An in-depth study refutes ABCs claim that the programs
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 CAMERAs 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 programs
record even on the whole?
In undertaking an 18-month study of
Nightlines 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 Israelusually negativelywere not
considered.) In some cases, there were multiple segments in one evenings
broadcast, such as the March 22, 2004 program, which included various aspects
of Israels 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 Israels aggressive
activities. This formula is played out, for example, in two separate reports
that focus on Israels occupation in Lebanon (May 18, 2004 and April 22,
2004); three segments on Israels 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
Israels security fence (Oct. 9, 2003); and a Jim Wooten report which
rages against Ariel Sharon (June 11, 2003), among others.
Of the 28 segments, nine are neutral, in that
they singled out neither Israeli nor Palestinian actions. These include news
updates such as Mike Lees Aug. 19, 2003 report about bombings in Iraq and
Jerusalem; Lees 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 Sharons 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,
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 Iraqs remnant Jewish community, some of
which left for Israel since Saddam Husseins 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 Koppels
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 Yangs 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 Koppels 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 Israels presence in Lebanon, Israels
"refusenik" pilots, Israels security fence, and Wootens
June 11, 2003 tirade against Sharon, among others.
At first glance, the
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 Jaradats peers to finger alleged
Israeli abuses as the cause of Jaradats act of terror. There was
no critical examination of the Palestinian phenomenon of suicide bombing and
the officially-sanctioned incitement that fuels it.
Nightliness 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
Arafats headquarters in Ramallah, practically destroyed it with him
inside. And he shrugged off all international criticism, including
Americas, resisting most efforts to negotiate an end to the uprising,
determined to crush it one way or another. . .
In a broadcast that in Koppels 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 Arafats role only twice, once in positive terms, once
in vaguely negative terms. (For their part, ignoring Arafats
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.
To gauge whether Nightlines 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, Nightlines
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 programs 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 Israels 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 Israels own critics in a completely one-sided
report about Israels pilots who object to the Israeli militarys
targeted killings of Palestinians planning and implementing terrorist attacks.
For example, a pilot named Assaf avers: Theres an order that says
that you shouldnt 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:
been doing in the last 36 years, in the occupied territories, and especially in
the last three years, since the last intifada, its not a part of Israeli
Defense Forces. I call it Israeli occupation forces. And I, as a pilot, am not,
I dont agree. I didnt join the air force to do it.
In the Oct. 9, 2003 segment about Israels West Bank
barrier, Israeli Angela Godfrey states:
This is more of the
same of what weve been living through in the past 30 years with all of
the settlement building. Its a land grab. Its 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
barriers 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 Nightlines 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 Yassins or Hamas suicide bombing campaign against
In a May 19, 2003 segment about the latest events in the
regionsuicide bombings, Sharons cancellation of a trip to the
United States, and road mapefforts Israeli journalist Akiva
Eldar criticizes Israeli settlers and Ariel Sharon: These people for him
are the modern pioneers, the ultimate Zionists. And he wont dare touch
them. He wont let anybody else touch them. And Yossi Beilin, head
of a far-left party, concurs with Mahmoud Abbas assessment that
Israels 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 dont have the power to do that, they dont
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
In the May 18, 2004 segment about Israelis 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 dont 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 childrens 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
teenagersages 12, 13, and 15who 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 studys time period were revelations of
Arafats corruption, reported in a number of news outlets, including by
CBSs Leslie Stahl. Her Nov. 9, 2003 investigative report exposed the
Palestinian leaders 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).
This study had set out to determine whether
Nightline equitably reports Israeli and Palestinian issues, and
whether the programs 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?