Christian Century Stonewalling on Star Columnist’s Error

Christian Century magazine, the house organ for mainline Protestantism in the United States, has refused to correct a serious misstatement of fact in a column written by its star columnist, James M. Wall. In a piece entitled “War Plan,” which appeared in the Sept. 5, 2006 issue of Christian Century, Wall condemns Israel for attacking Hezbollah rather than negotiating after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in an attack on July 12.

Wall’s preference for rewarding Hezbollah for abducting Israeli soldiers is questionable, but he is welcome to his opinion. He is not welcome, however, to make up his own facts. Wall falsely reports, “It was not until after Israeli attacks inside Lebanon that Hezbollah began to fire rockets into northern Israel.” Later in the same piece, Wall characterizes Israel’s air strikes in Lebanon as a “preemptive strike.”

Wall is wrong. The New York Times, National Public Radio, the Associated Press, Ha’aretz, and United Press International all report that the hostilities, which began on July 12, were initiated with Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel.

On Thursday July 13, 2006, the New York Times reported:

The fighting on the Lebanese border erupted around 9 a.m., when Hezbollah attacked several Israeli towns with rocket fire, wounding several civilians, the Israeli military said. But that attack was a diversion for the main operation, several miles to the east, where Hezbollah militants fired antitank missiles at two armored Humvees patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence, the military said. Of the seven soldiers in the two jeeps, three were killed, two wounded and two abducted, the military said.

Linda Gradstein from National Public Radio reported the following on July 12, 2006:

What happened this morning is, Hezbollah guerrillas launched Katyusha rockets and mortars at both army outposts and little towns in Northern Israel. At least eight people were reported wounded, and these two soldiers were kidnapped.

On July 12, the Associated Press reported:

Hezbollah fighters began their attack Wednesday by firing a barrage of rockets at several communities in northwestern Israel. The guerillas then crossed the border and launched a surprise attack on two Israeli HumVees, killing three soldiers, wounding two and capturing the two others, the army said.

On July 13, Ha’aretz reported that simultaneously with the ambush that led to the kidnapping, “Hezbollah also launched a diversionary attack: a barrage of mortar shells and Katyusha rockets on communities and IDF outposts in the western part of the border area. That assault wounded five civilians, though none seriously: Some were lightly wounded, and the others suffered from shock.”

And on July 12, the United Press International reported the following:

The violence erupted in the early morning hours when Hezbollah gunmen fired katyusha rockets and mortars from the western sector of south Lebanon across the border, targeting the Israeli military outpost of Nourit.

These five reports demonstrate that Wall got it wrong when he asserted that “It was not until after those initial Israeli attacks inside Lebanon that Hezbollah began to fire rockets into northern Israel.” Wall’s characterization of Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s incursion and rocket fire as a “pre-emptive strike” is false as well, since obviously Hezbollah had already initiated the hostilities by firing rockets upon Israeli civilians and soldiers.

CAMERA contacted Executive Editor David Heim on September 7 to inform him of the misstatement of fact. His response was that the chronology was too “murky” to conclude that James M. Wall got it wrong in his piece. The following day, after another discussion in which CAMERA pointed out the coverage from the New York Times, NPR and the Associated Press, Heim asked for citations. On September 8, CAMERA provided Heim with the five articles demonstrating that, indeed, Wall had gotten it wrong.

Heim’s response, which arrived on Monday, Sept. 11 stated: “This seems to me an argument over a technical point concerning that first skirmish, an argument that is not that decisive for most readers or for the analysis of the war.” Upon subsequent challenge from CAMERA on Sept. 12, Heim said Christian Century will not issue an on-the-record correction because it is a technical point, and that he tries to reserve space in the magazine for “crucial” issues.

Wall’s misstatement of fact is, by any measure of the word, a crucial error because it goes to the heart of Wall’s portrayal of Israel as an unreasonable, aggressor nation.

Christian Century has issued corrections on subjects of much less importance. On April 18, 2006, the magazine devoted 93 words to a correction of an article that mistakenly attributed the authorship of a gospel song, “I Was There When It Happened,” to Grand Ole Opry star Jimmie Davis, when it fact it was written by Fern Jones.

On June 28, 2005, the magazine published a correction that gave the correct URL for the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

And on Nov. 16, 2004, the magazine published a correction regarding the true publisher of Marva Dawn’s book, Unfettered Hope. Originally, the magazine said the book was published by Eerdmans, when in fact, it was published by Westminster John Knox.

These corrections, coupled with David Heim’s assertion that James M. Wall’s error does not require an on-the-record correction because it is not “crucial,” indicate the existence of a troubling double-standard at work in the pages of Christian Century.
When it comes to reporting or commentary on the Middle East conflict, readers who trust the magazine’s coverage on matters of fact do so at their own risk.

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