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Journalists





PBS Ombudsman Upholds CAMERA Criticism of Ben Rhodes' Settlements Falsehood


PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler upholds CAMERA's criticism of the Dec. 23 "NewsHour" interview in which anchor Judy Woodruff failed to challenge or correct a false claim by Ben Rhodes, President Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, that Israel is constructing "tens of thousands of West Bank" settlements.
 
As CAMERA noted last week, Rhodes defended the controversial American abstention that day regarding United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, arguing:
The fact of the matter is, though, I think if you look at the map of the West Bank, if you look at the future of the two-state solution, these settlements are encroaching further and further beyond the separation barrier that the Israelis themselves built, thousands of new settlements are being constructed and, frankly, if these trends continue, it will be impossible to realize a two-state solution.
Later in the interview, when Woodruff questioned him about bipartisan criticism of the abstention, Rhodes doubled down, increasing the figure to "tens of thousands of settlements being constructed":
Well, look, we respect, of course, friends on both sides of the aisle who have expressed different views on this. Again, I think the question is going to be when history looks at these types of decisions, when people look back and they say, you saw tens of thousands of settlements being constructed, you saw as was addressed in the resolution, incitement to violence on the Palestinian side.

 
In light of the fact that Israel has built no new settlements in approximately two decades, and that there are a total of just 131 settlements plus 97 illegal outposts in the West Bank, CAMERA contacted "NewsHour" editors  as well as PBS ombudsman Michael Getler to request an on the air correction as well as an online correction.
 

 
In a thorough column Friday, Getler sought and received a response from Rhodes, and ultimately upheld CAMERA's correction request, stating "it merits some kind of correcting or clarifying statement by the NewsHour on the air or online or both." An excerpt of his post ("The Mailbag: Settlements, Settlement Units, Settlers") follows:
But in the course of the interview, Rhodes’ grip on strategic communications failed him at two points when he talked about “thousands of new settlements are being constructed” and later on when he said, “…when people look back and they say, you saw tens of thousands of settlements being constructed…”

CAMERA Focuses

On Jan. 10, I got an email from the ever-vigilant, pro-Israel, Boston-based media watch organization known as CAMERA, for Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. It said, in part: “Ben Rhodes falsely claimed that Israel is constructing ‘tens of thousands’ of settlements in the West Bank. Zero settlements are under construction and there have been no new settlements in some two decades. The total number of settlements and illegal outposts combined, according to the anti-settlement watch group Peace Now, is 228. While Judy Woodruff did an overall professional job in this interview, she failed to challenge Rhodes on his completely inflated, false figure and to inform viewers that his figure was not even close. We urge PBS to broadcast a correction and post it online as well.”

I’ve asked the NewsHour about this and will post their response if and when I get one. For most people who have followed the seemingly never-ending Arab-Israeli dispute reasonably closely over the years, they will probably be aware that there are not tens of thousands or even thousands of Israeli settlements on the territories it occupied after the 1967 war. On the other hand, there are, in increasing numbers, several hundreds of thousands, of Israelis living within what are hundreds of settlements.

I contacted Rhodes and he responded quickly, saying in an email, “I assume I was referring to settlers/individual settlement units, rather than settlement blocs.” I asked what he meant by settlement units and he said he’d describe them as “housing, whereas settlements are generally used to refer to a cluster of houses (which can obviously take different forms—apartments, houses, etc).”

My Thoughts

So it seems clear to me that Rhodes misspoke when he talked about thousands and tens of thousands of settlements, but meaning what may be called settlement units or living quarters within established and official settlements. And it also seems to me that while this was a misstatement by a guest rather than the interviewer, it merits some kind of correcting or clarifying statement by the NewsHour on the air or online or both. I have some sympathy for both guest and interviewer on this because when one thinks about this issue, it is easy to slip in a live interview from settlements to settlers, and the focus usually is on the numbers of Israelis now living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nevertheless, this is always a hot-button issue and worthy of keeping straight. [Emphasis added.]

CAMERA commends Michael Getler for his timely decision to tackle the issue thoroughly and for upholding CAMERA's call for "NewsHour" to correct. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that "NewsHour" has failed to respond to PBS' own ombudsman. Along with Getler, CAMERA continues to call on "NewsHour" to correct Ben Rhodes' baseless statement regarding "tens of thousands" of settlements, both on the air and online.
 
Jan. 18 Update: "NewsHour" Takes Completely Inadequate Step
 
Within the last two days, in response to communication from CAMERA staff and members, “NewsHour” has taken the completely inadequate step of appending the following unclear note to the bottom of the online transcript:
After this broadcast aired, the group CAMERA asked about one of Ben Rhodes’ answers regarding the number of Israeli settlements. The PBS Ombudsman spoke to Rhodes, who offered a clarification. You can read more in the Ombudsman column here.
As we reported earlier, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler on Friday commendably agreed with CAMERA that a correction is in order, noting that the question of settlements “is always a hot-button issue and worthy of keeping straight.” The cryptic and insufficient note (not a correction or clarification) that “NewsHour” appended to the online transcript completely fails to provide readers with the critical information to help them keep the issue straight. Unless readers follow the link to the ombudsman’s detailed column (a step that most are not likely to take), they would have no way of knowing that PBS’ own ombudsman agreed with CAMERA that Rhodes’ figures were absurdly inflated and not even remotely close to reality.
 
“NewsHour” conceals the fact that Rhodes provided a completely bogus figure for the number of Israeli settlements, stating “the group CAMERA asked about one of Ben Rhodes’ answers regarding the number of Israeli settlements.” We did not “ask” about “one” of his numbers, we clearly and unequivocally demonstrated that he was flat out wrong in two instances.
 
Rhodes’ “clarification” to Michael Getler in the ombudsman’s column in no way exonerates “NewsHour” itself from setting the record straight in each of the places where the falsehood appeared on its platforms. Rhodes told Getler: “I assume I was referring to settlers/individual settlement units, rather than settlement blocs.” Getler then asked Rhodes what he meant by settlement units and Rhodes replied, “housing, whereas settlements are generally used to refer to a cluster of houses (which can obviously take different forms—apartments, houses, etc).”
 
Moreover, while Getler provides data in line with the figures that CAMERA provided for the total number of settlements, the “NewsHour” note, supposedly meant to clear things up, doesn’t provide any data. It just refers people to Getler’s column, perhaps assuming they won’t bother to go there. Finally, the cryptic appended note does not begin to address the fact that the error was broadcast on the air, and therefore should be clearly corrected on the air. Nor does any correction appear on NewsHour’s youtube channel, which also posted the interview.

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