(updated below – Update II)
To its credit, ABC News recently announced that Christiane Amanpour would replace George Stephanopoulos as host of its Sunday morning This Week program. Today in The Washington Post, TV critic Tom Shales condemns this decision on several grounds, including the fact that she is viewed by Far Right media groups as suffering from a “liberal bias.” But as Eric Boehlert notes, the Right thinks that everyone who is not Rush Limbaugh is a biased shill for “the Liberal Media,” and if that’s the standard, then only Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck would be an acceptable choice for Shales.
But I want to focus on a far more pernicious and truly slimy aspect of Shales’ attack on Amanpour. In arguing why she’s a “bad choice,” Shales writes that “[s]upporters of Israel have more than once charged Amanpour with bias against that country and its policies,” and adds: ”A Web site devoted to criticism of Amanpour is titled, with less than a modicum of subtlety, ‘Christiane Amanpour’s Outright Bias Against Israel Must Stop,’ available via Facebook.” Are these “charges” valid? Is this “Web site” credible? Does she, in fact, exhibit anti-Israel bias? Who knows? Shales doesn’t bother to say. In fact, he doesn’t even bother to cite a single specific accusation against her; apparently, the mere existence of these complaints, valid or not, should count against her.
Worse still is that, immediately after noting these charges of”anti-Israel” bias, Shales writes this:
Amanpour grew up in Great Britain and Iran. Her family fled Tehran in 1979 at the start of the Islamic revolution, when she was college age. She has steadfastly rejected claims about her objectivity, telling Leslie Stahl last year relative to her coverage of Iran: “I am not part of the current crop of opinion journalists or commentary journalists or feelings journalists. I strongly believe that I have to remain in the realm of fact.”
Without having the courage to do so explicitly, Shales links (and even bolsters) charges of her “anti-Israel” bias to the fact that her father is Iranian and she grew up in Iran. He sandwiches that biographical information about Iran in between describing accusations against her of bias against Israel and her defensive insistence that she’s capable of objectivity when reporting on the region.
So here we finally have a prominent journalist with a half-Persian background — in an extremely homogenized media culture which steadfastly excludes from Middle Eastern coverage voices from that region — and her national origin is immediately cited as a means of questioning her journalistic objectivity and even opposing her as a choice to host This Week (can someone from Iran with an Iranian father possibly be objective???). Could the double standard here be any more obvious or unpleasant?
Wolf Blitzer is Jewish, a former AIPAC official, and — to use Shales’ smear-campaign formulation — has frequently “been accused” of pro-Israel bias; should CNN bar him from covering those issues? David Gregory is Jewish, “studies Jewish texts with a top Jewish educator in Washington,” and has conducted extremely sycophantic interviews with Israel officials. Should his background be cited as evidence of his pro-Israel bias? The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg is routinely cited as one of America’s most authoritative sources on the Middle East, notwithstanding numerous accusations of pro-Israel bias and, even more so, his choice to go enlist in the IDF and work in an Israeli prison where Palestinians are encaged; do those actions (far beyond his mere ethnicity) call into question his objectivity as a journalist such that The Atlantic should bar him from writing about that region? Jake Tapper — who Shales suggests as an alternative to Amanpour and who I also previously praised as a choice — is Jewish; does that raise questions about his objectivity where Israel is concerned?
Nobody in The Washington Post would ever dare suggest that journalists with that background lack objectivity and should be barred from a prominent role in journalism as a result. In fact, I’d bet one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Post ever accusing an American journalist of excess “pro-Israel bias.” That phrase — “pro-Israel bias” — is a virtual oxymoron in such circles, because the ”pro-Israel” position is the default position that is deemed “objective.” By contrast, the mere accusation against Amanpour of “anti-Israel bias” from some obscure right-wing venues — flavored with the apparently incriminating fact that she has an Iranian father and grew up in Iran — leads Shales to condemn ABC for making “a bad choice” in hiring her. And one can bet that, as night follows day, this ugly attack on her from The Washington Post will now be cited by those who want to keep our network television hosts as homogenized, and our political debates as stifled, as they have long been.
UPDATE: During his Washington Post chat today about his column, Shales called Amanpour “one of the most over-rated and hyped personalities of our day” and then added: ”neither you nor I has stooped to mentioning that hair of hers — yipe. What’s the deal with that, as David Letterman might say.” He also wondered whether ABC will “try to turn Amanpour into Little ms Politics.” There are so many obvious things wrong with those remarks that I’m not going to spend the energy commenting. Paul Krugman has more on how media figures are upset that Amanpour is “someone who’s knowledgeable about the world rather than the DC party circuit” — as though that’s a bad thing that makes her unsuitable for this job.
UPDATE II: In 2008, Shales did something quite similar to Helen Thomas when criticizing a documentary about her career: ”What’s disappointing about Thomas, and troubling about the film, is her stridency in criticizing Israel and defending its enemies,” Shales wrote. As ”evidence,” he cited then-Press Secretary Tony Snow’s response to a question asked by Thomas challenging Bush administration policy — “Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view” — and Shales then wrote: ”Not for nothing was Thomas recently hailed as ‘the epitome of journalistic integrity for over 57 years’ — by the Arab American News.” Apparently, being praised by an Arab-American newspaper is evidence of anti-Israel bias. Is being praised by a Jewish newspaper or group evidence of anti-Arab bias? Then, just as he did with Amanpour, Shales bizarrely linked Thomas’ national origin to these biases: ”Other than a passing reference to Thomas’s parents as having been Syrian immigrants, the film never hints at Thomas’s anti-Israeli rhetoric.” Thomas is a life-long American citizen born in Kentucky; how is her having parents who are Syrian immigrants a “reference” to her supposedly “anti-Israel rhetoric”?
All of this does demonstrate that someone has a very severe, “troubling” bias when it comes to Israel, the Middle East and people of particular backgrounds. And it’s not Amanpour or Thomas who have the problem.