Ahmed Shihab-Eldin: The Real Story Behind CNN Firing Me
The Internet was set ablaze when CNN decided to fire media heavyweight and progressive pundit Marc Lamont Hill. After his United Nations speech on Palestinian human rights sparked a viral controversy across right-wing blogs, Marc’s firing brought about a great deal of dialogue across the industry of media’ current state of political censorship. A fellow news colleague among those not surprised by CNN’s decision had shared a similar experience of his own censorship: Ahmed Shihab-Eldin.
Before Ahmed began reporting his widely recognizable work at AJ+, he was one of the journalists positioned to establish his career at CNN. In 2015, three days before he was set to anchor for CNN in Atlanta, Ahmed was fired for being “politically-exposed”. It became one of many moments of biased inequality that he experienced as a Palestinian journalist telling untold stories in American media. In this explosive interview with Muslim Girl, Ahmed for the first time reveals the troubling realities he has witnessed from inside the industry, as well as the heartbreaking first-hand impact when the truth is denied by its gatekeepers.
MUSLIM GIRL: Why were you not shocked by Marc Lamont Hill’s firing?
AHMED SHIHAB ELDIN: As someone who has worked in the American media markets for more than a decade, it would be strange if I were to be surprised by Marc Lamont Hill’s firing. There has long been a deliberate attempt to silence the voices that criticize Israel’s government. There have been blogs created for the sole purpose of discrediting me at every step of my career. I am not unique; the same is true of other journalists, academics, and activists who speak out against the flagrant human rights violations. Additionally, the fact that Marc is a black man in the American media business with views that challenge the status-quo, whether about Israel and Palestine, or in the more domestic context, shouldn’t be disregarded as to why his firing comes as no surprise to me, or anyone else in the know.
So, in your opinion, does this instance reflect America’s long-standing history of systemic racism?
Let me put it this way: Since posting my own CNN experience on Instagram, I had the pleasure of having a lengthy conversation with a former top CNN executive who has since retired. He pointed out that what happened to me would never have happened in the past, because Jeff Zucker [CNN’s current CEO] would never have had the authority to interfere in CNNI’s decision to hire me. This tells us a lot about how the ropes of censorship have tightened, especially in light of the decentralization of news and proliferation of social media to challenge mainstream narratives intended to misrepresent and mislead the reality on the ground in Israel and Palestine.
Censoring or silencing hate speech isn’t a solution as it isn’t addressing the underlying factors that are causing the emotion of hate. It would be like trying to solve the threat of global warming by busting all the thermometers.
If you are interested in CNN’s shifting bias on this issue, you can look into the transition of power from founder Ted Turner to Gerald Levin of Time Warner. It’ll tell you everything you need to know. It is no secret, for example, that there have been multiple reporters for the New York Times whose children serve in the Israeli army, which is troubling in so many ways, as this was never acknowledged or revealed to the NYT readers amongst coverage of the conflict.
Wolf Blitzer, arguably the face of CNN, began his career as a correspondent for the ultra-Zionist publication, The Jerusalem Post. He also previously served as the PR spokesperson for American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. His reports on CNN about this issue are pure theater designed to deflect from the reality on the ground. I grew up watching CNN during the first Gulf War, when it dazzled TV audiences with its unrivaled coverage of the war as the only U.S. news network on the ground. Is CNN the most trusted name in news, as it claims? Well, the answer, when it comes to Israel-Palestine coverage is shamefully laughable.
What did you hope would happen upon speaking out about your firing?
The truth is, this may have been one of the rare times when the intention behind choosing to share a personal experience of mine was borne out of a sense of duty to stand up for a fellow colleague and friend who embodies intellectual integrity, moral consistency, and the courage needed to advocate for the rights of the most disenfranchised among us.
I have spent more than a decade working across different parts of the U.S. media, and have witnessed a deliberate, comprehensive, and coordinated effort to censor stories about the suffering of Palestinian people at the hands of Israel’s brutal occupation.
For years I have not shared my CNN story publicly, let alone the numerous similar experiences I’ve endured at other American media organizations because I figured they would only further victimize me, and work against me more than they would work in my favor. I have spent more than a decade working across different parts of the U.S. media, and have witnessed a deliberate, comprehensive, and coordinated effort to censor stories about the suffering of Palestinian people at the hands of Israel’s brutal occupation.
I have been fired from one company for reasons that involve this, and I have severed ties with several others as a result of my refusal to see my own reporting on Israel and Palestine, as well as the work of colleagues, being needlessly censored without any explanation. There are only so many ways to sanitize the brutality of Israel’s occupation. I had previously planned to save all these experiences for a memoir of sorts I might write one day. But when the MLH controversy seemed to become a national story, I felt compelled to share my own, not just to give his experience credibility, but as any storyteller should do, to help provide context to this one isolated incident.
How many more journalists would you say are disclosing facts in fear of being fired?
Countless numbers. When it comes to Israel and Palestine, I can attest to dozens of times throughout my career where I’ve witnessed colleagues of mine struggle with this dilemma – choosing between leaving doors to new opportunities open and the possibility of climbing the corporate ladder to gain influence and an audience, or staying true to our duty as journalists to report the truth, to provide context, to promote understanding, and to give voice to the voiceless by holding those who abuse their power accountable through transparency. In fact, I know many actors, and other types of storytellers who regularly engage with reports I share on my social media platforms, but in private tell me that they cannot share them publicly out of fear of losing sponsors, deals and lucrative business opportunities. The struggle is real.
That’s insane! So, do you feel as though your accreditation and accomplishments are minimized by your identity?
If you are asking whether my credibility and accomplishments suffer as a result of my identity, the answer is yes, of course, and also not at all. It is all a matter of perspective. Our identities, whether singular or multidimensional, invariably work for us and against us in multiple ways when being evaluated along the lines of credibility. Just as my Palestinian origins have worked for me in terms of making me credible as a reporter within Palestine, or also as a commentator or correspondent in the West, it has also worked against me. For better or worse, perception dictates reality, does it not? I choose to perceive my Palestinian identity as a plus, when all things are concerned.
Where do you think media outlets should draw the line between hate speech and free speech?
The million dollar question. Well, The Supreme Court has ruled that hate speech is protected under the Constitution. That said, I truly believe that in trying to address the problem of hatred in society, we should not deal with it by simply repressing hate speech. Censoring or silencing hate speech isn’t a solution as it isn’t addressing the underlying factors that are causing the emotion of hate. It would be like trying to solve the threat of global warming by busting all the thermometers. The hate speech is just the thermometer indicating that there is a problem, and to what intensity it exists.
We should look at the underlying causes of hatred: A lack of education, fear-mongering, the tendency for media to focus on what divides us rather than what unites us. The problem isn’t the speech. The problem is the hate. The question is whether we want to face the reality, or not.
Muslim Twitter has been on fire with the hypocrisy of firing of Marc Lamont Hill, while Rick Santorum continues to act as a regular CNN panelist. The double-standard is not going unnoticed. As a Palestinian journalist, can you enlighten us on any incidents of hypocrisy, or double-standards you’ve experienced, either personally or as a witness?
Here is just one of several experiences I have that may answer your question, that I don’t often discuss publicly. While at VICE on HBO, we documented a Hollywood-like scene that profoundly illustrated the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and where the solution must lie – a family being forcibly and illegally evicted by hundreds of gun-toting Israeli soldiers. The footage of the Abu Naab family’s belongings being thrown out onto the street in Silwan was completely cut from my rough cut.
Without accounting for historical and current inequalities amongst different groups, we can never have “fairness” or equity.
When I asked why, the answer from a lead was, “the settlements are too crazy, man.” They refused to elaborate beyond this meaningless explanation. Among other problems with the film, they insisted, against my repeated concerns, to include a line to contextualize the occupation by saying “both sides have suffered massive casualties,” which is as misleading as it is factually untrue. This is intended to equalize the suffering and disparity of human rights inside Israel. This is part of what made me leave my position at VICE, despite having deep admiration for many of my colleagues there at the time.
That’s pretty disheartening. As a practicing journalist, what structures do you think should be in place to build equitable social capital in the media industry, in order to keep double-standards at bay? Do you believe there is a quick fix?
I don’t believe there is a quick fix. But when it comes to the ideals of justice and fairness, then to function effectively as journalists we must aspire to hold all people to the same standards when it comes to justice and fairness. But this must be done with context as omnipresent. This is precisely why context is so critical in journalism and storytelling today. Without accounting for historical and current inequalities amongst different groups, we can never have “fairness” or equity. I’ve spent more than a decade telling stories – often from the darkest corners of the world – all the while actively working to humanize the people I meet; to not just share their stories, but more importantly to connect it to the stories of my audience.
Too often, the media highlights that which separates us from one another, when there is so much more that unites us. There are so many opportunities to promote understanding by providing context. Especially in this era of so-called fake news, where facts don’t seem to matter as much as they once did, journalists must rely on context, including our own, when telling stories. The guise of objectivity tends to serve the interests of those who are the most privileged in the status quo. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a story that has long suffered the unfortunate consequences of “objectivity” which allows for false equivalencies to censor and suppress the context needed to understand the truth based on the facts, and reality on the ground.
Edited by Manal Moazzam.