In two CNN interviews, newly-sworn Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was questioned about her baseless accusations that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is “compromised” and that “Israel has hypnotized the world.” Omar retracted neither claim. And in the process, CNN demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to confront the Congresswoman’s bigotry and conspiracy-mongering.
On “CNN Newsroom,” anchors Jim Sciutto and Poppy Harlow asked Omar about the tweet in which she accused Graham of being “compromised.”
When asked for evidence to support the claim, Omar accused Graham of making “not only a 180-turnaround but a 360-turnaround” (Omar was told there would be no math). When pressed further, Omar acknowledged that her accusation was based solely on Graham’s change in view and it was merely her “opinion.”
The interview was revealing as far as it went, but Sciutto and Harlow failed to follow up on a number of fronts which would have been illuminating and newsworthy.
First, Omar’s defense is based on the change in Graham’s statements, yet flip-flops are routine in politics. Graham’s colleagues––including Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul––attacked President Trump in the past and have friendlier opinions of him today. Omar was not asked how far these compromises extend. Conversely, if Graham is compromised, why did he and Trump just have a dispute over the planned troop withdrawal from Syria?
Second, Sciutto and Harlow failed to ask Omar whether she knew the subject of the imagined blackmail. In conservative media, the theory seems to be Omar believes in rumors about Graham’s sexuality. The failure to ask this question is somewhat understandable, insofar as journalists may want to avoid spreading a rumor. But given the likelihood that the homophobia behind the rumor probably motivated the questioning of Omar in the first instance, not addressing the elephant in the room is a questionable choice.
Third, Sciutto and Harlow failed to ask Omar whom she thought responsible for the blackmail. And this failure is much less defensible.
Omar’s Track Record Isn’t So Great
Consider Omar’s track record to date. She has claimed that “Israel has hypnotized the world.” Our government’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism includes “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”
Moreover, after lying to her constituents during the 2018 campaign, Omar announced her support of the boycott, divest, and sanctions (BDS) movement. The premise of BDS––that Israel’s existence is a racist endeavor––is also part of our government’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League notes that BDS denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and has called upon Omar to reconcile this with her campaign rhetoric supporting a two-state solution to conflict with Palestinians.
Our government’s “working definition” further includes “[a]pplying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” The BDS movement does not call for a boycott of China, which is currently holding roughly a million Muslims in detention camps as part of a crackdown on the rights of the Uighurs. Conversely, while it is frequently said that United States enjoys a “special relationship” with the United Kingdom, BDS supporters do not seem obsessed with the idea that American politicians are under the thrall of those crafty Brits, with their sophisticated accents and fairy-tale royal weddings.
Given this record, the identity of Omar’s alleged ultimate blackmailer is potentially quite newsworthy. The most charitable reading of the interview is that Sciutto and Harlow were stunned by Omar’s audacious doubling-down on her position––but they should not have been.
After all, Christiane Amanpour interviewed Omar on CNN International about whether Jewish Americans should be concerned in light of the “hypnotized” tweet and her support for BDS.
Omar replied: “I remember when that was happening, watching TV and really feeling as if no other life was being impacted in this war, and those unfortunate words were the only words I could think about expressing at that point.” She added there is a “difference” between criticizing a military action by a government that has “exercised really oppressive policies” and attacking “particular people of faith.”
Omar’s answer, referring to the tweet as “unfortunate,” is as close to an apology as Omar has given. She has never actually apologized for it. The tweet remains posted:
Her answer is illuminating, inasmuch as she admits that this anti-Semitic trope was the first and only thing that popped into her head while watching news about Israel.
Amanpour did not drill further into that answer, or the foundations of BDS, which is unsurprising given the question Amanpour asked. Why did Amanpour limit her question to whether Jewish Americans should be concerned about the anti-Semitic remarks of both Omar and her colleague Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)? Shouldn’t it be a matter of concern to all Americans?
Furthermore, Amanpour prefaced the question this way: “Can I just move on to something that’s generally a rite of passage for politicians in the United States, and that is to sort of pledge fealty or at least pay homage to AIPAC, the pro-Israel PAC that is very, very prominent.”
Omar smiles and smirks in reaction to this inflammatory assertion that American lawmakers are de facto required to bend the knee to the Israeli lobby. That reaction reflects poorly upon Omar. And the smear reflects poorly upon Amanpour as a journalist. One wonders whether Amanpour would have dared to behave that way on CNN’s domestic channel, or whether she was pandering to the more prevalent and casual anti-Semitism found outside America.
CNN’s coverage of Omar is at best described as two swings and two misses. This sad showing is right on par with the New York Times, which is doing its best to downplay Omar’s anti-Semitic record. Most of the establishment press seems similarly incurious about why scores of liberal groups––now including the Democratic National Committee––are bailing on a Women’s March plagued by claims of anti-Semitism.
It seems as though the remaining questions are: (1) as with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as the head of the UK’s Labour Party, how much evidence of anti-Semitism on the left and within the Democratic Party will pile up before the media finds it undeniable; and (2) once that point is reached, how much of the media will decide to excuse it?