The saga of another Jennings error in reporting on Israel, followed by the network’s outlandish rationalizations and its eventual, slippery correction, captures exactly the ethos of a media outlet that barely pretends to disguise its advocacy of the Palestinian cause.
ABC’s coverage is marred on nearly a daily basis by distortion, innuendo, error or omission of essential information. Even a brutal terrorist attack on Israelis such as the March 31 murder of innocent families at a Haifa restaurant prompted only perfunctory coverage before focusing on the distress of Palestinians and the activities of so-called "human rights activists" in Ramallah. The "activists" were actually pro-Palestinian agitators from Europe with little interest in the "human rights" of other Arabs or of murdered Israelis.
Palestinian violence is chronically downplayed by ABC. When a uniformed Palestinian militia member murdered two TIPH observers (Temporary International Presence in Hebron), ABC reported on March 26 that “Israelis and Palestinians are blaming each other for the first killing of an observer since the force was created eight years ago.”
Yet there was no doubt about the killer. One of the three observers, a Turkish national, survived the attack and immediately stated in an interview that his colleagues had been killed by a Palestinian firing on their vehicle. But no clarification by ABC followed on this story.
Protests to ABC about such chronic bias yield little redress. Only in instances of unambiguous factual error and intense public pressure will the network set the record straight, at least partly.
Peter Jennings’ erroneous March 20 report on a terrorist attack on a bus traveling from Tel Aviv to Nazareth is notable not just for the wrong information conveyed but for what followed.
In that broadcast, he stated that "seven people died, most of them Israeli Arabs." But none of the dead were Arabs; all were Jews. Most were young soldiers. One was a 75-year-old Israeli from Ethiopia, Mogus Mahento, who was on his way to pay a visit to the widow of a friend killed in an earlier terrorist attack.
CAMERA contacted the network on March 25 with a brief letter stating that ABC had aired “a mistake” and urged a correction.
After a month with no reply regarding the erroneous report, the network was again contacted and urged to correct the error. Finally, on May 9 an ABC Vice President replied:
As we have communicated to you previously, we believe that our extensive coverage of the current Middle East crisis has been balanced and fair. While we understand that your organization has strong opinions about the conflict, and, as such would almost certainly report these stories differently, we have a different mission and we continue to stand by our editorial selections.
The official then addressed the false report on the terrorist attack:
I would like to respond particularly to your complaint that the March 20. World News Tonight broadcast inaccurately identified bombing victims as Israeli Arabs rather than Israeli Jews. Our report was necessarily based on the reporting of othersall of whom described the damage done to a bus populated largely by Israeli Arabs. Israel Radio reported the story this way; so did Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press. The AP in particular made the point that this was the first time that Israeli Arabs were the primary victims. AFP actually named two Arabs—Kifah Ghbaya and Salam Yunis—as having been among the dead. The spokesman for the bus company said most of the passengers were Israeli Arabs. Our report was consistent with these accounts and we believed it to be entirely accurate when made. But most important, I must stress to you that the purpose of the report was certainly not to somehow show more sympathy for Arab victims of terror. The point was that for the first time, Arab bombers were now attacking and maiming their own people. Having said that, later reports suggested only that the majority of wounded—or majority of the victims — were Israeli Arabs, so we take your point and we thank you for raising the issue.
No correction was to be forthcoming.
CAMERA replied, noting that ABC went on the air with their report approximately 18 hours after the terrorist attack occurred and that no other outlet got the story wrong at that point. Nor, in any case, did any of the media reports cited support Jennings’ erroneous statement that “most” of the “seven people [who] died” were Arabs. The mistaken AFP story actually included—though the executive omitted noting this—mention that four of the dead were Israeli soldiers, meaning even this flawed report underscored that Jennings was in error about the preponderance of fatalities.
But regardless of ABC’s explanation for its error, the obvious question remained—since when is it acceptable to leave any such clear-cut error uncorrected?
Eventually, after upwards of 1000 calls of protest to the network, Peter Jennings stated on the air on May 21:
We have a correction for the record. Two months ago we reported that most of the seven people killed in a bus bombing in Israel had been Israeli Arabs. This was based on all the initial reporting on the scene. It turns out that those who died were Jews. Most of the passengers on the bus and most of the wounded were Arabs.
Even this short correction contained new distortions.
Jennings was inventing again. “All the initial reporting” certainly did not support the network’s original statement regarding the terrorist losses. On the contrary, there was not a single report CAMERA found that supported the ABC statement. Moreover, the names and identities of the Israelis were public before the broadcast.
Additionally, an AFP story available to ABC before air-time—one also unmentioned by the ABC Vice President—quoted the Arab mayor of a town near the site of the attack.
Suleiman Akbariyeh said “the five victims so far identified were Jewish, while only eight of the 35 people injured were Arab Israelis.”
That is to say, the ABC rush to emphasize the greater impact of a terror attack on Arabs in its initial report led it into familiar problems of error, and the effort afterwards to rationalize its inaccuracy only underscored the obvious lack of priority given to getting the facts straight.
All of which is a reminder that among the commercial networks, ABC’s Peter Jennings, and those around him who justify and cover for him, retain the title of most shamelessly biased.