NJ teenager’s run-in with CNN goes viral

By Debra Rubin
NJJN Bureau Chief/Middlesex

December 31, 2014

An East Brunswick high school student’s account of her run-in with a CNN executive has made her a pro-Israel cause celebre on the Internet. 

Hayley Nagelberg, 17, a senior at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, was attending the United Synagogue Youth’s 64th annual international convention, which took place in Atlanta Dec. 21-25 when she joined 30 fellow youth leaders and staff at the Omni Hotel for a meeting with CNN staff.

The students quizzed the execs — executive vice president of news standards and practices Richard Davis and mobile editor Etan Horowitz — on the network’s coverage of the summer’s war in Gaza.

According to Nagelberg’s account of their meeting in The Times of Israel, she confronted Davis about the news outlet’s “horribly misleading” headlines after the murder in November of four rabbis and a Druze policeman at a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem. (On Nov. 18, CNN apologized for a ticker headline that read, “4 Israelis, 2 Palestinians dead in Jerusalem,” saying it failed to note that the two Palestinians were the terrorists.)

According to Nagelberg, Davis explained that the network would not use the word “terror” to describe an attack before the facts were known. Nagelberg writes that she pushed back, asking, “But by the time it was known that it was four Israelis and two Palestinians, it was known that there were meat cleavers and stabbings involved. Why couldn’t you call it an ‘attack’?” 

At which point, she writes, Davis responded, “You’ve got to be kidding me! One word? Are you brain dead?”

Nagelberg’s account of the meeting was subsequently shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook and over 400 times on Twitter. A link to the essay on the NJJN Facebook page“reached” 4,800 people — an unusually large number for the page. 

“The response has been amazing,” said her mother, Allison. “There’s been a whole world of social media that has reached out and read her story.”

Hayley is vice president of Israel awareness for the North/South Brunswick USY chapter at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, where Allison is copresident; Hayley’s father is David Nagelberg.

“I don’t think that Mr. Davis was expecting anyone from USY to ask him any more questions,” wrote Hayley, in an e-mail exchange with NJJN. “In my opinion, he was not eager to discuss the Har Nof massacre any further. Nevertheless, I thought that he would continue to respond along the lines of his previous responses, such as suggesting that during fast-paced coverage of events, one can expect there to be human error in media reporting. I never expected him to ask me if I was ‘brain dead’ for suggesting that it was irresponsible for CNN to omit an important word in its reporting. 

“I think that by using that expression,” said Hayley, “he was just expressing his frustration that he did not have a legitimate answer.”

CNN did not respond to NJJN’s request for comment.

Hayley’s frustration stemmed from CNN’s headlines following the Nov. 18 attack. 

The first headline she saw read, “Two Palestinians Killed,” the next, “Four Israelis, 2 Palestinians Killed.” A later headline, quickly corrected, erroneously stated that the attack took place in a mosque.

According to Nagelberg, Davis told the USY delegation, “You can’t be in the news business and be a babysitter to people who only read the first paragraph.”

Nagelberg said she expected “a leading news distributor” to get the basic story right.

“And in a day and age when most people only read headlines, or maybe the first few lines or paragraphs if you’re lucky, shouldn’t CNN make sure that all salient and truthful information can be found there?,” she wrote in her essay.

Hayley said the meeting was an attempt to open up dialogue about CNN’s coverage in Israel. However, the conversation kept coming back to mistakes in the coverage of the synagogue massacre, which, she wrote, Davis attributed to human error. Davis also suggested that a news organization is not obligated to reflect the “opinions” of viewers.

In her essay she addressed Davis directly, writing, “No, I am not brain dead. I am a seventeen-year-old girl from New Jersey who is appalled by the biased media coverage of Israel here in America. I am disgusted by the false headlines. I am pained by the ignorance of so many people, yourself included. And, most importantly, I am saddened and ashamed there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”