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Media Analyses

NBC Defends False Comparison of Muhammad Al-Dura to Iranian Victim

The shocking images of the young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltani, shot by a sniper, collapsing mortally wounded, bleeding and dying on June 20, 2009 in Teheran, as bystanders frantically tried to save her were seen by millions on the Internet and television. The event vividly illustrated for people everywhere the brutal — and human — realities of the election crisis in Iran.
In several cases, news reports about Neda wrongly compared her death to the discredited story of Palestinian Muhammad al-Dura who became a centerpiece of a global anti-Israel propaganda assault beginning in the fall of 2000 that spread hatred of the Jewish state and stoked violence in the region.
NBC's Richard Engel, Chief Foreign Correspondent for the network, invoked the false comparison during a June 22 interview on MSNBC's Keith Olbermann program. In response to Olbermann noting that major political upheavals such as the one in Iran often produce an identifiable martyr, Engel interrupted to tie the tragedy of Neda Soltani to Muhammad al-Dura. He characterized al-Dura as "a symbol of injustice" and termed Soltani's death "a similar moment." Here's the video clip:
CAMERA contacted NBC to urge the network to set the record straight and clarify there is no similarity between Neda's death and the al-Dura story. On the contrary, they are opposites, one being an undeniable killing and the other a media scandal of epic proportions and a libel against Israel. Although the NBC segment was a brief one, it offers a truly troubling insight into the network and its Chief Foreign Correspondent who has covered the Middle East extensively, but is seemingly unaware of the facts of the al-Dura case, including vast evidence showing Israeli soldiers could not have shot al-Dura and that on the same day in the same place Palestinians were continuously staging events and faking injuries.
The failure of the mainstream media, including NBC, to investigate the al-Dura case and report the full facts has helped keep alive the pernicious lie that Israel shot Muhammad al-Dura.In particular, viewers should have been told about the dramatic ruling of a French court in May 2008 that concluded journalist Philippe Karsenty was justified in accusing the French network that broadcast the al-Dura story of fraud on the basis of the evidence.  (MSNBC's Lester Holt actually did interview James Fallows in May 2003 and heard about that author's conclusion that Israel could not have shot al-Dura. The question is why NBC's Chief Foreign Correspondent seems unaware of the exposé. Nor did NBC report the French court findings.)
NBC responded to CAMERA saying the complaint submitted was "a cheap shot" that sought to "discredit" Mr. Engel. Below are the June 22 MSNBC segment and the CAMERA exchange with NBC. In deference to the fact that NBC News President Steve Capus communicated privately via email with CAMERA, his letter is not reproduced in full but rather excerpted. CAMERA would be glad to publish it or any other response in full that NBC would provide to explain Engel's comparing Muhammad al-Dura to Neda Agha-Soltani.
MSNBC segment:
June 22, 2009

KEITH OLBERMANN: To the point of Neda Soltani, I don't know that there has ever been a revolution or even a near revolution that did not have an identifiable face, a martyr. You think of everything from Tiananmen square to Lexington and Concord.

RICHARD ENGEL (Chief Foreign Correspondent) : (interrupting) I was thinking more ... you remember Muhammad al Dura, the boy who was shot in gaza?


ENGEL: In his father's arms...


ENGEL: And who became a symbol of injustice. I think this is a similar moment.

CAMERA sent the following letter to Richard Engel and cc'd it to Steve Capus, head of NBC News, on June 25:
Dear Mr. Engel,
We're extremely troubled by your exchange three nights ago with Keith Olbermann in which you compared the shooting death of Neda Agha Soltani — revealed in its tragic and bloody reality in spontaneous filming on the streets of Teheran — to the discredited Muhammad al Dura event of September 2000 in Gaza. Given your familiarity with the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was startling to hear you so energetically insert into the discussion the case of al Dura — especially without noting the scandal that surrounds the France 2 network in perpetrating what is widely believed to be a hoax.
Numerous independent analysts and ballistics experts have confirmed Israel could not have shot al Dura, including James Fallows in The Atlantic, Esther Shapira on German television ARD and others. Numerous analysts, including senior French journalists, have also noted the undeniable fact that Palestinians were staging events and filming them the same day in the same place.
An enormous body of research exists on the entire issue. Indeed, a French court concluded a year ago that the charges of fraudulence and staging in the case were credible on the basis of the vast evidence presented — and that Philippe Karsenty who had been sued for defamation for claiming the event was a hoax had a reasonable basis for leveling the charge. Given all this it seems inexplicable that you would interject the statement that al Dura "was shot in Gaza ... in his father's arms."
Moreover, he may, in your words, have become " a symbol of injustice"— but not at all for the reasons you imply. The great injustice is that Israel was blamed falsely for killing a child, an allegation that spawned a tidal wave of propaganda and enmity against the Jewish state. The further injustice is that France 2, its Jerusalem bureau chief and its camera man have not been held accountable for unleashing the calumny.
It's unclear why you consider Soltani's heart-rending death "a similar moment." Obviously you're not suggesting this was a staged propaganda event.
We'd ask that you follow up the June 22 segment with a clarification that the shooting of Neda Soltani may become an emblem of the current Iranian turmoil — but that it differs completely from al Dura — which is an example of the way false images are employed to promote political causes and incite hatred.
Thank you for your attention to this and we look forward to hearing from you with regard to setting the record straight as soon as possible.
Best regards,
Andrea Levin
Executive Director, CAMERA
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East
Reporting in America
On June 30, Steve Capus, President of NBC News, responded claiming CAMERA had mischaracterized Richard Engel's statements and we were trying to "discredit" him. He said the reporter is "brave" and has won "every single major journalism award." Capus said "If you were truly dedicated to advancing journalism, you would be going out of your way to praise Richard for his work – rather than taking a cheap shot." He concluded saying, Mr. Engel is "a non-biased, dedicated journalist. NBC News considers itself lucky to have him."
On July 7, CAMERA responded to the NBC letter as follows:
Dear Mr. Capus,

I appreciate your responding to my note about Richard Engel's June 22 statements. Unfortunately, you've not addressed the substantive issues raised. I objected to a factually false analogy made by Mr. Engel and you've answered by praising him generally and asking why I'm not grateful for your correspondent's reporting on other matters. I'd ask again that you consider the specifics of the concerns presented. They are not, in your words, a "cheap shot" or an effort to "discredit Mr. Engel."

They are an attempt to set the record straight on a serious matter.

Whether intentional or not, NBC has helped spread misinformation on a highly controversial subject, Muhammad al Dura, and has wrongly equated the discredited account of the Palestinian boy's killing to the actual murder of Neda Agha Soltani in Teheran. Contrary to the NBC report, the two events are not "similar." One was bogus -- as underscored by extensive documentation -- and the other was true. One was an exploitation and manipulation of imagery to incite hatred and violence while the other was an unstaged image of an actual event.

As journalists, you are surely not arguing there is no difference between an event that actually occurred and one that was staged.

Moreover, to say Al Dura became a "symbol of injustice" is to further mislead viewers. As noted previously, the injustice was Israel being libeled and millions of people being deceived into believing al Dura had been shot by Israeli soldiers. (Again, as noted, ballistics experts and others have concluded it would have been impossible for Israeli soldiers who had an obstructed view of al Dura to have shot him.) The harm done by the al Dura case in distorting world opinion, in inciting violence against Israelis and in thwarting peaceful relations is incalculable.

Rather than furthering public confusion and misunderstanding on the matter, NBC would better serve its viewers by airing a program on the full story of al Dura and its tragic consequences. Such a program would dispel any misconceptions purveyed. We again urge you take measures to correct the record, whether in a statement of clarification or in a corrective story.

Thank you once more for your consideration of these matters,

Andrea Levin
As of this writing, NBC has not responded to the July 7 communication. CAMERA did not, of course, raise questions about Mr. Engel's bravery or his stature as a journalist and recipient of awards, but rather challenged a specific, serious, erroneous statement he made on an important issue. In response, Mr. Capus ignored entirely the content of the concerns.
The tendency of some media institutions to view substantive complaint by members of the public as an affront — an outrage even — rather than as a normal and needed process that makes coverage more accurate and complete, is symptomatic of institutions unaccustomed to accountability. But just as NBC and other media outlets devote much of their energies to challenging the conduct of virtually every other institution in our society, American viewers are entitled to challenge NBC for its performance.


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