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Media Analyses





WABC-TV Refuses to Correct Jim Dolan's Factual Errors


Since late April, CAMERA has been working hard behind the scenes to seek redress on factual errors and other distortions by Jim Dolan of New York’s WABC-TV, who reported from Israel for several days earlier that month. News Director Ken Plotnik and President and General Manager Dave Davis have stonewalled, refusing to correct several material errors and to respond to the specifics of CAMERA’s concerns. Below is CAMERA's letter to the ABC affiliate.

April 26, 2004

By fax:
Mr. Ken Plotnik
Vice President & News Director
WABC
(212) 456-3006

 Dear Mr. Plotnik:

CAMERA is a national organization of 50,000 members which seeks to promote accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East. Several of our New York members have recently voiced concern about Jim Dolan’s reports from the region. Indeed, at least three of his broadcasts contain serious factual errors and misrepresentations.

For example, his April 4 report about Zachariya al-Zubeidi, a Palestinian leader in Jenin, erred on the most basic information. First, Dolan identified Zubeidi as “a Hamas lieutenant responsible for so much anti-Israel violence.” Zubedi is not a “Hamas lieutenant.” In fact, he is the Jenin leader of the Al Aqsa Marytrs’ Brigade, a militia that is part of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah organization. This information is readily available in countless mainstream media outlets–the Associated Press, AFP, Boston Globe, National Public Radio, Wall Street Journal, etc. [Update: On May 21, Plotnik said this error was corrected on the air, but he could not say when.]

Second, Dolan erroneously reported: “The scars on his [Zubeidi’s] young face are from one attempt on his life when Israeli bombs exploded close by.” Again, Dolan’s claim is contradicted by multiple other media outlets which report that Zubeidi’s scar is self-inflicted. NPR’s Peter Kenyon reported on Aug. 7, 2003: “Taking a perch beneath a lemon tree, he says he was working on a mortar last year during the fighting and dropped it. The explosion peppered his face with black burn marks and damaged his vision.” Lara Sukhtian of the Associated Press writes about “Zakariye Zubeydi, his faced pitted from the burns of homemade gunpowder. . .” (July 10, 2003). Likewise, Jennifer Griffin of Fox News reports that Zubeidi is “the head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Jenin. His skin still bears the black tattoo-like scar from when a bomb he was preparing blew up in his face” (June 26, 2003).

Unfortunately, anchor Tim Fleischer also trips up on a basic factual issue when he refers to “the Israeli city of Jenin.” Israel turned Jenin over to the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s. Jenin’s residents are Palestinians. No Israelis reside there, it is governed by the Palestinian Authority, and in no way can it be considered an “Israeli city.”

Also, in a serious misrepresentation, Dolan refers to “a massive incursion by the Israeli military here [in Jenin] two years ago. So many families displaced, so many homes destroyed.” This one-sided emotive account completely ignores the context that prompted the incursion; Jenin had become a hotbed of terrorism which spawned more than half the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Among the terrorists from Jenin, for instance, was the killer who took 30 lives in the Passover bombing of the Park Hotel days before. While Dolan speaks of “So many [Palestinian] families displaced, so many [Palestinian] homes destroyed,” he makes no mention of “So many [Israeli] families torn apart, so many [Israeli] lives destroyed.” Such skewed reporting surely leaves readers with a misinformed view of events in Jenin.

Finally, Dolan’s profile about Zubeidi, repeatedly emphasizes that he is “a marked man, a dead man walking.” Yet, it strangely omits mention of the fact that not only does Zubeidi target Israelis, but he also engineered the severe beating of Palestinian Haidar Irsheid, the former governor of Jenin. (Again, this incident was widely reported, and can be found in numerous media outlets.) According to the July 25, 2003 Jerusalem Post, Zubeidi

and some 20 of his followers staged what is being described as a successful coup in the city. Armed with M-16s, Kalashnikovs and pistols, they dragged the Palestinian Authority’s governor for the Jenin district, Haidar Irsheid, from his home to the main square in the center of Jenin.

When some passersby and shopkeepers pleaded with them to have mercy on the 51-year-old Irsheid, who was still in his night clothes, the armed men responded by punching the governor in the face and beating him with rifle butts.

"This man is a spy for Israel," declared one of the masked Fatah gunmen. "He has stolen the money of the people. He must be punished."

The hammering lasted for about 15 minutes, after which the governor, bleeding from the head and crying, was bundled into a car and driven off to the narrow alleways of the nearby refugee camp. His ordeal ended only five hours later, when Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat phoned Zubaidi and "ordered" him to release Irsheid.

In his apparent determination to paint Zubeidi as a target–(“Al-Zubeidi knows his family is not safe. No one who sits near him is”)–why does Dolan ignore that Zubeidi has targeted his own political leaders in violent vigilante incidents?

Dolan’s April 2 coverage of Palestinian riots at the Temple Mount is similarly sloppy, including factual errors, partisan reporting, and a quote taken grossly out of context. For example, in his 5 p.m. broadcast, he states:

A bloody confrontation that sent thousands fleeing the chaos on the Temple Mount in raw panic and fear. Locking them out of one of Islam’s holiest sites.

In actuality, the Israelis did not “lock them out” of the mosque, as Dolan claims, rather thousands of Palestinians barricaded themselves in. Again, this fact was widely reported, including in an Associated Press article which appeared on ABC News’ Web site ( That article reported:

After the initial clashes, thousands of Palestinians barricaded themselves in two mosques in the walled compound for about two hours, before police agreed to let them leave without threat of arrest. . . .

After the initial clashes, thousands of Palestinians barricaded themselves in two mosques in the compound. The Islamic Trust, which administers the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, negotiated with police to allow worshippers to leave.

In another gross manipulation of the facts, Dolan completely distorted the views of the rabbi of the Western Wall so as to bolster his own partisan stance. Raising questions about whether the police actions were excessive, he reports:

Back live now, this is the ammunition that the police were using today. Not bullets but rubber pellets. They were also using stun grenades that make a lot of noise. They don’t really do much damage. As for whether the police response was proportional, the rabbi of the Western Wall, the main rabbi of the Western Wall said today that just one stone from those Palestinians reached the worshippers at the Western Wall. One stone. And you saw the response that came.

Likewise, in his noon broadcast, Dolan distorts:

The response to that [rock-throwing] many people believe was disproportionate. Keep in mind, the rabbi at the Western Wall, a man named Shmuel Rabinowitz, said today that those soldiers [sic–they were police] in riot gear stormed the Temple Mount after just a single stone was thrown, after just a single stone fell. Many people believe the Israelis’ response was heavy-handed. There are a lot of questions being asked today about that response and a lot of answers still to come.

In a private conversation with Shmuel Rabinowitz, he confirmed that Dolan correctly reported his account of events–that police responded after one, or very few, rocks reached the Western Wall area. However, Dolan grossly distorted Rabbi Rabinowitz’s perspective on the police response. When I asked the rabbi if he believed the police response was justified and proportionate, he answered emphatically, “Absolutely. If the police didn’t enter the Temple Mount, they would have thrown hundreds of rocks and people would have died” (translated from Hebrew. The rabbi does not speak English.) He also added that anybody who aims to harm another person in a holy place desecrates it. Thus, Rabbi Rabinowitz praises the police action as a life-saving measure–he hardly believes the response was disproportionate, as Dolan implies. Moreover, Dolan ignores entirely the past record in which, unchecked, stone throwers atop the Temple Mount have menaced Jewish worshippers in the plaza below, bombarding them with hundreds of rocks and driving them away from the wall.

As for the sacredness of the holy site, Dolan presents a skewed report at 5 p.m., repeatedly noting the compound’s holy status in Islam, but failing to mention that it is also the holiest site in Judaism. Thus, he states, “in one of the holiest sites in all of Islam. . . ” and “Locking them out of one of Islam’s holiest sites.” Also, at noon, he calls it “one of Islam’s holiest sites.” If the fact that the Temple Mount is one of Islam’s holiest sites is so newsworthy that it merits being repeated, then why not report at least once that the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism? The first and second Jewish temples once stood there, and it contains the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in Judaism. The Associated Press report posted on ABC’s Web site April 2 is balanced: “The confrontations at the Jerusalem holy site revered by both Muslims and Jews erupted after Muslim noon prayers.”

Occasional errors in news broadcasts are inevitable, given the nature of the work. (Tim Fleischer’s erroneous reference to the “Israeli city of Jenin” might fall into the category of an unfortunate slip of the tongue.) However, Jim Dolan’s errors and distortions are so numerous that they raise serious questions about his competence. In summary, his factual errors include misreporting Zubeidi’s affiliation, the origin of his facial scar, and the fact that the Muslims barricaded themselves in the mosque (the Israelis did not lock them out). Other egregious problems include the failure to mention Zubeidi’s notorious vigilante activities directed against his own brethren, the manipulation of Rabbi Rabinowitz’s views about police actions, and a distorted and one-sided account of the Temple Mount’s religious significance in Islam and Judaism.

To begin to undo the damage that Dolan has caused with his sloppy reports, we urge you to broadcast corrections concerning the three factual errors and the distortion of Rabbi Rabinowitz’s perspective. We also ask what oversight measures will be initiated to prevent any future such unprofessional broadcasts. We look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

 Tamar Sternthal
Senior Research Analyst


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