CNN, Anthony Bourdain and me
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.
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.
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.
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.