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Media Analyses





18 Months at "Nightline": Israel in the Dock


An in-depth study refutes ABC’s claim that the program’s ‘coverage over time’ is ‘even on the whole’

“Balance is not measured by any one particular broadcast, but in coverage over time. Nightline and ABC News devote a significant amount of time to both Israeli and Palestinian issues, and we consider the record even on the whole.”

This statement was the crux of a brief November 2003 letter from Kerry Smith Marash, Vice President for Editorial Quality at ABC News, in response to CAMERA’s concerns about the accuracy and balance of an Oct. 9, 2003 “Nightline” program.

True, balance is not measured “by any one particular broadcast, but in coverage over time.” But does “Nightline” equitably report Israeli and Palestinian issues, and is the program’s record “even on the whole”?

In undertaking an 18-month study of “Nightline”’s coverage of the Middle East conflict, CAMERA set out to answer these questions. From January 2003 until June 2004, CAMERA identified 28 relevant segments focused primarily on some aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. (Broadcasts which focused on, for example, the Iraq war, which tangentially referred to Israel–usually negatively–were not considered.) In some cases, there were multiple segments in one evening’s broadcast, such as the March 22, 2004 program, which included various aspects of Israel’s killing of Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin. The three separate segments were reported by different journalists, had separate introductions, and were separated by commercial breaks.

Israel is the Emphasis

The study found that the segments overwhelmingly focused – almost always critically – on Israeli conduct, policies, and influence, while coverage of Palestinian issues was minimal. As a result, over a period of time, Israel is portrayed as the prime actor in the region, while the Arabs are seen as merely on the receiving end of Israel’s aggressive activities. This formula is played out, for example, in two separate reports that focus on Israel’s occupation in Lebanon (May 18, 2004 and April 22, 2004); three segments on Israel’s killing of Sheikh Yassin (March 22, 2004); segments on Israeli pilots who refused to serve due to their objections to missions in the Palestinian territories and the demographic issue facing Israel in which the country must withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip or no longer remain a Jewish democracy (both on Dec. 2, 2003); a story on Israel’s security fence (Oct. 9, 2003); and a Jim Wooten report which rages against Ariel Sharon (June 11, 2003), among others.

The Numbers

Of the 28 segments, nine are “neutral,” in that they singled out neither Israeli nor Palestinian actions. These include news updates such as Mike Lee’s Aug. 19, 2003 report about bombings in Iraq and Jerusalem; Lee’s June 11, 2003 report about Palestinian bombings and Israeli attacks on Hamas in the first week after the “road map” signing; and a May 19, 2003 John Yang report about Palestinian terror attacks, Ariel Sharon’s decision to cancel a North American trip, and “road map” efforts. Others in the “neutral” category more resemble feature stories, in which an effort was made to hear both sides. For example, an Aug. 21, 2003 report with Mike Lee focuses on two mothers – one Israeli, one Palestinian – who lost children to the conflict. (Even so, “neutral” is a generous designation for this broadcast, which was rife with false moral equivalence. The Israeli girl was directly targeted and murdered by a Palestinian sniper, while the Palestinian victim was accidentally killed in a counter-terrorism operation targeting Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who installed himself in a densely populated civilian center.) In another neutral broadcast, David Wright interviews an Israeli doctor and a Palestinian doctor working in Hadassah Hospital (June 3, 2003).

Of the 19 remaining reports which were not “neutral,” 15 focused on Israeli conduct, policy, or influences, and only four highlighted the Palestinians. In addition, only three of the segments covering Israeli issues were not critical of Israeli practices. They are a Jan. 30, 2004 report about Iraq’s remnant Jewish community, some of which left for Israel since Saddam Hussein’s defeat; a Dec. 30, 2003 report by John Yang about an Israeli plot a decade ago to assassinate Saddam Hussein; and a Feb. 17, 2003 Yang report about Israeli residents securing their homes in the run-up to the Iraq war.

The four Palestinian-focused segments are Ted Koppel’s June 3, 2003 interview with Hamas spokesman Ismail Abu Shanab; Peter Jennings’ report and a brief interview with then Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas the same day; an April 15, 2003 news story by John Donvan on the capture of Palestinian terrorist Abu Abbas, who was responsible for the 1985 hijacking of an Italian cruise ship; and John Yang’s Oct. 9, 2003 program about Palestinian female suicide bomber Hanadi Jaradat.

The Donvan story on Abu Abbas was “critical” in so far as it covered the capture of a wanted Palestinian terrorist. The other two segments – Koppel’s interview with Shanab and the Jennings report about and with Mahmoud Abbas – were tentatively critical of Palestinians, but in no way measured up to the condemnatory tone reserved for Israel in the segments about Israel’s presence in Lebanon, Israel’s "refusenik" pilots, Israel’s security fence, and Wooten’s June 11, 2003 tirade against Sharon, among others.

At first glance, the segment about young Palestinian bomber Jaradat would be the most obvious topic of the four in which “Nightline” might critically examine an aspect of Palestinian society, as it has done 12 times on the Israeli side. Yet, as documented in the Spring 2004 Media Report, that segment reversed the critical lense in providing a platform for five of Jaradat’s peers to finger alleged Israeli abuses as the cause of Jaradat’s act of terror. There was no critical examination of the Palestinian phenomenon of suicide bombing and the officially-sanctioned incitement that fuels it.

Special Treatment

“Nightlines”’s June 2003 report in particular ferociously singles out alleged Israeli wrongdoing. In one passage, for example, Yang proffers:

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. . .

In a broadcast that – in Koppel’s words – was supposed to “look back at how it all [negotiations] fell apart,”” Wooten named, cited, identified and blamed Sharon 10 times, but mentioned Yasir Arafat’s role only twice, once in positive terms, once in vaguely negative terms. (“For their part, ignoring Arafat’s occasional calls for an end to violence, the hardline militants seem to have made the chairman almost irrelevant," and "Yasir Arafat, out of step with both Palestinian moderates and militants. . . ”)

In short, there is simply no comparison to the harsh treatment that Israel received in this Wooten segment, in addition to others, among the four broadcasts focused on Palestinian issues.

Speaker Balance

To gauge whether “Nightline”’s coverage was balanced over time, CAMERA also tallied up the number of Israeli and Arab speakers who appeared during the period in question. Certain Western commentators who are clearly identified with one party such as David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Affairs (pro-Israel) and Youssef Ibrahim of the Council for Foreign Relations (pro-Palestinian) were counted for their respective sides. Likewise, the Iraqi Jews and the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Assistance Service) worker in the Jan. 20, 2004 segment were counted on the Israel side, as the depleted Jewish population in Arab lands speaks to the Israeli perspective on the conflict. Also, in the May 19, 2003 segment on the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian organization in which foreigners interfere with Israeli military actions targeted at preventing terrorism, ISM members and their relatives counted on the Palestinian side.

Judging by the numbers alone, “Nightline”’s speaker list was virtually equitable — 45 “Israelis,” and 42 “Arabs.” But, a closer look at the content of the speakers’ statements revealed quite a different picture. One-third of the speakers considered Israeli, or 15 out of 45 speakers, spoke against Israel and its policies, reinforcing the program’s emphasis on Israel as the aggressor, the culpable party acting against the wronged Palestinians. In contrast, there was no comparable discord on the Arab side. There were virtually no Arab speakers who repudiated any Palestinian action, and they were all united in their condemnation of Israel.

Thus, when the content of the speakers’ words are taken into consideration, one finds the deck egregiously stacked. Fifty-seven speakers excoriate Israel, while only 30 speakers address the conflict without attacking the Jewish state and its actions. In other words, the speakers ratio is nearly two-to-one against Israel. Furthermore, not all of the Israeli speakers who are defending Israel make accusations against the Palestinians, as those on the Arab side overwhelmingly do about Israel.

Again, the speaker imbalance underpins the “Nightline” paradigm in which Israel’s actions are continuously scrutinized, judged, and criticized, while what transpires on the Palestinian side is simply deemed irrelevant.

One-Sided Self Criticism

As previously noted, one-third of the 45 speakers on the Israeli side denounce Israel or its policies, while there is no critical self-reflection on the Palestinian side. On Dec. 2, 2003, "Nightline" devoted a whole segment to Israel’s own critics in a completely one-sided report about Israel’s pilots who object to the Israeli military’s targeted killings of Palestinians planning and implementing terrorist attacks. For example, a pilot named Assaf avers: “There’s an order that says that you shouldn’t obey an illegal order. And what we did is just obey this order. This is definitely illegal. Killing civilians is illegal.” Pilot Ron Ben Ishai states:

What we’ve been doing in the last 36 years, in the occupied territories, and especially in the last three years, since the last intifada, it’s not a part of Israeli Defense Forces. I call it Israeli occupation forces. And I, as a pilot, am not, I don’t agree. I didn’t join the air force to do it.

In the Oct. 9, 2003 segment about Israel’s West Bank barrier, Israeli Angela Godfrey states:

This is more of the same of what we’ve been living through in the past 30 years with all of the settlement building. It’s a land grab. It’s about what the military see as their version of security. And we are saying this brings more and more war.

Tellingly, in the segment immediately preceding this one, the topic was Palestinian suicide bombing – the impetus for the barrier’s construction – but not one of the several Palestinian interviewers voiced any criticism of that Palestinian practice. Instead, they all blamed Israel for Palestinian suicide bombings.

In the course of “Nightline”’s extensive coverage of the killing of Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, Israeli political commentator Yossi Alpher opines: “This will undoubtedly raise the motivation of not only Islamic terrorists, but Palestinian terrorists in general, to seek retribution.” Of course, no Arab speaker is heard denouncing Yassin’s or Hamas’ suicide bombing campaign against Israeli civilians.

In a May 19, 2003 segment about the latest events in the region–suicide bombings, Sharon’s cancellation of a trip to the United States, and “road map”efforts — Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar criticizes Israeli settlers and Ariel Sharon: “These people for him are the modern pioneers, the ultimate Zionists. And he won’t dare touch them. He won’t let anybody else touch them.” And Yossi Beilin, head of a far-left party, concurs with Mahmoud Abbas’ assessment that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians interferes with Palestinians stopping the violence:

Putting an end to violence and fighting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, right now, is impossible for the Palestinians because they don’t have the power to do that, they don’t have the force to do that.

But in the wake of five suicide bombings in 48 hours, no Arab speaker goes on the record to suggest that suicide bombings are objectionable.

In the May 18, 2004 segment about Israeli’s occupation of Lebanon, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar observes:

Being there as an occupying army, you alienate people. You are armed. You cannot avoid targeting civilians. If you don’t target them, they get killed anyway. By invading into a village, you intimidate people.

And Avraham Burg, a member of Knesset, states:

The friction is inevitable. So, here starts the process. Roadblocks, curfews, sieges. Economic sanctions, mutilation, security attitude, rather than human relations.

In contrast, “Nightline” does not air any Arab guests who criticize the Palestine Liberation Organization for setting up a chaotic and violent “mini-state” in south Lebanon, used a base from which to attack Israel.

Unreported Palestinian Issues

In the 18-month period, “Nightline” focused 15 times on Israeli issues – 12 times critically – and only four times on Palestinian issues, three of which could only be considered mildly “critical.” This imbalance, however, cannot be attributed to lack of strong story material concerning the Palestinian side, which, contrary to the illusion gained from viewing “Nightline” over time, is hardly an innocent victim in a conflict ostensibly caused and perpetuated by Israel.

Most obviously, “Nightline” neglected to do a segment on Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli victims. (The Oct. 9, 2003 segment about Hanadi Jaradat, which is a platform for airing Palestinian grievances against Israel, hardly counts.) Such a report would have explored the impact of non-stop anti-Israel propaganda and incitement to violence spewed by Palestinian textbooks, summer camps, religious and political leaders, and the government-run media. For instance, a children’s play broadcast on Palestinian Authority television during the period of the study includes a scene in which actors play dead Palestinian children. The narration says that Israelis burned Palestinians in ovens:

They [Israel] are the ones who did the Holocaust, their knife cuts to the length and width of our flesh...They opened the ovens for us to bake human beings. They destroyed the villages and burnt the cities. And when an oven stops burning, they light a hundred [more] ovens. Their hands are covered with the blood of our children (March 25, 2004, translated by Palestinian Media Watch).

In a related matter, the use of Palestinian children in the conflict, including as suicide bombers, made headlines at many news outlets during the span of the study. In March, 16-year-old Hussam Abdo, strapped with explosives, was caught at a checkpoint; an 11-year-old boy allegedly trying to smuggle explosives into Israel was stopped; and Israeli police arrested three teenagers–ages 12, 13, and 15–who said they planned a shooting attack in Afula. Although some of these stories made the front pages of American newspapers and were reported on television, “Nightline” was mute.

Also in the study’s time period were revelations of Arafat’s corruption, reported in a number of news outlets, including by CBS’s Leslie Stahl. Her Nov. 9, 2003 investigative report exposed the Palestinian leader’s secret portfolio worth more than $1 billion.

Another story unflattering to Palestinians is their use of emergency medical vehicles in attacks against Israelis. For instance, “Nightline” chose to ignore the reports that Palestinians had used a United Nations issued ambulance in an attack against Israeli soldiers. (AccessMiddleEast.org had posted footage of the May 11, 2004 incident).

Conclusion

This study had set out to determine whether “Nightline” equitably reports Israeli and Palestinian issues, and whether the program’s record is “even on the whole.” The answer is no and no.

The question now is: will the network now engage in some much needed self-criticism of its own, or will "Nightline" continue to reserve that role strictly for Israelis?


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