After PBS Correction, Question Remains

CAMERA’s Two-Year Effort to Reform Anti-Israel Bias at PBS
The Case of Journey to the Occupied Lands: A Guide for the Perplexed

CAMERA’s Charge PBS’s Reply Producer’s
Reply
Frontline
“Investigation”
CAMERA (1993): Satellite images alleged to show Israeli communities crowding out West Bank Arab villages are fraudulent. In fact, according to scholarly surveys, two of the Arab villages shown in the images, Kifl Harith and Salfit, have exhibited uncontrolled expansion and growth in all directions. PBS News & Information Head Sandra Heberer (1994): Your major charge of fraud concerning the satellite photo is completely unfounded … Your willingness to leap to a conclusion of fraud and to level such a serious charge publicly … speaks volumes about your own research methodology and objectivity. Michael Ambro- sino, Producer of Journey, in his reply (1994): CAMERAs charges of fake satellite images are false and slanderous. FRONTLINE independent investigator Lou Wiley (1995): CAMERA is right about the growth of Arab villages and about the satellite image, but since the lab switched the image without informing Ambrosino, there was no fraud.
CAMERA: The heart of the film, the charge that Israel stole the land of West Bank farmer Sabri Gharib, is also fake. In fact, after Israeli courts awarded Gharib title to 24 dunams of state land based on a form of squatters rights, he tried to take possession of a much larger plot that had been privately owned by Jews since the 1920s. PBS’s Heberer: Your charges about Sabri Gharib appear to be based on confusion between legal proceedings involving confiscation of two different parcels of Gharibs land. … We have seen nothing … to make us doubt the factual accuracy of Journey to the Occupied Lands. Ambrosino: Safian gets confused as he plunges into the story of Sabri Gharib. Wiley: CAMERA is right, Ambrosino is wrong. His claim that Gharib won a partial victory is untrue. But since other Palestinians have had their land stolen, the viewer was not deceived by these errors.
CAMERA: Ambrosino endorsed a Palestinian town planners false charge that by allegedly not allowing home building, Israel has forced West Bank Arabs to live in ghetto communities. In fact, Palestinian building on the West Bank has grown explosively, both with and without permits from Israel. PBS’s Heberer: Avoiding a direct response, Heberer claimed, In keeping with his professional interests, Ambrosino is extremely meticulous in his research methods … [and his information] leads us to conclude that your report is an irresponsible and truly questionable piece of research. Ambrosino: … Safian misunderstands … [that the issue is] … whether … villages and towns can expand… Wiley: The staggering number of illegally built [Arab] houses which have not been torn down is not mentioned… the failure of the film to address the point is likely to leave the viewer with the misimpression that Palestinians have been completely held inside their villages.
CAMERA: Ambrosino falsely charged in Journey that Israel oppresses Gaza citrus farmers by prohibiting direct export to Western Europe. In fact, Gaza farmers, Israel, and the EEC reached an agreement allowing such exports in 1988. (A memo which was later leaked to CAMERA proves that Ambrosinos charge was not just a mistake, it was a willful deception.) PBS’s Heberer: Avoiding a direct response, Heberer claimed, There is ample room for reasonable people of good will to disagree … but there is no room in that debate for baseless, ad hominem attacks on a man of Michael Ambrosinos professional reputation and character. Ambrosino: As we say in the film, after 1967 Israel barred Palestinians from exporting directly to the European markets. Wiley: … there is no doubt that direct Palestinian exports to Europe resumed in 1988, contrary to what [Ambrosino] says. (Wiley ignores the leaked memo which proves his old friend was caught in a lie.)

Official admissions that the PBS-FRONTLINE documentary Journey to the Occupied Lands was marred by errors have led to unprecedented actions:

  • A correction aired by FRONTLINE in June;

  • A corrective memo and replacement offer circulated by PBS to previous purchasers of Journey video cassettes and transcripts;

  • Remastering of the Journey video to incorporate the corrections;

  • And, finally, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting report to Congress calling on the publicly-funded network to prevent the airing of biased or inaccurate films in the future by creating a fact-checking department. (PBS had given prior assurances to CAMERA that such a department would be established.)

After the January 1993 broadcast of Journey to the Occupied Lands PBS agreed that CAMERA’s charges of material errors, distortions, and omissions would be extremely serious — if true. But without honestly determining the merits of the case against Journey, PBS simply assured all concerned that CAMERA was “irresponsible” for leveling charges which were “absolutely untrue.”

Now, after two years of flatly denying that Journey–to cite a few examples–used fake satellite images to illustrate false claims that Israeli communities were crowding out West Bank Arab villages, false stories of Israeli theft of Palestinian land, and a fabricated tale alleging Israeli oppression of Gaza citrus farmers via prohibition of citrus exports, PBS’s new position is that these and other “minor errors” did not detract from the film’s overall “accuracy.” Indeed, PBS has even portrayed their long-delayed and grudging correction as proof of their deep devotion to factual and objective reporting.

While CAMERA’s exposé of Journey to the Occupied Lands has forced PBS to take unparalleled and painful actions, which the network would clearly prefer to avoid in the future, the continuing official defense of Journey is a warning that commitment to accuracy and fair play is not the compass guiding PBS polices.

Ensuring Genuine Reform at PBS

CAMERA members have played a crucial role in the successes of the reform effort thus far. Continuing to press the issue at the local and national levels is essential.

Reform also depe
nds on genuine Congressional oversight and enforcement of Federal laws which require CPB-funded programming to provide “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”

CAMERA is calling on PBS:

  • To create a truly independent fact-checking department which will rigorously examine, prior to broadcast, all PBS documentaries for objectivity, balance and factual accuracy.

  • To assign as a first task of this department a full and fair examination of the entire Journey to the Occupied Lands affair: The documentary itself, the initial PBS reaction to CAMERA’s findings of material error and fraud, the decision to appoint the film’s Executive Editor, Louis Wiley, as FRONTLINE’s “independent investigator,” Wiley’s decision to delay his report more than two months to take account of further information provided by Journey‘s producer Michael Ambrosino (in contrast, CAMERA was offered no opportunity to provide further information), the content of Wiley’s report, and finally, PBS’s continued obfuscation even in its broadcast correction.

CAMERA members must make public broadcasters understand that unless PBS is finally cured of its anti-Israel bias, the network will continue to lose ground in reputation and audience size, as well as financial support.

Now is not the time to resume financial support for PBS.