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Glenn Greenwald: Why Did NBC Pull Veteran Reporter After He Witnessed Israeli Killing of Gaza Kids?

NBC is facing questions over its decision to pull veteran news correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin out of Gaza just after he personally witnessed the Israeli military’s killing of four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach.

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NBC is facing questions over its decision to pull veteran news correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin out of Gaza just after he personally witnessed the Israeli military’s killing of four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach. Mohyeldin was kicking a soccer ball around with the boys just minutes before they died. He is a longtime reporter in the region. In his coverage, he reports on the Gaza conflict in the context of the Israeli occupation, sparking criticism from some supporters of the Israeli offensive. Back in 2008 and 2009, when he worked for Al Jazeera, Mohyeldin and his colleague Sherine Tadros were the only foreign journalists on the ground in Gaza as Israel killed 1,400 people in what it called “Operation Cast Lead.” We speak to Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, who has revealed that the decision to pull Mohyeldin from Gaza and remove him from reporting on the situation came from NBC executive David Verdi. Greenwald also comments on the broader picture of the coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict in the U.S. media.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: NBC is facing questions over its decision to pull its veteran news correspondent out of Gaza. Ayman Mohyeldin personally witnessed the Israeli military’s killing of four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach Wednesday. Mohyeldin was kicking a soccer ball around with the boys just minutes before they died. He’s a veteran reporter who has placed the Gaza conflict in the context of the Israeli occupation, sparking criticism from some supporters of the Israeli offensive. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept has revealed the decision to pull Mohyeldin from Gaza and remove him from reporting on the situation, it came from NBC executive David Verdi.

AMY GOODMAN: NBC executives have reportedly claimed the decision was motivated by “security concerns” ahead of Israel’s ground invasion, but late Wednesday NBC sent correspondent Richard Engel to Gaza. During the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, Ayman Mohyeldin, who then worked for Al Jazeera, was one of the only foreign journalists reporting from Gaza.

NBC News did not respond to Democracy Now!’s repeated requests for comment on its decision.

For more, we’re joined by Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His piece for The Intercept at First Look Media is “NBC News Pulls Veteran Reporter from Gaza After Witnessing Israeli Attack on Children.”

We are also with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who knows Ayman well. Sharif is in Gaza City.

Glenn, talk about what you found out yesterday.

GLENN GREENWALD: Interestingly, Amy, the way that this came to my attention was that there are people inside NBC News, including some very recognizable and high-profile journalists, who were very angry that, first of all, when NBC News with Brian Williams reported on the killing of those four boys on the beach, instead of having their journalist who made this event known to the world and who witnessed it firsthand, Ayman, report on it, they instead had Richard Engel in Tel Aviv do the reporting, and Ayman never appeared at all on the Nightly News broadcast. But that, you can chalk up to sort of standard network news machinations about who’s a bigger star and who’s more senior and the like.

But what was really stunning was, later that day, after what arguably was his biggest or one of his biggest events in his journalism career, where he really made a huge impact on having the world understand what’s happening in Gaza, they not only blocked him from appearing on the air to talk about it on NBC News, but then they told him to leave Gaza immediately. And when I interviewed NBC executives and the like, none of whom would talk to me on the record but who talked to me on background and the like, they claimed that the reason they told him to leave was because they had security concerns, not specific to him, but just general ones about whether journalists could be safe with the imminent Israeli ground invasion. And yet, as you just said, later that day, they sent into Gaza not only Richard Engel, but also a producer who works for NBC who had never been to Gaza, who doesn’t speak Arabic, who doesn’t know the area at all, in contrast to Ayman, who’s been there for many years, who speaks fluent Arabic and who is a very experienced war reporter. And so it raises very serious questions about what the real reason is that they told him, over his objections, that he had to leave.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Glenn, there have been questions raised about not just whether NBC was concerned about his reporting, but also about his post on social media. Could you talk about that, as well?

GLENN GREENWALD: What happened on the day that he witnessed the beach attacks was he posted some incredible tweets and, as well, some amazing photos and videos on both his Facebook and Instagram accounts about the reaction of the parents of the Palestinian boys learning right that moment that they had been killed—very, very powerful stuff. And he had also tweeted a couple of what I guess in the network news business is viewed as some unusually pointed tweets about the position of the U.S. government. Namely, the State Department spokeswoman was asked about this killing, and she essentially absolved Israel and blamed Hamas, what the U.S. government always does, even in the most egregious cases of Israeli war crimes. And he went onto Twitter and Facebook and posted some very mild comments essentially noting what the State Department had said and then inviting people to comment on it. And later that day, he deleted it. There’s speculation that he was either asked to delete it or that that was a cause in why he was removed. I don’t know whether that’s the case at all, because there’s still questions about what the real reason is.

But certainly, the whole context of what has happened here is that he is a very unique reporter, especially for a network news position. You know, the kind of reporting that—the amazing reporting that we just hear from Sharif usually is not the kind of reporting that you hear on the network news. And Ayman does that kind of reporting. And he’s been criticized for it by neoconservative outlets, calling him a Hamas sympathizer and the like. And so, for NBC to remove him at exactly the moment where he brought the humanity of this war and the humanity of Gazans to the world, at the same time that he posted some tweets that in network news land would be considered controversial because it questions the U.S. government and the Israeli position, at the very least, looks awful, and I think, for NBC News’s credibility, demands that they provide some answers about what really happened here.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, I know that you’re going to have to leave that area, and I want to ask you about the reporting, overall, of Ayman Mohyeldin, who is very well known around the world for his reporting. Among the tweets he put out, “Moutaz Bakr, 1 of the boys who survived #Israeli shelling, was shaking w a broken [arm], blood shot eyes, says he saw 3 of his friends killed.” He also tweeted, “4 Palestinian kids killed in a single Israeli airstrike. Minutes before they were killed by our hotel, I was kicking a ball with them.” But talk about the years of his reporting in Gaza. You also know him from Egypt.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, yeah, Amy, I’m honored to count Ayman as a close friend. He’s truly an incredible reporter. And when we’re talking about Gaza, literally, I don’t think that there is a better reporter in the world who understands Gaza—an international correspondent, that is—who understands Gaza, who has covered Gaza as much. There literally isn’t another reporter, international reporter, who has covered all three Israeli assaults on Gaza, the 2008-2009 assault, the 2012 assault and the assault that we’re undergoing now. He’s connected here. He understands the place. He understands the area. He’s always the first guy at the story.

And we saw his incredible reporting in these past few days. It was really noted, if you looked at media discussion sites and other columns noting how NBC was totally changing its coverage compared to the other U.S. networks, and this was Ayman’s goal all along. You know, when he first left Al Jazeera after 2011 and moved to a mainstream U.S. network, this was what he had in mind, is to bring this kind of coverage that is never or very, very rarely seen on the corporate media in the States. And he was succeeding in doing that. And we don’t know the reasons why he was taken out of Gaza. You’re taking one of—the most experienced reporter in Gaza out of Gaza. Citing security reasons is just not very credible. So we don’t know why they removed him, whether this was a fight about, you know, a bigger star and having Engel come in, or whether it was about that his coverage was really having a serious effect, showing the true side of this assault, the true side of this conflict, and that political considerations came into play.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about that history, Sharif, 2008-’09, right after President Obama was elected. This was the period when the world was talking about the United States and the Israeli assault on Gaza began. Al Jazeera was the only network inside Gaza. And I wanted to go to a film that he and Sherine Tadros made, the documentary that’s called The War Around Us, which shows Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros reporting from Gaza during that 2008 Israeli war known as Operation Cast Lead, at the time, again, the only Western journalists in Gaza due to the media blockade. In this clip, Ayman reports from the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: We’re actually standing in the orthopedic section of the hospital, because it was made into a makeshift emergency intensive care unit. And I’m going to take you in here and have to warn you, though, that the pictures may be a bit disturbing, but these are some of the cases that are being treated. This woman right here, 55-year-old Fatma, a charity worker, she was working in a building that was adjacent to one of the buildings that was struck. But I have to again emphasize that the place we are standing is not an emergency care facility, nor is it an intensive care or special care unit. This is a makeshift room. All of these appliances that are being put to use here have been put really on an ad hoc base relatively quickly, as the cases were brought in.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip from their documentary, The War Around Us. Here, Ayman Mohyeldin explains how one of the most difficult parts of reporting from Gaza during Operation Cast Lead was challenging Israeli propaganda.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: You had a propaganda machine that was in full swing to portray the war as a just war, as a necessary war, a war of self-defense. And when you have a PR machine that is portraying everyone in Gaza as a Hamas sympathizer, as a terrorist sympathizer, and that justifies the kind of bombardment, that was the biggest challenge that we had to contend with—reporting the truth in the face of that spin.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of The War Around Us. Again, Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros, the only international reporters broadcasting during what the Israeli military called Operation Cast Lead. Over 1,400 Palestinians were killed in that assault.

Glenn Greenwald, if you can talk more broadly now about the U.S. media coverage of what is taking place right now? For that, I wanted to go to a clip for one minute of Diane Sawyer. This is a clip of Diane Sawyer reporting just a few days ago. Diane Sawyer, of course, the news anchor on ABC. Last week, she misidentified scenes of the aftermath of the Israeli missile strikes in Gaza as destruction caused by Palestinian rocket fire.

DIANE SAWYER: We take you overseas now to the rockets raining down on Israel today, as Israel tried to shoot them out of the sky, all part of the tinderbox, Israelis and Palestinians. And here an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can, one woman standing speechless among the ruins.

AMY GOODMAN: For our radio listeners, as Diane Sawyer was speaking, there was video footage of a Palestinian family gathering belongings in the smoking debris after an Israeli missile hit their home. Well, on Thursday, Sawyer apologized for misidentifying the victims of that attack.

DIANE SAWYER: On Tuesday evening, we made a mistake, and I want to put up these pictures again, because during an introduction to a story on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, I misidentified these powerful images. The people in these photos are Palestinians in Gaza in the aftermath of an airstrike by Israel—not Israelis, as I mistakenly described them. And we want you to know we are truly sorry for the error.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Diane Sawyer’s apology a week ago. Glenn Greenwald, can you comment?

GLENN GREENWALD: Interestingly, you know, from working in the last several years in media, I’ve gotten to know a lot of journalists. I’ve gotten to understand a lot more about how these large media outlets function. I’ve worked with some of them over the last year in the reporting I’ve done. And it really is remarkable, and not hyperbole, that there is nothing that makes major media figures and news executives more petrified than reporting on Israel. I mean, the way in which they become so frightened to do any sort of reporting that could make what they call Israel’s supporters inside the United States angry really can’t be overstated.

And that’s the reason why this ABC, quote-unquote, “error” resonated so greatly, is because one of the things that you almost never see in major American media reporting is anything that shows the suffering of the Palestinians, that shows the brutal savagery of the Israeli military inside of Gaza. It was almost like they showed it by accident there and then just misreported it as being Israeli suffering because that’s what they’re so accustomed to showing, even though Israeli suffering is so much less than the havoc that is wreaked on the Palestinians.

But the one thing I will say that I think is actually encouraging is this is one case where social media really does make a difference. You have now Gazans inside of the worst attack zones that are able to go onto Twitter, that are able to go onto Facebook, that are able to upload video imagery, that are able to be heard in their own voices. And you have lots of pushback on social media, as well, toward media outlets and their unbelievably just grotesque pro-Israel bias, in a way that I think has really kind of improved the coverage this time, so that we are now seeing more of the reality of Israeli militarism and aggression. And they’re not being able to get away with calling every victim a Hamas terrorist or a Hamas supporter or a human shield, because social media enables the stark reality of what the Israelis are doing to be seen. It’s just part of the overall trend where major media outlets are losing their monopoly on how we understand the world, but it is still the case that nothing puts fear into the heart of American journalists—and American politicians—like the word “Israel.” It’s really remarkable to watch.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Glenn, in terms of this issue of the pressure on these media companies and also the ability of the Israeli government and their supporters to manage news coverage—for instance, the invasion was actually—the stage was set for it when an unnamed, high-ranking Israeli official conducted interviews with The Washington Post, The New York Times, all of whom wrote stories before the invasion began that it was likely to happen, but yet never named the official and, in essence, participated in the trial balloon that was set up for the invasion.

GLENN GREENWALD: American media officials are incredibly subservient to American political officials. That’s been—you know, American media figures are. But when it comes to Israeli political officials, it’s virtually cringe-inducing to watch how accommodating and deferential and submissive they become. And it really is true that American media outlets play a very similar role when it comes to Israeli military operations as they played in the run-up to the Iraq War, which is that they give constant anonymity to any Israeli military or political official who request it, they launder those claims without the slightest bit of skepticism expressed, and there’s never or virtually never the other side presented, which is the views of the people living in those areas that are attacked by Israeli aggression, or the politicians or the military officials who are in Gaza or who are in the West Bank. It’s incredibly one-sided, it’s propagandistic, and it really is deliberate. I mean, it’s so overwhelming and extreme in terms of how one-sided they are. They barely pretend even to be even-handed in their coverage.

And, you know, you’ve seen—I mean, I think one of the most amazing things was, the producer, the longtime producer at CNN, Octavia Nasr, she was there for 20 years, a completely competent, well-liked employee, never had any kind of disciplinary problems. A Shia imam in Lebanon, who had links to Hezbollah, died. He was beloved by millions and millions of Shia around the world. She went on Twitter and very innocuously just expressed condolences, and she was instantly fired.

And this has happened over and over, where major media figures have been stigmatized or lost their jobs or had their careers destroyed for the slightest amount of deviation from pro-Israel orthodoxies. And those lessons have been really well learned, just in the same way that American members of Congress are petrified of uttering a peep of criticism of Israel, which is why you see pro-Israel resolutions unanimously passing in the U.S. Congress, even as public opinion is sharply divided around the world or even against the Israelis. I mean, the evidence is just so conclusive, so clear, about all kinds of pressure and intimidation that are put on American media and political figures, such that we have less of an ability in the United States to debate Israel policy than they even do in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, I want to thank you for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His piece for The Intercept is “NBC News Pulls Veteran Reporter from Gaza After Witnessing Israeli Attack on Children.” We’ll link to that. His new book is No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. When we come back, a Malaysian flight goes down over Ukraine. Who did it? We’ll speak with Russian affairs expert Stephen Cohen. Stay with us.

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