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Media Analyses





Badly Sourced Accusations at Disciples World


The September 2006 issue of Disciples World, the denominational magazine supported by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), included two articles about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The first, titled "Israel’s security barrier necessary?," sets the bar for courage and journalistic independence by a denominational magazine. This article, a lengthy interview with Tzippy Cohen – who survived a Palestinian suicide attack in 2003 – directly challenges a decision by the denomination’s General Assembly in 2005 calling on Israel to take down the security barrier it is building to stop terror attacks from the West Bank. Not only does the article, written by Managing Editor Sherri Wood Emmons, provide a first-person account of the suffering caused by Palestinian terror attacks, it reveals that Tzippy Cohen was denied the opportunity to address the church's General Assembly about the need for the barrier.

Accompanying this story was another article written by Joel Carillet, titled "But They Brought It On Themselves." In this article, Carillet recounts two allegations of Palestinian suffering at Israeli hands. The first allegation is not very detailed, but merely asserts the existence of an unnamed victim of torture who is a friend of the author.

The second allegation offers a more detailed narrative – that of a pregnant woman and her husband being stopped at an Israeli checkpoint. According to Carillet, "the soldiers on duty chose to drink their coffee rather than allow the desperate couple to pass. The mother gave birth beside the dirty road and her baby died in her arms. The baby was a girl and, according to the doctor who later examined her, she had died from the blunt force of being shot out of the birth canal."

The publication of Carillet’s article – based on anonymous sources – alongside the first-person interview with Tzippy Cohen, a victim of terrorism offers a powerful juxtaposition for readers. Tzippy Cohen appears as a named, identifiable source (whose photo appears in the magazine) and as a result, her story can be verified. But Carillet's sources are are unnamed, so readers are not able to investigate for more context.

When challenged in a letter to the editor, Carillet stated that the victim of torture asked not to be identified for fear of retribution (presumably by the Israelis). In reference to the checkpoint story, Carillet states: "As for the details and language I used in my article, you can also find them in the Sept. 12, 2003 issue of Israel’s Ha’artez newspaper which had the courage to cover the incident." (Both the letter challenging the story’s veracity, and Carillet’s response appeared in the November 2006 issue of the magazine.)

The article Carillet cites to buttress the credibility of his story was written by Gideon Levy, a reporter with a history of making factual errors. While Ha’aretz may have the "courage" to report alleged Israeli wrongs, it lacks the integrity to correct errors by its reporters – Levy included.

Interestingly enough, Levy at least saw fit to report a robust denial from the IDF about the events as described by his Palestinian source, but this was not included in any of Carillet’s writing. Carillet also fails to acknowledge that Palestinians have used ambulances to transport terrorists on numerous occasions – a fact essential to understanding why such vehicles are stopped and searched carefully.

In his response, Carillet does not report how he himself came across the story of the baby dying at the checkpoint, but the original article suggests he heard the story first-hand. (Before telling of the baby dying at the checkpoint, Carillet recounts a scene that took place somewhere on the West Bank where he sat next to an Palestinian claiming to be a victim of Israeli torture while watching President George Bush condemning Saddam Hussein for torturing his citizens.)

A few paragraphs later, Carillet recounts the story about the baby dying at the check point, providing details which, when taken in context with the previous vignette, suggest he learned about this story from on-the-scene reporting, not through Levy’s article.

In his response, Carillet does not state explicitly that he used the information from Ha’aretz’s article, but merely that the language and detail of the story also appeared in Ha’aretz on Sept. 12, 2003.

They certainly did – in verbatim "language and detail." Here is what Levy wrote about the death of the baby:

"The doctor, Dr. Bassam Alawna of Rafidiya hospital, said that the baby died from a serious blunt force injury received when she shot out of the birth canal." Emphasis added).

Here is what Carillet wrote:

"The baby was a girl and, according to the doctor who alter examined her, she had died from the blunt force of being shot out of the birth canal." (Emphasis added).

The similarities between Carillet’s and Levy’s writing raise a few questions:

Did Carillet come by the checkpoint story himself while in the West Bank? If yes, why didn’t he say so explicitly in his first article?

If Carillet did not come by this story first hand, but was in fact, using information from story originally written by Gideon Levy – a reporter with a long history of getting his facts wrong – why didn’t he attribute Levy as his source?

When Carillet wrote his original piece, did he know about the IDF’s robust denial of the version of events included in Levy’s article? If yes, didn’t he have an obligation to at least acknowledge this denial in his piece?

Does Disciples World adhere to journalistic norms, including the prohibition against plagiarizing? Just exactly how much scrutiny did Carillet’s article get from the editors at Disciples World?

Is Disciples World irresponsibly passing on badly sourced anti-Israel "atrocity stories" of its own?

Sourcing Problems

The question of sourcing is an important issue for denominational newspapers and magazines because of the added credibility they enjoy by virtue of their religious identity.

Religious magazines have been careful to protect their credibility in the past. During the Holocaust, the Christian Century, the house organ of mainline Protestantism subjected reports of massacres of Jews in Europe to intense scrutiny for fear of repeating errors made by other publications during World War I in which German soldiers were falsely accused of atrocities. A number of allegations of German misdeeds during World War I were ultimately discredited and became known as "atrocity stories." (For more information, see Robert W. Ross's So It Was True, published by University of Minnesota Press in 1980).

The prospect of Carillet and Disciples World inadvertently broadcasting false anti-Israel atrocity stories – especially those regarding unborn children and pregnant mothers giving birth at checkpoints cannot be dismissed out of hand. It has happened before in other venues.

On July 12, 2001, the Associated Press issued a correction about a story alleging the death of an unborn child at a checkpoint, reporting:

Israeli soldiers did not bar a Palestinian woman in labor from passing an Israeli checkpoint, her relatives said Thursday, contradicting initial claims by two Palestinian doctors who blamed a checkpoint delay for the newborn’s death.

The corrected article continues:

The family’s physician, Dr. Ghassan Hamdan, said initially that he delivered the baby at the checkpoint after soldiers prevented the mother from traveling to a hospital. But he later said he was not present for the birth and only heard of the case second-hand.

On July 25, ABC News issued a correction about the same incident.

PETER JENNINGS: And one other note from the Middle East: A Palestinian family has confirmed to us that reports of a newborn baby who died because the mother was held up at an Israeli Army checkpoint are not correct. The baby apparently suffered respiratory failure en route to the hospital. (World News Tonight, July 24, 2001)

In his movie, The Road to Jenin, French filmaker Pierre Rehov documents how a journalist working for a PA-controlled television station, Ali Smoddi, coaches a father. to level false allegations at Israeli soldiers. Smoddi concocts a familiar story in which a pregnant woman is delayed at an Israeli checkpoint. A previous CAMERA essay by Tamar Sternthal provides the detail:

On Jan. 25, 2003, [Rehov] accompanies Palestinian journalist Ali Smoddi of the PA-controlled Jenin television station as he and his crew set out to interview a Palestinian man and his wife whose baby was just delivered by a doctor. In the car on the way there, Smoddi constructs a fictitious story in which the husband was forced to deliver the baby: "I want to emphasize certain elements. The husband has no experience in delivering and in spite of that he’s the one who delivers his wife. It’s the climax of all tragedy." Smoddi then takes a call from the couple’s doctor, and asks: "You’re the one who delivered her? . . . No, don’t let them go."

At the hospital, Smoddi’s crew does several "takes" of the father’s account of the birth, each with a different spin. In one version, the father claims that the ambulance they intended to meet was held up at a checkpoint for 15 minutes, and he was forced to deliver his infant son in the car, as the ambulance had not arrived. In another telling, the father says: "The soldiers took me down to the ambulance to check my identification and my wife gave birth in the ambulance and went to the hospital." In each account, Smoddi prompts the father and makes suggestions about the events. Smoddi then prompts the new mother: "The tank stops you while giving birth. You’re alone in the car, talk about your feelings."

This does not appear to be an isolated incident. Professor Richard Landes has documented the existence of a veritable industry of propaganda in the West Bank and Gaza which has manufactured film footage of Palestinians dying at the hands of Israeli soldiers. In particular, Landes has obtained footage in which apparently dead Palestinians spring to life and climb back onto stretchers from which they have fallen while being carried away from a staged battle. Sadly, it is not these images of bogus events that make their way into Western media, but of a fallen "militant" being carried away from the scene of his heroic death. (For more information see www.seconddraft.org and www.theaugeanstables.com).

To be sure, pregnant women have been prevented from getting to the hospital at Israeli checkpoints as documented by a UN report Carillet invokes to lend credence to his story. What Carillet fails to acknowledge, however, is that the report clearly indicates that the number of women giving birth and the number of infants at checkpoints has declined substantially in recent years. The relevant paragraph follows:

Information was received from UNFPA, UNRWA and WHO in the course of August 2005. WHO quoted statistics from the Palestinian Ministry of Health indicating that 61 women had given birth at checkpoints between September 2000 and December 2004 and 36 of their babies died as a result. A breakdown of these figures shows that in 2000-2001, 31 pregnant women delivered at checkpoints and 17 of the babies died; in 2002, 16 women gave birth in similar conditions and 11 babies died; in 2003 and 2004, the numbers decreased: 8 and 6 women gave birth at checkpoints and 3 and 5 of the babies died, respectively. (Aug. 31, 2005 – High Commissioner for Human Rights). 

The death of any Palestinian on his or her way to the hospital is a tragedy – as are the Israeli deaths Israel’s security measures are meant to prevent, but Joel Carillet and Disciples World have an obligation to ensure that the information they provide to readers in the U.S. about the Arab-Israeli conflict is substantiated and offered in a responsible manner.

The editors at Disciples World need to ask Joel Carillet some difficult questions about the information he provided to the magazine’s readers; namely, who are his sources and just how credible are they?


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