Column: When Andrea Mitchell Reports: Holding Israel ‘Accountable,’ But Not Slain Journalist’s Niece

As Andrea Mitchell interviewed her on MSNBC, Lina Abu Akleh took advantage of her forum to accuse Israeli higher-ups of ordering a soldier to kill her aunt, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Mitchell asked Lina Abu Akleh during Andrea Mitchell Reports if the shooting was “intentional,” and the niece responded, “It was intentional…There is a chain of command that clearly ordered the shooting to take plaace…All evidence points” to it.

Abu Akleh also tweeted, “The soldier I’m sure did not pull the trigger without receiving orders…That’s why we are calling for the US to investigate and to hold the Israeli soldiers…the Israeli government accountable.”

So far, no surprises. This is what Palestinian activists do. They issue sweeping accusations against Israel without providing sufficient evidence or any evidence whatsoever. She claimed that the Israelis continued firing after her aunt was struck by a bullet and they fired at a friend who tried to help her. Witnesses have stated this, but nothing conclusive has been established.

What surprises was Mitchell’s reaction, or lack thereof, on Thursday, July 28. She asked Abu Akleh legitimate questions, listened to her and failed to follow up with questions challenging her.

A few relevant questions have come to mind about Shireen Abu Akleh’s May 11 death when she covered a military confrontation in Jenin, in the northern West Bank. Mostly, advocates for the Palestinians have claimed with certainty that she was shot by an Israeli soldier. That is possible, but so is it possible that a Palestinian killed her. News organizations have surmised in multiple investigations that it was probably an Israeli soldier who shot her. The State Department added that her killing was not intentional.

No matter what the situation appears to be, how can the niece be so sure of Israeli culpability without proof? How can she back up her charge that the soldier’s superiors ordered her death? How would she feel if it turned out that a Palestinian killed her aunt?

Mitchell has not distinguished herself after more than four decades at NBC without posing pointed questions to all kinds of people. She began her broadcasting career at KYW radio in Philadelphia, my hometown, when I was a student at Temple University. She joined NBC in 1978 and, among other assignments, the New Rochelle, N.Y., native hosts the noontime Andrea Mitchell Reports program where Abu Akleh appeared.

Mitchell did not ask any of those questions, or anything like it.

That is not the Andrea Mitchell we all know and love. Not the Andrea Mitchell who was in Khartoum for a news conference in 2005 when she asked Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, “Can you tell us why the violence is continuing?” She was referring to genocide in Sudan’s Darfur province. “Can you tell us why the government is supporting the militias?…Why should Americans believe your promises?”

Abruptly, two armed security guards grabbed her and forcibly shoved her out of the room. A Sudanese official earlier told an American diplomat, “There is no freedom of the press here.”

“It is our job to ask,” Mitchell said after the incident. “They can always say ‘no comment’…but to drag a reporter out just for asking is inexcusable behavior.”

Did Mitchell do her job, as she defines it, when she interviewed Lina Abu Akdeh? She did not hesitate, as a Jewish woman, no less, to pose legitimate but inflammatory questions to a Muslim dictator 6,500 miles from home. Yet in the comfort of her newsroom, Mitchell could not form the words to question Abu Akdeh’s assertions.

Many pro-Israel voices may automatically label Mitchell’s performance a “shande.” So what can we expect, they might add, from a useful idiot for a leftist network that caters to so-called progressives? Not a discouraging word at MSNBC for anyone who espouses a “progressive” cause, whether for domestic policies or the poor Palestinians.

We cannot predict precisely what advocates for Israel might say, especially those who lean to the right. They might claim that Mitchell feared she would be accused of biased reporting because of her heritage. Maybe they will say she is afraid of creating a scene that embarrasses MSNBC or she took into account that the niece is not a public official and therefore should not be exposed to tough questions. Or, at her age (75 years old), senility is setting in.

I am not giving defenders of Israel any ideas that they would not think of on their own, or much worse. Some will probably flay me for being too easy on her.

Yes, Mitchell should have asked some of the afore-mentioned questions.

The day before, Lina Abu Akleh joined relatives of the Palestinian-American journalist in a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who told them that she was probably killed by Israeli troops, but there was no evidence that the killing was intentional, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports. However, Blinken pledged the American government’s “commitment to pursue accountability for her tragic killing.”

Following the meeting, Lina Abu Akleh said, “We’re still waiting to see if this administration will meaningfully answer our calls for #JusticeForShireen.”

What more could the U.S. do, practically speaking? After weeks of stalling, the Palestinian Authority turned over the bullet that supposedly killed Abu Akleh to the Americans, and it was too damaged to determine who fired it. Another question Mitchell could have posed.

Wednesday night (July 27), the lesser-known Mehdi Hassan, also an MSNBC host, first gave the niece the kid gloves treatment, and then Mitchell interviewed her on Thursday.

Lina Abu Akleh chose to make public statements and was therefore accountable for what she said. If either Hassan or Mitchell asked the obvious follow-up questions, maybe she would have succeeded in better assembling her arguments, or she might have walked back her remarks in a dignified manner. Or she would have panicked, having no idea how to respond.

But Mitchell and Hassan chose to leave their interviews with ambiguous accusations against Israel hanging out there. Isn’t it their job to ask?

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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