Will an astounding episode of journalistic abuse be swept under the carpet
by ABC News and ignored by other media? That is undoubtedly what ABC hopes in
the wake of new revelations of recklessly false reporting and coverup by the
ABC's David Ensor told millions of viewers tuned in to World News
Tonight on October 2 that Benjamin Netanyahu "calls Rabin a traitor."
The statement was untrue, and, in light of the tragic events that were to
follow, its falsity took on particular importance as debate quickly focused on
the pernicious role of inflammatory rhetoric.
Called upon to retract the incendiary charge, ABC's Peter Jennings
delivered a "correction" that compounded the damage done in the
original segment. In the supercilious tone reserved for his reports on Israel,
he said: "Though there are numerous references to him doing so in press
reports from the region, and though he has spoken at antigovernment rallies
where Prime Minister Rabin has been loudly condemned as a traitor, Mr.
Netanyahu informs us he has never used those words himself."
Were there "numerous references" in "press reports from
the region" attesting to Netanyahu's use of the traitor epithet? A survey
of major news databases yielded not a single such instance. Indeed, at least one
story had the late Israeli prime minister acknowledging his opponent's avoidance
of the term, while rebuking him for not cracking down harder on extremists. The
fact is, had Netanyahu actually used such language the story would have been a
sensation and reported widely.
In response to a request for dates and names of publications comprising
the "numerous references" to which Jennings had referred in repeating
the ABC charge against Netanyahu, Richard Wald, senior vice president in charge
of editorial quality, stated that "When Mr. Ensor wrote his correction, he
was making reference to The Des Moines Register and to The Edmonton
Journal, both of whose stories I have read."
Mr. Wald was evidently unperturbed by the discrepancy between the
promised "numerous" reports "from the region" and the two
presented, one from Canada and one from the Midwest. Still more absurd, the
Canadian piece was an unsigned editorial that derived the traitor claim,
according to an editor, from a news story in the British Guardian. A
check of that publication turns up no report that the Israeli opposition leader
called Rabin a traitor. The Edmonton Journal has since conceded their
writers should have exercised more rigor in composing their editorial.
Significantly, the Edmonton editor said he had also recently
been contacted by ABC researchers and had told them, before he knew otherwise,
that the editorial was based on a Guardian news report. One assumes ABC
would then have attempted to locate this story - the Guardian is easily
available via electronic database - and one assumes these researchers quickly
discovered no evidence of the traitor allegation. It seems inescapable that ABC
cited the Edmonton Journal in full knowledge that the charge against
Netanyahu was entirely unsubstantiated.
The Des Moines Register was equally specious as evidence for
ABC's assertion. The article cited was wholly derived from wire services
(Associated Press, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post, Knight-Ridder). Again, it
is a straightforward matter to track down each of the component stories and to
determine which, if any, included the critical traitor phrase. CAMERA did just
that and found none of the stories attribute the traitor epithet to Israel's
opposition leader. Again, it is impossible to conclude that ABC did not discover
this as well.
What does all this mean? It says that from the highest levels of ABC's
news operation there was complicity in defending an indefensible, indeed a
slanderous, report. ABC "researchers " were sent scurrying to find
corroboration, however idiotic and flimsy, to back up reckless claims twice
aired. And the network's senior vice president in charge of editorial quality
affixed his name to this travesty. It says ABC holds its viewers and its own
responsibility to those viewers in such contempt that it actually expects to get
away with its ludicrous claim that two relatively obscure regional newspapers
are a source for its Middle East news coverage.
But, there was still more in the October 6 segment to astound anyone
who looks to America's most popular newscast for an accurate rendition of
events. Just prior to Jennings' "correction" statement, ABC ran a
sequence allegedly describing what ABC is wont to call "collective
punishment" perpetrated by the Rabin government. ABC claimed that one
Muhammed Wahidi had suffered the destruction of his home by the Israeli military
because his daughter had participated in a terrorist attack. Accompanying the
account was videotape of a house being demolished.
ABC's charges were both incendiary and erroneous. Wahidi's house was
destroyed in a military operation, on information from Israeli intelligence
that terrorists were hiding in it. Subsequently, the Israelis gave Wahidi
$400,000 to erect the rebuilt house also shown to viewers. Needless to say, "collective
punishment" wouldn't be punishment if it entailed reimbursement of the
victim and rebuilding of his home. Untroubled by such inconsistencies, ABC
omitted mention of the Israeli compensation, a standard provision when the
military causes property damage.
There were still other irregularities having to do with this video of
the collapsing house. The very same footage had been inserted in at least one
other telecast to illustrate an entirely unrelated event. One year earlier, on
October 20, 1994, the day after the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus, a Dean Reynolds
report identified the demolition of Wahidi's house as part of a "wrathful
backlash" by the Rabin government against the Arabs in the wake of the
slaughter of twenty-two Israelis. He specifically implies that the collapsing
structure shown to viewers belongs to "Hamas activists" whose homes
Israel is "demolishing...with no legal appeal." It is, of course,
patently untrue that Mr. Wahidi is a Hamas activist and that his house was
destroyed for that reason.
Is the public to assume that for ABC events are interchangeable, that
the same footage allegedly illustrating "collective punishment" also
serves as evidence for any other story, however removed in time, content, and
context? How did it come about that the demolishing of Wahidi's house as part of
a military operation in April 1994 was said first to represent Israeli
reprisals in the aftermath of an October 1994 terrorist attack and then to
depict "collective punishment" in response to a different terror
The corruption manifest in these few segments of World News
Tonight alone calls for urgent and exacting review of standard practices by
the network and imposition of the sternest penalties against those responsible
for the deceptions perpetrated. Yet the more likely outcome is that the media
giant will stonewall and duck needed reform, adding yet another instance of
gross malfeasance to a record of misconduct by major media that has contributed
to plummeting public respect for these vital institutions.