing in very late here, but a couple of comments.

    First, you are generous, Matthew, in your acknowledgement of the value that editors add. In this case they not only distorted the meaning of what you wrote; they also ruined the elegance and coherence of the original piece. The unadulterated article had a distinctive voice and a certain flow to it. Every change the editors made detracted from that flow, and left the thing feeling clunky and disjointed.

    Second, this whole story testifies to the fact that the mainstream media remains impervious the changing realities of the Israel/Palestinian situation and to the shifts in popular opinion that accompany those changes. As an increasing number of people come to acknowledge that the State of Israel displaced and overlaid an existing Palestinian reality, so the denial of historic Palestine (see the changes made to Matthew’s original article) comes to look ever more absurd and ill-informed. Over the long term, I suspect, the failure to report Israeli-Palestinian stories from a historically informed and politically nuanced perspective will make outlets like CNN look ridiculous. Fox is already blazing the trail deep into this territory. The Onion is just one expression of the ridicule that will be dished out by an increasingly educated public.

  24. 25 October 2013 1.37pm

    Thank you, Dan, I really appreciate the comments. I wonder whether you’re right, though – and how deep that public education actually runs. Until the post-9/11 fear that continues to drive both public policy and mainstream rhetoric subsides, which may not happen for another generation, my sense is any real deepening of public awareness in the West on Israel-Palestine will be only incremental at best.

  25. Daniel Adamson permalink
    25 October 2013 3.44pm

    I think what might be happening is this: disparities are widening between the different points of view that are held by various sections of ‘the public.’ If you went back to the 1960s and 70s, I think you’d find a more general consensus in support of what we might call a Heroic Zionist narrative, expressed right across the political spectrum. Europeans, quite rightly racked with guilt, averted their eyes from the tragedy of the Palestinians. Idealistic youngsters flocked to Israel and spent their summers toiling away in kibbutzim. Every parliament in Europe had an active, cross-party ‘Friends of Israel’ group. When Edward Said published “The Question of Palestine” (around 1979 I think) he was almost a lone voice, heard only on the fringes of the intellectual left.

    Over the last 30 years that voice has swelled into a chorus (Israel’s so-called New Historians were among those singing the loudest), and an understanding of the Palestinian tragedy has made deep inroads into the consciousness of educated people, especially in Europe. Of course this kind of awareness is confined to a minority. I’m not suggesting that the Man on the Clapham Omnibus is reading Mahmoud Darwish on the way to work. But nonetheless, it’s an influential and growing minority. You can see it everywhere, from the grant-making programs of the EU to the pages of The Economist and The Onion, from the Quite Alone blog to Google’s decision to switch from ‘Palestinian Territories’ to ‘Palestine’. The reach of this more nuanced understanding of the situation is highly uneven. And the rah-rah-rah-ISRAEL! brigade have a pretty impressive chorus of their own. But I still think that the acoustics are changing, and that CNN and the like will have to change their tune – or find themselves singing only to an ill-informed and not-very-influential section of the population.

  26. 23 November 2013 7.22pm

    Sorry this happened. Sounds very frustrating!

Trackbacks

  1. CNN’s Israel-Palestine travel intro | Quite Alone
  2. CNN, Anthony Bourdain and me | Palestine | Scoo...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,634 other followers

%d bloggers like this: