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Media Analyses





"Nightline" Over the Line


ABC has once again stonewalled, refusing to correct a clear cut factual error from its June 11 “Nightline” report with Jim Wooten about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which lacked any semblance of objectivity and impartiality. The theme of Wooten’s one-sided broadcast is that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is solely responsible for the ongoing violence, and that Palestinian President Yasir Arafat is a hapless victim bullied by Palestinian “militants.”

Factual Error

Wooten erroneously reported:

This was war. A war between the world’s fourth largest army and a rag-tag collection of lightly-armed guerillas and rock-throwing kids. . .

In fact, Israel’s army is not even the fourth largest in the Middle East, never mind the world. Egypt, Syria, Iran, Morocco and Turkey all have larger armies than Israel’s (Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Military Balance in the Middle East, p. 11). And the armies of China, the United States, India, Russia, North Norea, South Korea, Pakistan, Vietnam, France and Germany are all larger than Israel’s (Cordesman, “Trends in Western Military Efforts, 16). Nor was Israel fighting simply against “guerillas” and “rock-throwing kids.” The Palestinian Authority’s security forces–whose numbers far exceed the numbers defined by the Oslo Agreements–were also fully engaged in the fighting. For example, on Nov. 18, 2000, a senior Palestinian Preventative Security Service officer infiltrated the Kfar Darom greenhouses in the Gaza Strip, killing two. On Aug. 25, 2001, in a particularly deadly incident, two members of the Palestinian security forces infiltrated an Israeli army base in Gush Katif, killing three and wounding seven.

Moreover, in addition to the legal arms which the Palestinians acquired thanks to the Oslo Accords, they had also accumulated tens of thousands of illegal arms (New York Times, Oct. 11, 1999). Many of these arms entered Palestinian territory through illegal tunnels under the Egyptian-Gaza border. In addition, the “rag-tag” “guerillas,” as Wooten describes them, enjoy a vast fund-raising network and support across the globe, including North America, Europe and the Arab world.

Camp David Ignored

Wooten’s factual error was just the tip of the iceberg of the problems in this broadcast. Although Ted Koppel sets up Wooten’s segment as a review of how President Clinton’s diplomatic efforts in the region fell apart, the report actually has nothing to do with that. Early on in the show, Koppel says:

. . . it was only three years ago that another American President sat down with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. And it seemed for a while that peace was closer than ever. Later in this broadcast we’ll look back at how it all fell apart.

And, right before Wooten begins, Koppel leads in:

President Bill Clinton spent more time dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than with any other world problem. But, as ABC News senior correspondent Jim Wooten now reports, after all that hard work, what had looked so hopeful in the summer of 2000 quickly unraveled.

But, contrary to Koppel’s introduction, Wooten does not go on to look back at how the summer 2000 Camp David talks unraveled. Instead, he picks up with events which began two months after Camp David negotiations fell apart in July 2000. Completely ignoring the talks themselves, and their fate, Wooten opens:

That summer, before it began, the "holy land" was already seething, needing only a spark to re-ignite all its unholy hatreds and hostilities. And in late September, in old Jerusalem, that spark was struck, with Ariel Sharon’s provocative appearance near the al-Aqsa mosque, a place of worship sacred to Muslims. . . .

Singling Out Sharon For Blame

Thus, Wooten does not even touch on the talks and Ehud Barak’s unprecedented offer to withdraw entirely from Gaza, nearly 100 percent of the West Bank, and to cede other lands within Israel proper. Nor does he mention that Yasir Arafat rejected this offer, and refused to even table a counter-proposal. Instead, Wooten lays blame for the Palestinian violence squarely on Ariel Sharon and his visit to what Wooten calls “the al-Aqsa mosque, a place of worship sacred to Muslims.” ABC fails to mention the essential fact that the site Sharon visited was the Temple Mount, which is the location not just of the al-Aqsa compound, but also of the Biblical First and Second Temples. It is therefore for Jews not just a sacred place, but the most sacred place.

Had Wooten actually reviewed the collapse of the Camp David talks, or addressed them in any way, he might have learned that a number of officials–including Americans and Palestinians–blame Arafat, not Sharon, for the violence that began in September 2000. Most notably, in a March 3, 2001 speech, Palestinian Authority Communications Minister Imad al-Faluji rejected the long-ago discredited claim, which Wooten parrots, that Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount caused the violence:

Whoever thinks that the Intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque is wrong, even if this visit was the straw that broke the back of the Palestinian people. This Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the table upside down on President Clinton.

Likewise, in a Jan. 29, 2001 New Yorker article, Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian leader of the uprising in the West Bank, said of the violence and Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount:

The explosion would have happened anyway. . . .It was necessary in order to protect Palestinian rights. But Sharon provided a good excuse. He is a hated man.

In addition, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who worked under President Clinton during the Camp David talks, has made clear that Arafat intentionally sabotaged the peace talks:

He [Arafat] agreed to set up a private channel between his people and the Israelis, which I joined at the end of August. And there were serious discussions that went on, and we were poised to present our ideas the end of September, which is when the Intifada erupted. He knew we were poised to present the ideas. His own people were telling him they looked good. And we asked him to intervene to ensure there wouldn’t be violence after the Sharon visit, the day after. He said he would. He didn’t lift a finger. (Fox News, April 21, 2002)

A significant section of the report unfairly singles out Sharon as responsible for the ongoing violence of the last couple of years:

Sharon, the former general, was chosen not to talk to Palestinians, but to teach them a lesson. And Palestinians saw him as the hated architect of Israeli expansion onto their land, the Godfather of 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. And militant Muslim factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad painted Sharon as the devil incarnate. And in continuing the repetitive circles of attack and reprisal, reprisal and attack, Sharon did not disappoint them. Indeed, with unrelenting consistency, Sharon has ordered the assassination of militant leaders, invaded and reoccupied large chunks of Palestinian territory, killing hundreds of Palestinians in the process, sealed the citizens inside from Nablus down to Jericho, even to Bethlehem, where the church of the nativity came under siege with Palestinian fighters holed up inside. . . .

Sharon even attacked Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, practically destroyed it with him inside. And he shrugged off all international criticism, including America’s, resisting most efforts to negotiate an end to the uprising, determined to crush it one way or another. . .

Arafat As Victim

Despite this torrent of blame of Sharon, Wooten has not one word to say about Arafat’s role in the conflict, despite the fact that the United States government has identified him as a major contributor to the violence, and has refused to deal with him. Instead, Wooten mentions Arafat only in passing, and only as a victim of “hardline militants:”

For their part, ignoring Arafat’s occasional calls for an end to violence, the hardline militants seem to have made the chairman almost irrelevant, seemed to have hijacked the destiny of the Palestinians. . . .

Contrary to Wooten’s claim, it is not the “militants” who have made Arafat irrelevant; Arafat himself has done so. While Wooten mentions the Israeli assault on Arafat’s compound, he does not mention that Arafat has been sheltering wanted terrorists there, refusing to surrender them. Nor does he acknowledge the massive evidence that Israel uncovered in Arafat’s headquarters which documented the Palestinian leader’s financial contributions to terrorists. Furthermore, while Wooten later mentions the Palestinian attack on a Tel Aviv disco in June 2001, which killed 22 (not 20, as Wooten erroneously reports), he fails to note that Arafat sent a letter of praise to the bomber’s family. He wrote:

Al-Hotary, the son of Palestine, whose noble soul ascended to. . . rest in Allah’s kingdom, together with the Prophets, the men of virtue, and the martyrs. The heroic martyrdom operation . . . who turned his body into bombs . . . the model of manhood and sacrifice for the sake of Allah and the homeland (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, June 24, 2001, translated by MEMRI).

This sort of incitement urging Palestinians to kill Israeli civilians regularly emanates from Palestinian media, textbooks, and religious leaders–all of which Arafat controls. Why, then, did Wooten see fit to mention “Arafat’s occasional calls for an end to violence” in English while ignoring Arafat’s regular calls for murder and mayhem in Arabic?

Why did he single out Sharon’s alleged wrongdoings, while ignoring Arafat’s, effectively exonerating the Palestinian leader? And, contrary to Wooten’s characterization of Sharon’s “unrelenting consistency” in acting against the Palestinians, Sharon notably refrained from any counterattack after the devastating June 2001 bombing of the Tel Aviv disco, yet the Palestinian attacks against Israelis persisted. Given that Wooten’s report was supposed to address the collapse of the Camp David talks, why does he focus on Sharon? After all, Sharon came into office some six months after the July 2000 talks, and accelerating Palestinian terror attacks had been well under way by that time. If the report was meant to look back at the collapse of the Camp David negotiations, wouldn’t it make sense to examine the actions of the leaders during that period–Barak, Arafat, and perhaps Clinton–as opposed to Sharon and “militants”?

Finally, reflecting once again his own apparent personal bias, Wooten wraps up: “There is also this view, widely held, that there will be no peace ever as long as Israeli settlers are present on Palestinian territory.” It is true that some hold that view – but many others, including the chief US negotiator, Dennis Ross, hold to a different view, namely that Arafat is the problem:

ROSS: ... I do not believe [Arafat] can end the conflict. We had one critical clause in this agreement, and that clause was, this is the end of the conflict.

Arafat’s whole life has been governed by struggle and a cause. ... For him to end the conflict is to end himself. (Fox News, April 21, 2002)

By ignoring the latter view entirely, Wooten effectively endorses the former.

ABC’s Response

In addition to many letters to “Nightline” from concerned viewers, CAMERA faxed a detailed critique June 19, and followed up with numerous phone calls to ABC officials. Finally, on July 3, Kerry Smith Marash, Vice President of Editorial Quality for ABC News replied, but failed address a single substantive issue–including the the straight forward factual error concerning the size of Israel’s army. Instead, she cited Wooten’s experience and lengthy tenure in the region.

Furthermore, ignoring ample evidence, she simply dismissed concerns that Wooten singled out Ariel Sharon for responsibility in violence. She wrote:

Wooten’s report was not intended to be a laundry list of the real and perceived sins of Arafat and Sharon, as seen by your group and other issue advocacy organizations. For example, it is simply not the case that in referring to the violence that occurred during the summer of 2000 Wooten "lays blame for the Palestinian violence squarely on Ariel Sharon. . . ." Rather, his report refers to that summer as a time when "the Holy land was already seething, needing only a spark to re-ignite all its unholy hatreds and hostilities. . ." In no way would any objective observer understand this reporting to solely blame Sharon for that deadly summer. Frankly, we are baffled as to how you could take away from that report the idea that ABC places the blame for all Middle East violence at the feet of Sharon.

The phrase that Smith Marash cites as proof that the broadcast was fair and balanced–“the Holy land was already seething. . .”–only illustrates the program’s flaw. While the passage fails to name any specific party as being responsible for the seething hatreds and hostilities, Sharon is, in fact, named, cited, identified and blamed over and over and over again–at least 10 times–in the program:

1) . . . that spark was struck with Ariel Sharon’s provocative appearance . . .

2) a new Israeli government headed by Ariel Sharon did not interrupt the Intifida’s rhythms

3) Sharon . . . was chosen not to talk to Palestinians, but to teach them a lesson

4) Palestinians saw him as the hated architect of Israeli expansion into their land

5) in continuing the repetitive circles of attack and reprisal, reprisal and attack, Sharon did not disappoint them.

6) Sharon has ordered the assassination of militant leaders

7) invaded and reoccupied large chunks of Palestinian territory, killing hundreds of Palestinians

8) sealed the citizens inside from Nablus down to Jericho, even to Bethlehem, where the church of the nativity came under siege

9) Sharon even attacked Arafat’s headquarters

10) he shrugged off all international criticism

As for Arafat’s role in bringing about or not ending violence, he is cited just twice, once in vaguely negative terms and the other time in a positive tone. He’s said to “call for an end of violence.”

1) Yasser Arafat, out of step with both Palestinian moderates and militants

2) For their part, ignoring Arafat’s occasional calls for an end to violence, the hardline militants seem to have made the chairman almost irrelevant. . .

The condemnatory language is reserved for Sharon.

Despite having shared this damaging list with ABC, Smith Marash has not acknowledged feeling any less “baffled” as to why CAMERA contends that “Nightline” has singled out Sharon for blame for the region’s violence. More important, the network has yet to air a correction concerning the size of Israel’s army. Regrettably, Smith Marash’s evasions make a mockery of her title–VP for Editorial.Quality.


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