Critical Thinking: Can You Trust Everything You Read?

Current Events is a mini-magazine for middle school students published by Weekly Reader, a company whose materials are used in over 90 percent of American public school districts and which describes itself as “a leader in the educational field.” Unfortunately, the Sept. 7, 2001 issue of Current Events carried a Special Report entitled “Will Violence Engulf the Middle East,” which includes many serious factual errors and distortions.

I. Language: Consider how language can affect the meaning of a news report, whether by giving false information or by unfairly favoring a certain point of view.

1) First, the article repeatedly refers to “Palestine” as if it were a present day place, stating, for example: “If you think that is an exaggeration, take a look at Palestine, the part of the Middle East mainly occupied by Israel. Palestine, also known as the Holy Land, is held sacred by three religions. . .” In fact, there is no present day place called Palestine. Land currently under control of the Palestinian Authority (which is the government of the Palestinian people) is properly referred to as Palestinian Authority areas. Nor is Israel currently “occupying” what was once Palestine. Israel was legitimately established by the League of Nations Mandate and later by the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan on land which had previously been a British Mandate (and before that under Turkish control.) Never was Palestine an independent state, and thus it cannot be said that Israel is in any way “occupying” it. Current Events‘ wording reflects the views of the most extreme Palestinian radicals who believe that Israel has no legitimate right to exist.

2) It is inaccurate to describe the current Palestinian violence as an armed uprising “against Israel’s continued presence, especially its settlements and army installations, in the West Bank and Gaza.” That language ignores the fact that Palestinians rejected Israel’s offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000 to withdraw from all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank. (Palestinians were offered land within Israel, in the Negev, in exchange for the small piece of West Bank land to remain under Israeli control.) If the Palestinians’ goal was for Israel to leave the West Bank and Gaza, they could have accepted this plan. At the least, they could have used it as a basis of negotiation, instead of rejecting it and attacking Israelis. (A few paragraphs down, the author attributes the current Palestinian uprising to “disagreements over peace accords.” Which one, then, was the real cause of the violence–anger about Israeli settlements or disagreements about peace agreements? In the Israeli viewpoint, the Palestinian desire to destroy all of Israel was the reason for the violence.)

Questions: Why is it important for journalists to choose their words carefully in news reports? How can reporters be sure that they are using the most accurate and fair language? What should they do if they made a mistake in their language?

II. Getting Your Facts Right: Factual errors can be errors of omission or commission. Omission means that something important was not said, and as a result, readers are misled. In errors of commission, the reporter gives information which is not true. See if you can tell if the following errors are errors of omission or commission.

1) The article incorrectly states that the intifada broke out Sept. 28, 2000, after Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount. The violence actually began before Sharon went up on the holy site. On the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 27, an Israeli soldier was fatally injured by a roadside bomb at the Netzarim Junction in Gaza. Moreover, while Current Events reports the Palestinian charge which blames Sharon’s Temple Mount stroll for causing the violence, it ignores the overwhelming evidence–including statements by Palestinian officials–which contradicts this view. Among the Palestinian leaders who admit that Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount did not cause the widespread violence is Palestinian Communications Minister Imad al-Faluji, who stated March 3, 2001:

Whoever thinks that the Intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque, is wrong, even if this visit was the straw that broke the back of the Palestinian people. This Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the table upside down on President Clinton. (quoted in Al-Safir, March 3).

Faluji had made similar statements in December 2000. Similarly, Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the riots in the West Bank, acknowledged that the uprising was pre-planned since Camp David:

The explosion would have happened anyway. It was necessary in order to protect Palestinian rights. (quoted in the New Yorker, Jan. 29, 2001)

2) The writer continues with the mistaken claim that six “infants” were killed in the Aug. 9 bombing at the Jerusalem pizzeria. While six Israeli children between the ages of two and 16 were tragically murdered, no infants were killed.

3) In another factual error, the reporter writes that “Palestinians villages have been bulldozed to make way for Jewish settlements.” This claim is patently false; while settlements have certainly grown over the last few decades, this growth has not occurred as a result of bulldozing or displacing Palestinian villages. While Israel has bulldozed Palestinian structures, these are usually buildings that Palestinian gunmen use for cover when they shoot at Israeli civilians and soldiers.

4) Current Events further distorts reality when it falsely suggests that Arafat does not support terrorism, stating: “On the Palestinian side, many have turned away from Arafat and given their support to anti-Israel terror groups such as Hamas.” Likewise, the article asserts that it is Hamas which is providing Palestinian schoolchildren with an “education in killing.” This is misleading. In actuality, it is Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, which is responsible for the education of the majority of children who attend the government-run schools which teach children to kill Jews. In addition, following the June 21 bombing in Tel Aviv, in which 21 young Israelis were killed, Arafat sent a letter of congratulations to the family of the suicide bomber.

Questions: Do you think it is easy for reporters to get the facts straight concerning conflicts in faraway places? What difficulties might they encounter? How can they overcome them? What should be done when errors are pointed out to journalists after the story is already printed?

III. Biased Reporting: Reporters of news stories should not include their own opinions in the articles. If two sides have conflicting points of view, the reporters should record both. If one side is giving false information, and the reporter is able to determine it is false, he or she should say so.

1) Current Events‘ characterization of “hotly debated issues” identified as “roadblocks to a final peace agreement” is highly biased. The issues noted are: the status of Jerusalem, full Palestinian nationhood, and settlements. All of these are issues which the Palestinians ha ve placed on the agenda; entirely ignored are the issues that Israel considers key “roadblocks to a final peace agreement,” including the many Palestinian violations of the peace accords such as terrorism, anti-Semitic incitement (hateful statements which encourage violence), the widespread presence and use of illegal weapons, and a hugely oversized Palestinian “police” force.

Questions: What is bias? Is there such a thing as news reports that are not biased? How can you recognize bias?

IV. False Comparisons

This article also falsely and outrageously equates the official hate education of the Palestinian school system to the hateful views of some Israeli individuals:

Maps of the West Bank used in Palestinian schools, for instance, show only the names of Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel [sic]. They do not show the names of Israeli communities erected in their place. Israeli maps make no reference to destroyed Palestinian towns. Israel is portrayed as the enemy is Palestinian schools, and in many communities, Palestinians are seen as Israel’s enemy.

It is hardly surprising that maps that American students like you use do not identify the sites of ruined Native American villages. Likewise, Israeli maps do not label the lost Arab villages. Yet, even this comparison is unfair to Israel since Europeans did wipe out Native American lands and culture. In contrast, in the Israeli-Palestinian case, it was the Palestinians who attempted to destroy Israel in a war they started in 1948. (Had they won, Israel no doubt would have been destroyed.) In fact, it was Arab leaders themselves who were responsible for the flight of Palestinian Arabs, who left behind empty villages. When five neighboring Arab countries declared war on the brand new Jewish state in 1948, the leaders urged the Palestinian Arab residents to flee, promising them they could return after the expected Arab victory. Even Haled al Azm, the Syrian Prime Minister in 1948-49, acknowledged the Arab leadership’s responsibility in creating a mass Arab exodus from Mandate Palestine: “Since 1948, we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return” (The Memoirs of Haled al Azm, p. 386-7).

Questions: When two situations are not equivalent, should journalists nevertheless present them as if they are, so as not to be “unfair” to one side?

 IV. What Can You Do??

Make your voice heard!!

1) Choose a couple of the issues discussed above, and in your own words, write to Current Events’ Editor Charles Piddock at [email protected] . Let him know that the story was inaccurate and biased in some places. Be sure to give a detailed example.

2) Discuss the “Will Violence Engulf the Middle East” article and its many problems in your class. You may want to draft a letter as a group. Also, look for other sources of information which may have presented information in a more accurate way. You can use those alternative sources to help gather information for your letters to Mr. Piddock.

3) One helpful source of information is CAMERA’s web site ( Please check under “New Material” for the latest updates on bias and inaccuracy in the media. The information will help you respond to the Current Events Special Report and others like it.

4) Write a column for your student newspaper discussing problems of media bias, and use “Will Violence Engulf the Middle East” as an example.

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