Back on July 18, Hezbollah took Robertson and his crew on a tour of a heavily damaged south Beirut neighborhood. The Hezbollah “press officer” even instructed the CNN camera: “Just look. Shoot. Look at this building. Is it a military base? Is it a military base, or just civilians living in this building?”Is that what they teach in journalism school? Let terrorist groups direct your reports?
In his original story, Robertson had no complaints about the journalistic limitations of a story put together under such tight controls, and Robertson himself at one point seemed to agree with the Hezbollah propaganda claim that Israeli jets had targeted a civilian area: “As we run past the rubble, we see much that points to civilian life, no evidence apparent of military equipment.”
Challenged by Reliable Sources host (and Washington Post media writer) Howard Kurtz on Sunday, Robertson suggested Hezbollah has “very, very sophisticated and slick media operations,” that the terrorist group “had control of the situation. They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn't have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath,” and he even contradicted Hezbollah’s self-serving spin: “There's no doubt that the [Israeli] bombs there are hitting Hezbollah facilities.”
But the closest Robertson came to making any of these points in the taped package that aired last week was admitting that “we [he and his CNN crew] didn’t go burrowing into all the houses,” after pointing out (for the second time) that “we didn’t see any military type of equipment” in the area Hezbollah chose to let them tour.
Robertson was just hoping that viewers would figure out that his report was Hezbollah propaganda.
Five days later, Robertson argued that “journalistic integrity” required skepticism: “When you hear their [Hezbollah’s] claims, they have to come with more than a grain of salt, that you have to put in some journalistic integrity. That you have to point out to the audience and let them know that this was a guided tour by Hezbollah press officials along with their security, that it was a very rushed affair.”And CNN didn't do anything to frame the story to let viewers know that they shouldn't believe a word of what was just broadcast.
While some viewers undoubtedly deduced out that it was “a guided tour” from the numerous sound bites from the Hezbollah press officer, it’s not as if Robertson ever complained about his limitations or explicitly warned viewers that there was no way he could confirm any of the claims.
Why the blankety-blank put the story on in the first place? If it's just propaganda, what news purpose did it serve? And even if there had been a disclaimer, everyone knows that the pictures have more power than the spoken words. Just skip the story and tell people that they can't report on what has happening because Hezbollah won't let them do so.
I predict that Nic Robertson will not suffer at all professionally for such a violation of journalistic ethics. He'll keep reporting away and then come back and bask in his reputation of reporting from a war zone. But, remember, every time you see him on CNN there should be a little blurb beneath his picture: "Spokesman for Hezbollah propaganda."