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60 Minutes’ Embarrassing Interview with Mohammed bin Salman

There is no news value in giving a foreign leader a major news program to use as his megaphone to spread misinformation and lies.

The 60 Minutes interview with Mohammed bin Salman was predictably not very informative and served as little more than a platform for the crown prince to spread propaganda. Perhaps the most egregious failure by 60 Minutes was this summary of what has happened in Yemen:

The United Nations says thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen are the direct result of Saudi airstrikes and a blockade, since lifted, of Yemen’s port [bold mine-DL] that temporarily stopped food and medicine from getting to hundreds of thousands of people.

The coalition blockade has not been lifted, and it continues to block the delivery of commercial goods to Hodeidah as we speak. The tightening of the blockade that occurred in November was eased slightly, but the original problem of delaying and preventing the delivery of essential goods remains. The blockade is the principal cause of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, but CBS viewers would come away from this interview with the false impression that the blockade is no longer in place. It is bad enough that Yemen’s humanitarian crisis receives so little outside attention, but to misinform the public this badly on a major news program is inexcusable.

The interview mostly consisted of letting the crown prince offer up self-serving spin. His arguments for the intervention in Yemen were not countered or put in context, and there was absolutely no pushback on any of his assertions. Consider this exchange:

Norah O’Donnell: Do you acknowledge that it has been a humanitarian catastrophe, 5,000 civilians killed and children starving there?

Mohammed bin Salman: It is truly very painful, and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.

It is not surprising that Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the blame for the humanitarian crisis to everyone except his government and their allies, but his evasion prompts no relevant follow-up questions or challenges from the interviewer. The coalition has been strangling Yemen for three years. They have been delaying and diverting ships that were already inspected and found to have no weapons on board. It is the blockade that is primarily responsible for driving more than eight million people to the brink of famine and millions more to suffer from severe malnutrition. The average viewer tuning would come away from this interview knowing none of that.

O’Donnell’s follow-up to that exchange is even more embarrassing:

Norah O’Donnell: Is what’s happening in Yemen, essentially, a proxy war with Iran?

Mohammed bin Salman: Unfortunately, Iran is playing a harmful role. The Iranian regime is based on pure ideology. Many of the Al-Qaeda operatives are protected in Iran and it refuses to surrender them to justice, and continues to refuse to extradite them to the United States. This includes the son of Osama bin Laden, the new leader of Al-Qaeda. He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran.

It suits Mohammed bin Salman’s purposes to cast the war as a “proxy war with Iran,” but it isn’t accurate. Before the Saudi-led intervention, the war had local causes based on local grievances, and the intervention itself was an attempt to reimpose the Hadi government that had been overthrown. Saudi propaganda has framed the war as a struggle against Iran, but this is wrong in several ways. The Houthis weren’t and still aren’t an Iranian proxy. Iran’s involvement in the war was always negligible, but has grown somewhat as the intervention has dragged on. Resistance to the Saudi-led coalition is not fueled by ideology, Iranian or otherwise, but by the predictable hostility that invaders have encountered in Yemen for centuries.The absurdity of a representative of the Saudi government trying to link Al Qaeda and Iran speaks for itself. There is essentially nothing that he won’t say to mislead Americans into taking his side in regional rivalries. Once again, the interviewer doesn’t correct or challenge anything the crown prince says, but lets his statements stand.

This exchange may be the most cringe-inducing of all:

Mohammed bin Salman: Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.

Norah O’Donnell: But I’ve seen that you called the Ayatollah, Khamenei, “the new Hitler” of the Middle East.

Mohammed bin Salman: Absolutely.

Norah O’Donnell: Why?

Mohammed bin Salman: Because he wants to expand. He wants to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time. Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened. I don’t want to see the same events happening in the Middle East.

Leave aside the crown prince’s stupidity in emphasizing relative Iranian weakness before warning that they are the Nazis of our time, and note that the interviewer fails to point out that it is the Saudi government and its allies that are engaging in an aggressive invasion of a neighboring country. If this were an interview with the de facto ruler of an adversary, we would not be watching this ridiculous kid gloves treatment of a known war criminal.

There is some news value in interviewing foreign leaders and getting them to explain themselves and their policies publicly. That can be informative, and it can help hold those leaders to account for their actions. There is no news value in giving a foreign leader a major news program to use as his megaphone to spread misinformation and lies. Unfortunately, 60 Minutes allowed itself to be used in just this way, and in so doing they have done a huge disservice to the American public and especially to the suffering people of Yemen.



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