When it comes to framing the Arab-Israeli conflict among Catholics in the United States, the Catholic News Service has a significant impact. According to its website, CNS articles are used by a total of 170 local Catholic newspapers and broadcasters in the U.S.
CNS also has an impact on attitudes regarding the conflict outside the United States. Seventy news organizations around the globe including Vatican Radio relay CNS articles to their audiences.
The news service was established in 1920 by Catholic Bishops in the United States and is, according to its website, editorially independent and a financially self-sustaining division of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The organization is committed to promoting the cause of the Roman Catholic Church, but at the same time, prides itself on its commitment to journalistic principles. It hires trained, professional journalists some of whom are members of the Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America.
CNS's mission statement begins as follows:
The mission of Catholic News Service is the mission of the Church itself -- to spread the Gospel through contemporary means of communication.
Our mission is to perform this task by reporting the news which affects Catholics in their everyday lives.
Some of that news is good and some is bad, but it is what readers need to know in order to work for salvation. They need to know that there are saints in the making in the Church today and they need to know that there are sinners too.
Coverage of 2014 War Skewed
Unfortunately, an assessment of its coverage of last year's fighting between Israel and Hamas (based on the articles broadcast on CNS's Twitter feed last summer) indicates that CNS did not offer its readers a full, fair or accurate picture of the conflict.
CAMERA's assessment reveals that CNS articles were marred by a number of problems.
The most obvious problem was a tendency to give Israel's critics free rein to condemn the Jewish state without obtaining a response from Israeli sources. By relaying condemnatory statements from these leaders (some of whom are Catholics), without context, and without giving Israeli officials a chance to respond, CNS offered a distorted view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In one instance, CNS's failure to get an Israeli response resulted in the broadcast of an egregious factual error (described below).
CNS also exhibited a troubling double standard when it came to exercising journalistic skepticism. The news outlet regularly reported (or relayed) reports that most of the Palestinians killed during the fighting were civilians. By relaying these unreliable reports without challenge, CNS furthered Hamas' efforts to demonize Israel.
But when it came to report on the aid allowed into the Gaza Strip, CNS reported that Israel said it allowed aid into the area, when there was no reasonable doubt that such aid was in fact allowed to enter. And whatever doubt there was about the aid allowed into the Gaza Strip could have been dispelled with a few phone calls or by sending a correspondent to the crossings into the Gaza Strip.
Another problem present in CNS's coverage of the 2014 summer was the repeated suggestion that there was a moral equivalence between the Israeli government and Hamas.
Still there were some instances when the news outlet did acknowledge Hamas wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, the overall effect of CNS's coverage of the conflict was to downplay the role Palestinian leaders, particularly Hamas, played in contributing to the suffering of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, and to exaggerate the role that Israel played in this suffering.
Hopefully, CNS will not repeat these errors when covering subsequent conflicts between Israel and its adversaries, which sadly enough, are very likely to occur.
The 2014 War An Overview
The fighting between Israel and Hamas began on July 8, 2014 and lasted seven weeks until an extended ceasefire was declared on August 26, 2014. The conflict was prompted by the kidnapping (and ultimate murder) of three Israel teens and increased rocket fire from Gaza into civilian areas of southern Israel in June.
Another factor contributing to the conflict was Israel's discovery of a network of tunnels built by Hamas for the purposes of conducting terrorist attacks in Israel.
During the fighting, 66 Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli civilians were killed. Slightly more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed as well. While Hamas leaders and cooperative media outlets said most of the Palestinians deaths were civilians, subsequent research indicates that many of the casualties initially believed to be civilians were in fact militants.
This should not come as a surprise given that Hamas instructed activists in the Gaza Strip to declare every person killed as an innocent civilian. A manual for social media activists stated baldly: Don't forget to always add 'innocent civilian' or 'innocent citizen' in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza.
It should also be noted that during the fighting, Hamas leaders bragged about the willingness of Palestinians in Gaza to put themselves on top of buildings to prevent Israeli attacks.
Latin Patriarch: They Never Killed One Person
CNS published approximately two dozen stories related to this conflict, the vast majority of which do not quote any Israeli officials directly. They do, however, include numerous quotes of Catholic officials condemning Israel.
One particularly blatant article published by the Catholic News Service is "Jerusalem Patriarch: Don't Punish all Gaza Palestinians because of Hamas," published on July 23, 2014.
This article quotes Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem, one of the Catholic church's leading figures in the Holy Land, as offering an outrageous and irresponsible misstatement of fact. In discussing the rockets fired by Hamas into civilian areas in Israel, the Patriarch says, "Remember these rockets: They make noise, they make fear, they never killed one person."
Archbishop Twal's statement that the rockets from the Gaza Strip have never killed one person is false, and demonstrably so.
In the eight days preceding the publication of the article, two Israeli civilians were killed by Hamas rockets.
The first victim, Dror Khenin, was a humanitarian worker who was killed near the Erez border crossing on July 15.
The second victim was Ouda Lafi al-Waj, a Bedouin who was killed on July 19, 2014 by a Hamas rocket that exploded near Dimona.
On the very day that Twal's statement was published by CNS, a third civilianNarakorn Kittiyangkul, a Thai worker attempting to support his family by getting a job overseaswas also killed.
To its credit, the day after Archbishop Twal offered his misleading statement about Hamas rockets not killing anyone, CNS reported
that In Israel, three people have been killed by Hamas missiles since the start of this round of fighting, including a disabled vetran and a foreign worker form Thailand, both of whom were unable to make to bomb shelters in time.
The article does not, however, remind CNS readers about Archbishop Twal's false statement, nor does it tell readers the larger story that 48 people have died
from Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from 2004-June 2014, including 26 Israeli civilians and 11 Palestinians.
The fact that CNS relayed Patriarch Twal's false statement to its readers without challenge or direct correction demonstrates just how important it is for the news service to obtain responses from Israeli sources. Any Israeli official would have immediately told CNS journalists about the deaths mentioned above.
There are other problems with the July 23 story that might have been rectified had CNS spoken with Israeli officials about Archbishop Twal's statements. The article quotes the Archbishop's complaints that while Israel has bomb shelters, Gazans do not.
It fails to mention, however, that Hamas, rather than use its cement that Israel allowed to enter the Gaza Strip to build shelters, instead allocated it for the construction of tunnels through which to conduct terror, and for bunkers that it used to store weapons and protect its leaders. Hamas prioritized its efforts to promote terror over the welfare of Palestinian civilians over whom it rules.
The article also talks about the blockade of the Gaza Strip without reporting that it was put into place only after Hamas continually used Gaza as a base for terror, and that Egypt has also imposed a blockade on its border with the Gaza Strip.
Friends With Hamas?
Twal also declared, We must be friend[s] with Hamas, we must be grateful for Hamas, because we have more extremist groups in Gaza that only Hamas can control.
This is quite a statement about an organization that is considered to be a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Japan.
Hamas is an organization that, in its charter, pledges to eliminate the State of Israel. Its leaders refuse to accept a two-state solution. Hamas is an organization that fires rockets at Israeli civilians while hiding behind civilians, urges its citizens to stay put even when Israel warns them of impending attacks, hides weaponry in schools, uses hospitals as command centers, and recruits people to act as human shields. Hamas does all these things in an effort to exercise a veto over Jewish national life in Israel. And yet this is an organization Archbishop Twal suggests that Israel and the West should befriend.
It is one thing for CNS to show deference to a Catholic Archbishop, but it is another thing altogether for the news service to allow such naiveté to go unchallenged.
CNS's tendency to quote Catholic officials without getting a response from Israeli officials manifests itself in another story published on July 9, 2014. In a piece titled Holy Land bishops criticize collective punishment' of Palestinians, CNS reports on a statement issued by the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land the previous day. The second paragraph reads as follows:
Using the death of three Israelis to exact collective punishment on the Palestinian People as a whole and on its legitimate desire to be free is a tragic exploitation of tragedy and promotes more violence and hatred, said a July 8 statement from the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land.
The accusation of collective punishment is a serious charge that goes unchallenged in the article, which does not include any response from Israeli officials.
Israeli officials would likely have responded to this and other allegations included in the article, which also contained an assertion by the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries that Israeli leadership continues to foster a discriminatory discourse of one group and obstructs the prospects of peace by allowing for the construction of settlements. The article also includes the accusation that Israeli leaders seem to believe that the occupation can be victorious by crushing the will of the people for freedom and dignity.
Sadly, CNS deprives its readers of the context they need to assess whether or not the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries has characterized Israeli actions and intentions properly.
For example, in reporting the Ordinaries' charge of collective punishment against Israel, CNS fails to report that most of the arrests in the aftermath of the kidnapping (and murder) of three Israeli teens were Hamas members or suspected members of the organization. Moreover, many of the arrestees were recently released as part of a controversial prisoner swap. And in their complaints, the Ordinaries fail to offer any suggestion to an obvious question: Exactly how was Israel supposed to respond to the kidnappings of three teenagers?
As far as the other accusations are concerned, CNS provides no information, for example, about the numerous land-for-peace offers made to Palestinian leaders over the past two decades all of which have come to naught because of decisions made by Palestinian leaders.
Nor does the article mention the 10-month settlement freeze acceded to by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2009. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to negotiate during most of this freeze, and only started talking with the Israelis toward the end of the freeze, and then demanded it be extended as a condition for continued talks.
Such information would clearly suggest that the description of Israeli actions offered by the Ordinaries is propagandistic and biased and that the Catholic organization has, like other Christian organizations, become an accomplice in Hamas' propaganda war against Israel.
Interestingly enough, the Ordinaries do condemn an unnamed group of people in Palestinian society that seeks to build a totalitarian, monolithic society, in which there is no room for difference or diversity. This seems like a reference to Hamas, but is there no direct reference to the organization? Are the Ordinaries afraid of reprisals from Hamas, and if so, why does CNS fail to point this out to its readers?
The article also relays, without challenge, a statement by the Ordinaries that Resistance to occupation cannot be equated with terrorism. This is simply outrageous in the aftermath of three teens being kidnapped and in the context of thousands of Hamas rockets coming from the Gaza Strip territory from which Israel withdrew in 2005.
By failing to include an Israeli response to such propagandizing on the part of the Ordinaries, CNS is not living up the standards of journalism.
In addition to including in its articles a very limited number of sources and quotes from Israelis, CNS articles that do offer the Israeli viewpoint do so vaguely and with skepticism.
Most often, the articles refer to an argument made by the Israeli government as "Israel has said," even in cases in which the facts could have been checked.
For instance, one article published on July 14, 2014 declares, "Israel has said it is keeping humanitarian corridors into Gaza open." Another article published on July 11, 2014 similarly states that "Israel has said it continues to allow food and humanitarian supplies to be taken into Gaza by truck.
The appropriate action here for a news outlet to take would be to verify whether or not humanitarian corridors are open, and then to state this information as a fact. By inserting the qualifier, "Israel says," CNS implies that it is skeptical about these claims made by Israel, and that the readers should be uncertain as well, even in cases in which the information could and should have been verified.
By way of comparison, CNS exhibited much less skepticism regarding claims about the identity of most of the Palestinians who were killed during the fighting.
For example, a July 17, 2014 CNS article states Media reported July 17 that more than 220 Palestinians, mostly civilians, had been killed
In an August 4, 2014 article, CRS official: Gaza a complete catastrophe' on brink of collapse, states that More than 1,800 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed
And on August 27, 2014, CNS reported about numerous attempts to end a seven-week conflict in which more than 2,100 largely civilian Palestinians were killed.
Interestingly enough, in these articles, CNS does not report its sources for these claims, but merely report the statistics as reliable facts.
This is irresponsible. These repeated assertions that most of the Palestinians who were killed were innocent civilians, which were ultimately based on Hamas propaganda, have since proven to be unreliable. As stated above, such propagandizing
is a regular feature of Hamas' strategy. Simply put, Hamas regularly conceals the identity of its fighters when they are killed in battle and insists that its followers describe them as innocent civilians. While it takes a few months for researchers to uncover the actual identity of the people killed, this is not a new strategy for Hamas.
It has behaved like this in previous fights with Israel, and yet CNS's reporting did not take this into account in its coverage of the conflict.
There were some instances when CNS provided some important information to its readers. For example, in an article
published on July 30, 2014, Text said to evacuate, but Gaza parish staff had nowhere to go, Judith Sudilovsky provided detail about Israeli efforts to avoid civilian casualties by sending text messages to people living near targets. She even quoted one source who said in part that Hamas militants continue to fire rockets and then hide in the alleys. This quote is one instance in which CNS reveals important information about the role Hamas played in putting the inhabitants of Gaza at risk.
Another article, also written by Sudilovsky, included some important testimony from Sami El-Yousef, Catholic Near East Welfare Association's regional director for Palestine and Israel. The August 9, 2014 article
, titled Aid official says Gazans cautious, worry that nothing has changed, includes the following passage:
"In the eyes of most people there was a concerted effort (by the Israelis) to try to give sufficient warning, unless there was an immediate danger of shooting by militants in the area or unless it was the home of an intended operative. Some families responded and others didn't," said El-Yousef.
Here CNS correspondent Sudilovsky provides readers with information about Israeli efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
Deference Versus Journalistic Integrity
The articles published by CNS during the last round of fighting between Israel and Hamas reveal that the organization is in a bind. As a Catholic institution, CNS has to show some deference to Catholic leaders in the Holy Land. Sadly this deference sometimes comes at the expense of its journalistic integrity.