I moved to Europe in 1998, and it was just about that time that the New York Times went online in a serious way. I still remember sitting at an Amsterdam café one day at happy hour and having an American tourist say to me, with obvious wonder: “Did you know that you can read the New York Times online every day? The whole paper? For free?” For years thereafter, nytimes.com was the first site I went to every morning. It was, after all, the “newspaper of record.” And at the time, I was a regular contributor to it. In those days, hardly a month went by without my byline appearing in one section of the paper or another – the book review, the travel section, the op-ed page, Leisure & Arts, Week in Review. Even after I published my book on Islam, While Europe Slept, in 2006, and the phone calls and e-mails from the dozen or so Times editors I worked with mysteriously stopped coming all at once, I continued to peruse the Gray Lady while sipping my morning coffee.
Even as it became clearer and clearer that the powers that be at the Times had committed the paper to a see-no-evil position on Islam, I kept reading it, although it became increasingly maddening to do so. After a certain point I started trying to break free – but it was tough, like trying to kick heroin. A few weeks ago, unable to bear the daily onslaught of anti-Trump propaganda, I finally managed it: I stopped reading the New York Times. Hold the applause: I’m pretty sure that at some point I’ll fall off the wagon.
But for the moment it feels good. What makes it feel even better is that I’ve also been entirely CNN-free for several months now. Well, almost entirely. I’ve slipped up a couple of times. The other evening, having read and heard about the wall-to-wall Trump-hate now on display at CNN, I felt obliged to check it out. Sure enough, when I put on Don Lemon’s show in medias res, he and a panel of “experts” were discussing Trump’s latest actions and statements. Uniformly, their reactions to everything were a combination of fake outrage and chuckling condescension. In short, nothing had changed since the campaign. None of them had learned anything. None of them was thinking seriously about anything. They were all still in the same reflexive mode. Who would want to watch any of this, except to see a reflection of his or her own lockstep hatred?
I was about to turn off the TV when Lemon’s show cut to a commercial break. I know CNN in the U.S. runs actual ads – at least it did the last time I was there – but on CNN Europe those breaks are filled almost entirely with promos for CNN’s own programming. When I shook off the CNN habit a few months ago, I had almost all of these promos memorized, like the TV commercial jingles of my childhood. The promo that came on the other evening was a new one for me, however. It was for Becky Anderson’s show Connect the World. If Don Lemon’s show was an anti-Trump hatefest, Anderson’s promo was a loving celebration. A celebration of what? Two words: Abu Dhabi. Against the backdrop of a soaring musical score, Becky gave us an excited, affectionate overview of the emirate.
“What do you see?” she asked in voice-over as the camera showed us an upscale, high-windowed eatery where women – some in hijab, some not – were chatting over coffee. “Where most people see a café,” pronounced Becky, “I see tomorrow’s leaders.” The lens trained in on a load of cardboard UNHCR boxes on a forklift: “Where most people see a warehouse, I see hope.” Cut to a cluster of skyscrapers going up: “Where most people see construction, I see an architectural feat.” A dockyard full of shipping containers: “Where most people see the ocean, I see opportunity.” An airport concourse: “And an airport? I see an international hub.” Finally, the sum-up: “This is our world. See it from a different perspective. News, art, and culture. Connecting your world. From my home, here in Abu Dhabi.”
In a way, this wasn’t surprising. For one thing, the acclaim for Abu Dhabi was nothing new: the ads that CNN Europe does carry are almost entirely for Middle Eastern airlines, tourism bureaus, investment, and trade, so that one gets the overall impression that just as the Times is being kept afloat by Carlos Slim, CNN is making a great deal of its money from the governments of places like Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE. For another thing, CNN’s approach to promoting itself has long been to push its newsreaders on us relentlessly in an effort to make stars out of them. But Becky Anderson’s promo – here’s another one, by the way – went even further than I was accustomed to. After all, this wasn’t a paid ad; it was CNN itself, presenting its viewers with a thoroughly glowing portrait of Abu Dhabi, where apostasy and homosexuality are punishable by death, where women cannot marry without parental permission, where Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, where journalists (real journalists, the kind who, unlike Becky Anderson, actually dare to probe these kinds of systematic human-rights abuses) are shut down pronto, where free speech in general is severely restricted, and where human trafficking and sexual exploitation are thriving sectors of the economy.
If CNN reported properly on any of this, of course, Becky Anderson would be picked up by a few uniformed thugs and escorted to that beautiful airport and thrown onto the first plane out of the country. (And she’d be one of the lucky ones: less high-profile journos, activists, and critics are dragged off to prison and subjected to the most terrible kinds of torture.) But the emirs know they need not worry. Just as the Times is too busy demonizing Trump to publish an investigative report on the sources of Carlos Slim’s wealth, CNN is too preoccupied with its war on the President to look behind the glittering surfaces of the UAE.
This, as they say, is CNN. If you’re not watching it, you’re not missing anything. Well, at least you’re not mentioning anything that deserves to be called journalism. Very fake news? That’s an understatement.