Will an astounding episode of journalistic abuse be swept under the carpet by ABC News and ignored by other media? That is undoubtedly what ABC hopes in the wake of new revelations of recklessly false reporting and coverup by the network.
ABC’s David Ensor told millions of viewers tuned in to World News Tonight on October 2 that Benjamin Netanyahu "calls Rabin a traitor." The statement was untrue, and, in light of the tragic events that were to follow, its falsity took on particular importance as debate quickly focused on the pernicious role of inflammatory rhetoric.
Called upon to retract the incendiary charge, ABC’s Peter Jennings delivered a "correction" that compounded the damage done in the original segment. In the supercilious tone reserved for his reports on Israel, he said: "Though there are numerous references to him doing so in press reports from the region, and though he has spoken at antigovernment rallies where Prime Minister Rabin has been loudly condemned as a traitor, Mr. Netanyahu informs us he has never used those words himself."
Were there "numerous references" in "press reports from the region" attesting to Netanyahu’s use of the traitor epithet? A survey of major news databases yielded not a single such instance. Indeed, at least one story had the late Israeli prime minister acknowledging his opponent’s avoidance of the term, while rebuking him for not cracking down harder on extremists. The fact is, had Netanyahu actually used such language the story would have been a sensation and reported widely.
In response to a request for dates and names of publications comprising the "numerous references" to which Jennings had referred in repeating the ABC charge against Netanyahu, Richard Wald, senior vice president in charge of editorial quality, stated that "When Mr. Ensor wrote his correction, he was making reference to The Des Moines Register and to The Edmonton Journal, both of whose stories I have read."
Mr. Wald was evidently unperturbed by the discrepancy between the promised "numerous" reports "from the region" and the two presented, one from Canada and one from the Midwest. Still more absurd, the Canadian piece was an unsigned editorial that derived the traitor claim, according to an editor, from a news story in the British Guardian. A check of that publication turns up no report that the Israeli opposition leader called Rabin a traitor. The Edmonton Journal has since conceded their writers should have exercised more rigor in composing their editorial.
Significantly, the Edmonton editor said he had also recently been contacted by ABC researchers and had told them, before he knew otherwise, that the editorial was based on a Guardian news report. One assumes ABC would then have attempted to locate this story – the Guardian is easily available via electronic database – and one assumes these researchers quickly discovered no evidence of the traitor allegation. It seems inescapable that ABC cited the Edmonton Journal in full knowledge that the charge against Netanyahu was entirely unsubstantiated.
The Des Moines Register was equally specious as evidence for ABC’s assertion. The article cited was wholly derived from wire services (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post, Knight-Ridder). Again, it is a straightforward matter to track down each of the component stories and to determine which, if any, included the critical traitor phrase. CAMERA did just that and found none of the stories attribute the traitor epithet to Israel’s opposition leader. Again, it is impossible to conclude that ABC did not discover this as well.
What does all this mean? It says that from the highest levels of ABC’s news operation there was complicity in defending an indefensible, indeed a slanderous, report. ABC "researchers " were sent scurrying to find corroboration, however idiotic and flimsy, to back up reckless claims twice aired. And the network’s senior vice president in charge of editorial quality affixed his name to this travesty. It says ABC holds its viewers and its own responsibility to those viewers in such contempt that it actually expects to get away with its ludicrous claim that two relatively obscure regional newspapers are a source for its Middle East news coverage.
But, there was still more in the October 6 segment to astound anyone who looks to America’s most popular newscast for an accurate rendition of events. Just prior to Jennings’ "correction" statement, ABC ran a sequence allegedly describing what ABC is wont to call "collective punishment" perpetrated by the Rabin government. ABC claimed that one Muhammed Wahidi had suffered the destruction of his home by the Israeli military because his daughter had participated in a terrorist attack. Accompanying the account was videotape of a house being demolished.
ABC’s charges were both incendiary and erroneous. Wahidi’s house was destroyed in a military operation, on information from Israeli intelligence that terrorists were hiding in it. Subsequently, the Israelis gave Wahidi $400,000 to erect the rebuilt house also shown to viewers. Needless to say, "collective punishment" wouldn’t be punishment if it entailed reimbursement of the victim and rebuilding of his home. Untroubled by such inconsistencies, ABC omitted mention of the Israeli compensation, a standard provision when the military causes property damage.
There were still other irregularities having to do with this video of the collapsing house. The very same footage had been inserted in at least one other telecast to illustrate an entirely unrelated event. One year earlier, on October 20, 1994, the day after the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus, a Dean Reynolds report identified the demolition of Wahidi’s house as part of a "wrathful backlash" by the Rabin government against the Arabs in the wake of the slaughter of twenty-two Israelis. He specifically implies that the collapsing structure shown to viewers belongs to "Hamas activists" whose homes Israel is "demolishing…with no legal appeal." It is, of course, patently untrue that Mr. Wahidi is a Hamas activist and that his house was destroyed for that reason.
Is the public to assume that for ABC events are interchangeable, that the same footage allegedly illustrating "collective punishment" also serves as evidence for any other story, however removed in time, content, and context? How did it come about that the demolishing of Wahidi’s house as part of a military operation in April 1994 was said first to represent Israeli reprisals in the aftermath of an October 1994 terrorist attack and then to depict "collective punishment" in response to a different terror attack?
The corruption manifest in these few segments of World News Tonight alone calls for urgent and exacting review of standard practices by the network and imposition of the sternest penalties against those
responsible for the deceptions perpetrated. Yet the more likely outcome is that the media giant will stonewall and duck needed reform, adding yet another instance of gross malfeasance to a record of misconduct by major media that has contributed to plummeting public respect for these vital institutions.