GroundTruth Project and WGBH Respond Evasively to CAMERA Letter

Charles Sennott, founder and executive director of The GroundTruth Project.

Charles Sennott, executive director of The GroundTruth Project (GTP), a non-profit affiliated with WGBH, the public broadcasting behemoth headquartered in Boston, Mass., has responded to CAMERA research and correspondence highlighting problems with a GTP-produced segment about Christian Zionism.

Sennott responded to the critique in a manner similar to previous criticism from CAMERA — emphasizing his status as a busy, award-winning foreign correspondent and evading the issues raised by his critics. (The full text of the response is provided below in Appendix Two below.)

Sadly, WGBH, the Boston-based non-profit which provides substantial monetary, logistical and promotional support to GTP and broadcasts its podcasts on WGBH.org, has responded in a similarly evasive manner. (This response can be seen in Appendix Three below.)

Background and Chronology

The controversy began in April and May 2019, when WGBH posted the three-part GTP-produced podcast series “End of Days” on its website. The three-part hit piece, which is replete with distortions and material omissions documented here and here, was reported by Sennott, GTP’s executive producer, and Micah Danney, a GTP fellow. GTP’s Mitch Hanley was also involved with the production of the series.

After publishing two articles about the series, CAMERA sent a letter dated July 17, 2019 to GroundTruth Project, a number of staffers at WGBH (including news director Phil Redo), and to the Board of Directors of WGBH. The letter outlines and reiterates many of the concerns raised in the article on CAMERA’s website about the article. (The full text of the letter can be seen below in Appendix One.)

In summary, the letter sent to GTP and WGBH officials highlighted the problems with the End of Days Series and asked that “WGBH and GTP correct the record regarding these misrepresentations.” In summary, CAMERA asked that WGBH:

  1. Prevail upon the GroundTruth Project to do a follow up story on anti-Jewish incitement promoted by Muslim clerics in the Holy Land.
  2. Assess GTP’s use of melodramatic and sinister sound in the podcast and issue guidelines for the use of “ambi-beds” [ambience beds] in future reports.
  3. Prevail upon GTP to do a follow-up story on Evangelicalism and Christian Zionism that challenges some of the pre-conceived notions that viewers might have about these communities.
  4. Insist that GTP inform its listeners about the increase of the Christian population in Israel (a reality that was completely obscured in the three-part series).

The letter closed with the following two paragraphs:

WGBH’s Twitter bio declares that the organization is a “trusted source of public media content for Boston and beyond, creating, experiences that educate, inspire and entertain.”

In light of this, we look forward to redress of the severe distortions and errors in the GTP podcast.

Prior to sending the letter, CAMERA had previously broadcast an alert to its supporters that declared:

WGBH needs to hold GroundTruth Project and its founder, Charles Sennott, to the same standards it imposes on its radio and TV reporters. GTP’s podcast on Christian Zionism would simply not pass muster on WGBH’s news programs. Why is WGBH assisting in the production and dissemination of such shoddy journalism?

The criticism and requests in the letter were based in part on a reading of Sound Reporting: An NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production written by Jonathan Kern and published by the University of Chicago Press in 2008, and the NPR Ethics Handbook, which states that the rules in the handbook apply “to material that comes to NPR from independent producers, member station journalists, outside writers, commentators and visual journalists.”

WGBH’s Evasive Response to CAMERA’s Letter

CAMERA never received a response from WGBH staffers despite numerous calls to Phil Redo, (WGBH’s General Manager for news), but on Sept. 4, 2019, Ann Fudge, chair of WGBH’s Board of Trustees, sent a letter (the text of which is available below).

Fudge’s letter stated:

The GroundTruth Project is an editorially independent, nonprofit organization with its own governing Board. The WGBH Board of Trustees does not have direct involvement with any editorial content. So, there are no additional steps for the Board to take in this matter.

With this response, Fudge falsely suggests that WGBH is in no way accountable for the errors or problems in GTP’s “End of Days” series. In other words, WGBH can promote and broadcast GTP podcasts on its website with no regard for their quality and adherence to journalistic standards.

This is demonstrably false.

First off, NPR’s code of ethics does not apply only to journalists working directly for an NPR stations, but also applies to material provided by “independent producers […] outside writers, commentators and visual journalists.”

Given that WGBH, an NPR station, is broadcasting GTP-produced podcasts on its website, the organization’s code of ethics clearly applies to the podcast in question and it is up to WGBH to enforce this code. WGBH staffers (such as Phil Redo) are responsible for doing this on a day-to-day basis; it is the responsibility of WGBH’s trustees to ensure that this work gets done.

The GroundTruth Project incorporates the logo of WGBH into its own.

Ann Fudge’s response also falsely suggests that GTP is somehow independent from WGBH because it has a governing board of its own. This is disproven by several facts. First off, the logo for the GroundTruth’s podcast (see left) incorporates WGBH’s logo. That logo is a WGBH asset that the foundation’s Board of Trustees and staffers are charged with protecting.

Moreover, as the logo implies, GTP’s ties to WGBH are substantial. Its offices are located in the same building as WGBH in Boston. GTP’s publicity materials invoke the WGBH name to buttress its credibility. Moreover, WGBH regularly touts its “partnership” with GTP to demonstrate it is fulfilling its mission as a public broadcaster. In 2018, when much of the reporting for the series in question was conducted, WGBH donated $86,000 to GTP.

Moreover, at the end of GTP podcasts, Sennott signs off by thanking WGBH staffers including podcast manager Nina Porzucki, Phil Redo, the station’s General Manager for Radio and Local News, and Bob Kempf, Vice President for Digital Services. GTP is a creature of the WGBH Foundation, receiving substantial logistical, editorial, financial, and promotional support from the foundation.

In light of these facts, the notion that GTP is somehow independent from WGBH is simply laughable, particularly after reading the Public Media Code of Integrity highlighted on the website of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This code declares that public media outlets such as WGBH are obligated to maintain “accountable relationships with individual and organizational contributors” and to “apply public media standards” to “arrangements” it establishes with editorial partners and collaborators.

Simply put, WGBH cannot host and promote GTP-produced journalism and then declaim any responsibility when problems arise with the material being promoted.

That’s what seems to be going on here.

 

GTP’s Response – The Letter

The GroundTruth Project responded to CAMERA’s letter and online critiques of the podcast series in a cover letter and accompanying response dated Aug. 22, 2019. The letter, signed by Charles Sennott, GTP’s executive director and executive producer, and Mitch Hanley, GTP senior producer, highlights the “experience” GTP brings to the project.

The letter goes on to describe the experience and awards that Sennott, Hanley, and GTP fellow Micah Danney brought to the project. It also mentions the books Charles Sennott has written about the Middle East.

At first glance, this information is impressive, but it is ultimately irrelevant to the issue at hand: did the three-part series pass the same muster as WGBH’s regular news programming?

The same letter also states that GTP had posted “10 extensive and nuanced profiles of people we spoke with during our reporting” adding that “I (sic) hope that you took the time to review these profiles and considered them when you were assessing our work.”

The problem is that podcasts are often consumed as a stand-alone product. Research indicates that while a substantial portion (49 percent) of podcast listeners listen to podcasts while at home, 51 percent of the people who listen to podcasts do so while engaged in other activities such as working out, driving to work, or riding on public transportation. If these numbers hold for GTP’s podcast, many listeners will not read the accompanying profiles on GTP’s website.

Moreover, a vast majority (69 percent) of podcast listening is done on portable phone devices. (Note: this number may be declining). All this indicates that the additional profiles on GTP’s website are, in most instances, a secondary or auxiliary aspect to GTP’s reporting.

The upshot is this: either GTP’s podcasts meet the standards of ethical journalism or they don’t. One doesn’t judge the quality of one article in a magazine or newspaper based on the article on the opposite page. The same logic applies to GTP’s podcasts. The putatively high quality of the profiles on GTP’s webpage are of little relevance when assessing the quality of the podcasts.

 

GTP’s Detailed Response – Evangelicals as “Spoilers”

In its detailed response, GTP excerpts a portion of the CAMERA letter sent on July 17, 2019. CAMERA’s letter can be seen in its entirety at the end of this article, but for convenience’s sake, is also displayed here:

The series falsely promotes the notion that because of their support for the Trump Administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Christian Zionists and Evangelicals are “spoilers” to the peace process.

In promoting this false narrative, the podcast series omits a number of crucial facts, such as:

  • Palestinian leaders have been declaring the death of the peace process since it began;
  • Palestinian elites have engaged in a systematic and persistent campaign of antisemitic incitement against Jews and Israel for decades;
  • A majority of Israelis have supported a negotiated settlement to the conflict despite numerous terror attacks perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists;
  • Anti-Israel violence from the Gaza Strip had been going on for years prior to the embassy move, (which, by the way, was the result of legislation passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses Congress in 1995);
  • Palestinian leaders have turned down numerous peace offers presented to them since the early 1990s, when the peace process began; and,
  • UN Resolution 181, which the Arabs rejected, did more than call for the establishment of a Jewish state (as Sennott reported), but called for the establishment of an Arab state as well.

 In sum, the podcast omits the role Arab and Palestinian rejectionism has played in prolonging the conflict that Sennott blames on Christian Zionists. This is a problem.

 NPR’s Code of Ethics (reprinted in Jonathan Kern’s book, Sound Reporting) declares that “We guard against errors of omission that cause a story to misinform our listeners by failing to be complete.” This standard was not met.

 Sennott and Hanley respond by stating:

We took great care in explaining the context for the U.S. Embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In almost 2-1/2 minutes (Ep 1 23:34-25:10) we cover the circumstances and consequences from the wars in 1948, 1967, and Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980. We continued:

Sennott: …Since then, Jerusalem has been a disputed capital, and would ultimately become a centerpiece of the peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

That’s why the US and nearly every other country in the world kept their embassies in Tel Aviv. The official sovereignty over Jerusalem was to be determined in the final status agreements of the Israeli Palestinian peace process.”

The fact of the matter is that the US Embassy move is seen by Palestinians and their leadership as nulllfying the stakes that were once crucial to negotiating a final peace agreement.

CAMERA’s Analysis

Sennott and Hanley’s response deals with none of the issues raised in CAMERA’s complaint, but merely recapitulates GTP’s one-sided history of the Arab-Israeli war which downplays Arab and Palestinian culpability for the conflict.

For example, in the section of the transcript that Sennott and Hanley refer to (but do not quote), the podcast describes the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 as merely a vote “in favor of granting a homeland to the Jewish people.”

As stated in CAMERA’s critique, this same vote called for the creation of an Arab state as well. This is a crucial fact that would help listeners understand the role Israel’s adversaries played in causing the conflict.

Israel’s adversaries were not merely rejecting Israel’s creation, but the creation of a state for Arabs as well.

The GTP podcast describes the 1948 war as having “erupted” on May 15, 1948. The war did not “erupt,” but began with five Arab armies attacking Israel after it declared independence. By describing the war as having “erupted,” the podcast further downplays Arab responsibility for the war.

Predictably, the podcast describes the beginning of the Six Day War in a similarly deceptive manner, with Sennott reporting, “In 1967, war broke out again between Israel and her Arab neighbors.” War didn’t just “break out” but was precipitated by Egypt’s closing down the straights of Tiran to Israeli shipping, its ejection of UN “peace keeping” troops from the Sinai Peninsula, and the genocidal rhetoric of President Nasser.

By omitting altogether these elements of history, Sennett lays the groundwork for his effort to portray American Evangelicals as spoilers to the peace process with their support for moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem. This is a propaganda technique called card-stacking that has no place in public broadcasting.

If listeners had been told of these events and about the Palestinian rejection of three peace offers in 2000, 2001, and 2008, they might have concluded that the Embassy move was a reasonable and unavoidable response to Arab and Palestinian rejectionism.

GTP’s Detailed Response — Christian Population in Israel, Middle East

In response to CAMERA’s complaints that he falsely portrayed the population of Christians in the Holy Land as “withering,” GTP declares that Charles Sennott “spent the better part of two years in 1998 and 1999 and can go point by point through why it is inaccurate to use raw population data numbers when measuring the shrinking presence of a population.” The response continues:

Sennott has also continued his demographic research in the years since the book was published. In his reporting, Sennott has confirmed that demographers believe population comparisons throughout history should be measured by percentages of the whole. That’s because population subsets, to be accurately understood, have to be measured against the groups around them and the rising Jewish immigrants and higher birthrates of Muslim Palestinians have all contributed to an ever shrinking percentage of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.”

Without meaning to, GTP’s response confirms the point CAMERA made in its letter — that the podcast was wrong to blame Evangelicals who support Israel for an ostensible “withering” in the population of Christians in the Holy Land.

One of the major themes of GTP’s podcast series is that Evangelical support for Israel is making it harder for Christians to maintain their presence in the Holy Land. But in its response, GTP admits that the “withering presence” that Sennott describes is related to the growth of Jewish and Muslim populations and has nothing to do with Evangelical support for Israel.

The issue is not what demographers believe, but whether there is any real connection between Christian Zionists’ beliefs and actions, and the population of Christians in the Holy Land. There is none.

To understand what is going on, it is necessary to look at the transcript.

Prior to reporting about the “withering presence” of Christians in the Holy Land, Sennott quotes Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, a Lutheran Pastor located in Bethlehem. In an interview, Isaac declares that the apocalyptic scenarios adhered to by Christian Zionists “put the presence of Palestinian Christians at risk.” It is after this statement that Sennett reports the following:

I spent many years in the Middle East researching and writing a book called The Body and the Blood, that is specifically about the disappearing Christian presence here in the Holy Land. In that research we found that the Christian presence has diminished from as much as 20% after World War 1, to down below 2 percent of the total Palestinian population today. It is a withering presence that demographers believe will virtually disappear in the next generation. Then the living Christian presence in the Holy Land will have ended in the land where the faith began.

How exactly can Sennett posit that Christian presence in the Holy Land will end, when in absolute terms their population has increased by 291 percent since 1948?

You can’t approach zero by getting further away from zero.

Moreover, by placing his statistics about the withering population of Christians in the Holy Land right after Rev. Dr. Isaac’s warning that Christian Zionists “are putting the presence of Palestinian Christians at risk,” Sennett encourages listeners to accept the pastor’s testimony that Christian Zionists who support Israel are somehow responsible for the impending disappearance of Christianity in the Holy Land.

How exactly?

In its response, GTP admits that the “withering presence” (which is really a decline in relative terms) is due to the growth of Muslim and Jewish populations in the Holy Land.

The Numbers

GTP also evades some inconvenient truths about the number of Christians in Israel. In their response, Sennott and Hanley state the following:

It is also not clear, if in the population numbers CAMERA cites, that includes migrant workers from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere who have been brought to work in Israel and who are often Christian. And it is unclear if the data include Russian and Eastern European immigrants to Israel who entered the country claiming Jewish ancestry, but who have reverted back to identifying with the Orthodox Christian traditions of their native Russia and Eastern Europe.

GTP gets it wrong when it injects uncertainty over the number of Arab Christians in Israel. This is what the article on CAMERA’s website stated about Israel’s Christian population:

[I]n 1949, there were 34,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. In 2017, the latest year for which there are numbers available, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported there were 133,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. That’s an increase of 291 percent.

The passage explicitly states that according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics there were 133,000 Arab Christians living in Israel.

The source of this information is the fifth page of this document, (titled “Population, By Population Group, Religion, Sex and Age, Average 2017”) which includes the phrase “thereof Arab Christians.” It clearly indicates that there were 133,000 Arab Christians living in Israel, just as CAMERA’s article stated.

This directly contradicts Sennott and Hanley’s assertion that it is unclear if the population numbers CAMERA cited could include Christian immigrants to Israel.

This is confirmed in another document from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, titled “Population, By Religion,” (available here), which indicates that there are a total of 170,000 Christians living in Israel.

The difference between the total number of Christians in Israel (170,000) and the number of Arab Christians (133,000) indicates that approximately 37,000 non-Arab Christians live in the country.

The upshot is this: GTP is wrong when it argues that the numbers CAMERA cites could include non-Arab Christians from outside of Israel. The CBS clearly differentiates Arab and non-Arab Christians.

“The Big Picture”

In the last paragraph dealing with CAMERA’s complaint about the alleged impact of Christian Zionism on Christians in the Holy Land, GTP states:

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, there is virtually no historian or demographer with experience in the Middle East who would disagree with the trend that Christianity’s presence as a living community is dwindling as a proportion in the Holy Land, including all of Israel-Palestine, and in the greater Middle East.

This gets to the heart of the matter. By working to obscure the increase in the number of Christians in Israel — an increase that is seen nowhere else in the Middle East — Sennott and Hanley would have us believe that there is a functional equivalence between what is happening to Christians in Israel and in places like Iraq and Syria.

Prior to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians in that country. Today, there are fewer than 300,000. The numbers are about the same in Syria, where the 1.5 million Christians have shrunk to fewer than 300,000 as a result of that country’s civil war, with many of them fleeing to Lebanon and Jordan.

No matter how badly Sennett and the news reporting organization he leads want to obscure the issue, the notion that Christian Zionism is a threat to the presence of Christians in the Holy Land is contradicted by one central fact: Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has increased since 1948. In its podcast, GTP tried to shift the blame for the decline of Christianity in the Middle East away from jihadist violence and oppression onto the backs of Christian Zionists and, by extension, Israel as well.

GTP’s Detailed Response – View of Evangelical Christians

In its response regarding the podcast’s portrayal of Evangelicals, GTP excerpts a portion of the CAMERA letter sent on July 17, 2019. Again, CAMERA’s letter can be seen in its entirety at the end of this article, but for convenience’s sake, the excerpted version is displayed here:

The series promotes a bigoted and essentialist view of Evangelical Christians in the United States, portraying them as crazy end-timers intent on starting World War III who have put Christians in the Holy Land at risk. In fact, it is jihadists in the Middle East who have worked to bring about the apocalypse and who have terrorized Christians in the region.

Regrettably, in his reporting about Christian Zionists in the Holy Land, Sennott relied almost exclusively on testimony from Palestinian Christians such as Mitri Raheb and Munther Isaac, both of whom have established their careers as critics of Christian support for Israel while downplaying the role jihadist violence and hostility against Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. He also relied on commentary from Harvey Cox, Dean Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, a Protestant theologian who has been critical of Evangelical Protestants for most of his career. 

GTP did not, however, include any scholars who would provide more sympathetic context to Christian Zionism. If the organization had cast its ideological net a bit wider, he might have interviewed scholars such as Faydra Shapiro and Gerald McDermott, who could challenge many of the assumptions that Sennott brought to the table when producing this series.

In their response, Hanley and Sennott state that the series “focused on Christian Zionists in Jerusalem, and Israel, more broadly.” They continue:

The extent of our focus on evangelical Christians in the United States was limited to their financial support to Christian Zionists in Israel, and the West Bank settlements. Although we spoke with American evangelicals both living in and visiting the Holy Land, we did not seek out any particular individuals or ideologies.

Nowhere in the podcast did we speak on behalf of Christian Zionists or American Evangelical Christians; each of the participants spoke freely for themselves on their beliefs. The truth of the matter is that there is a diversity of thought within Christian Zionism, which we portrayed accurately: from Episode 1’s opening interview with Kevin Burnor, who believes in and shared his apocalyptic end times vision, to the closing words of Jim Shutz, who disavows that vision as “rejected by the mainline Christian Zionist movements and organizations.” Ep 3: 19:25-20:24)

As for Christian Zionism putting fellow Christians at risk, it is noteworthy that CAMERA takes no issue with our reporting citing Haaretz’s finding that there is $65 million flowing from Christians in the United States into the Israeli settlements in the West Bank (Ep. 3 14:15). This funding supports these settlements, which in effect displace and often cut off Palestinian villages, which include Christians from the West Bank, thereby negatively impacting their presence as a living community in the Holy Land.

CAMERA’s Analysis

GTP’s response is undermined by the transcript they cite as proof of their reporting. Here is what listeners hear in the segment that GTP quotes to demonstrate its reporting about Christian Zionism is nuanced:

SCHUTZ:   Even if they believe that two-thirds of the Jewish people are going to perish that come back to Israel. that’s not really the message that’s in the Bible. That’s a particular interpretation that is rejected by the mainline Christian Zionist movements and organizations that are based here in Israel and internationally around the world, because purpose of God in bringing them back is actually for healing and restoration, and healing of the nations, despite the fact that there is this birth pang aspect. Something coming to an end that will bring birth to something much better.

SENNOTT: Although Schutz makes it sound hopeful, it’s the imprecision of “something coming to an end” as he puts it, that is concerning. This ambiguity is what Harvey Cox described back in the first episode when he said Christian Zionism’s move to the mainstream may have muted the more offensive elements of their theology. They may be muted, but they remain core tenets of the movement. [Emphasis added.]

Even in vague terms, isn’t the essence of their theology still anti-Semitic? Still calling for Jews to convert to Christianity? For Palestinians, doesn’t this theology empower one ethnicity over another, and turn God into a real-estate agent who would grant the land to one faith over another?  As the parade of nations winds down, and the marchers disperse, we continue to grapple with these questions.

CAMERA’s objections are confirmed — not disproven — by the transcript of the segment. In its analysis of the series, CAMERA objected to GTP’s failure to highlight how many people in the Christian Zionist movement are embarrassed by the portrayal of the movement as being singularly about the end times, the dispensationalist scenarios that Sennott highlights, which he declares, without evidence, are the “core tenets of the movement.”

As documented in this article here, Faydra Shapiro, an Israeli expert on Christian-Jewish relations, reports in her 2015 book, Christian Zionism: Navigating The Christian-Jewish Border, “Many Christian Zionists are eager to break the perceived connection between support for Israel and systems such as dispensationalism and the Bible prophecy movement, with its emphasis on showing that we are living in the final days before the end times.” Shapiro adds that in her research, “it became clear very quickly that the connection between premillennial dispensationalism and Christian Zionism has been vastly overdrawn.”

Shaprio’s findings are confirmed in in The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, edited by Rev. Gerald R. McDermott, Ph.D. who serves as Anglican Chair of Divinity, History, and Doctrine at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.  “The authors of this book reject those dispensationalist approaches that they can plot the sequence of chronology of end-time events,” McDermott writes in the introduction, adding that these events “are in God’s secret providence.” In the same text, McDermott writes, “Christian Zionism goes back two thousand years to the New Testament, and has been sustained with varying intensity ever since” and that for most of this time, Christian Zionism “had nothing to do with dispensationalism.”

If Sennott is going to rely on Harvey Cox, a well-known adversary to Evangelical Protestantism in the U.S., why can’t he include testimony from other sources? GTP fellow Micah Danney spent several months in Israel covering the story. Did Sennott even think to consider that Harvey Cox might have an agenda of his own when commenting on Christian Zionism? As CAMERA stated previously, “If Sennott is going to interview an expert critic of Christian Zionism such as Harvey Cox, then why not interview an expert from within the movement, such as Gerald McDermott?”

It’s a legitimate issue. Jonathan Kern writes in the previously mentioned Sound Reporting, “Journalists, like scientists, also have to be careful of ‘confirmation bias’—the inclination to observe and record facts or opinions that confirm their hypotheses and to ignore those that don’t.”

Christian Zionist Impact on Palestinian Christians Redux

In a last-ditch attempt to connect Christian Zionism with a decline of Christianity in the Middle East, Hanley and Sennott write that it’s “noteworthy” that CAMERA took no issue with GTP’s reporting citing Haaretz’s finding that Christian Zionist organizations provide $65 million to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These settlements, GTP asserts, negatively impact Palestinians, Christians included, living in the West Bank.

What GTP fails to report is that Jewish communities in the West Bank provide substantial employment opportunities for Palestinians living in the West Bank. In 2016, Reuters reported that “Around 36,000 Palestinians work in settlements in the occupied West Bank, many in construction, earning up to three times as much as the average Palestinian wage.” Anti-Israel activists state that the presence of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank has hindered the Palestinian economy from growing. However the corruption and ineptitude of the Palestinian Authority, coupled with its refusal to negotiate in good faith, and its policy of rewarding the families of terrorists who have killed Israeli civilians, are also real hindrances to economic growth in the area.

And as it turns out, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem has a “40-year positive track record of social assistance” to Arab Christians in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. “We do provide aid to Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, mostly through local Arab churches and pastors in order to help them with their witness to their communities,” David Parsons, spokesperson for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ) wrote in an email to CAMERA. “This has usually taken the form of feeding needy families, supporting Christian schools, clubs and children’s homes, and holiday distributions at Christmas and Easter.”

Sadly, GTP has flunked the fairness test outlined in Kern’s book, Sound Reporting, which states that sometimes NPR journalists fail to report the news fairly because the newsrooms they work in function as “echo chambers” where “reporters and editors fail to represent some viewpoints mainly because they all see events from the same perspective.”

This is the underlying problem with GTP’s podcast series on Christian Zionism. GTP personnel began with a preconceived notion about the threat of Christian Zionism. Instead of challenging or questioning their beliefs about the movement, GTP staffers gathered information to affirm these beliefs.

This is not journalism, but rank propaganda. And to its shame, WGBH has washed its hands of the problem.

 

The original texts of the CAMERA letter, GTP’s response and WGBH’s response are posted below.

Appendix One: Text of CAMERA’s July 17, 2019 Letter to WGBH

The following letter was sent to several WGBH staffers, WGBH’s Board of Trustees and to Charles Sennott at the GroundTruth Project on July 17, 2019.

Dear Recipient,

I write to you on behalf of the Committee for Accuracy on Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a media-monitoring organization located in Boston. CAMERA promotes fair and accurate coverage of issues related to the Middle East. In addition to our emphasis on the Arab-Israeli conflict, CAMERA has also worked to promote awareness about the plight of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East, Christians especially. Our work can be seen at camera.org.

CAMERA asks that you address a number of egregious problems with a three-part podcast series titled “End of Days,” produced by WGBH’s collaborative partner, the GroundTruth Project (GTP).

This series, produced by GTP’s founder and executive director, Charles Sennott, and which was posted on the internet in late April and early May of 2019, misrepresents crucial elements about Evangelical support for Israel and the status of Christians in the Holy Land, Israel especially.

WGBH and GTP need to correct the record regarding these misrepresentations.

The problems with the podcast, which are highlighted in two articles, (“Ground Truth Project Needs to Come Clean on ICEJ Reporting,” published at The Times of Israel on June 8, 2019 and “Sennott Still Looking for Crazies After All These Years,” published on CAMERA’s website on June 20, 2019), are as follows:

The series falsely promotes the notion that because of their support for the Trump Administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Christian Zionists and Evangelicals are “spoilers” of the peace process.

In promoting this false narrative, the podcast series omits crucial facts, such as:

  • Palestinian leaders have been declaring the death of the peace process since it began;
  • Violating the letter and the spirit of an agreement signed in August 1994, Palestinian elites have, over the two decades, engaged in a systematic and persistent campaign of antisemitic incitement against Jews and Israel;
  • A majority of Israelis have supported a negotiated settlement to the conflict despite numerous terror attacks perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists;
  • Anti-Israel violence from the Gaza Strip had been underway for years prior to the embassy move, (which was the result of legislation passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress in 1995);
  • Palestinian leaders have turned down numerous peace offers presented to them, including most recently in 2000/2001 and 2008;
  • UN Resolution 181, which the Arabs rejected, did more than call for the establishment of a Jewish state (as Sennott reported), but called for the establishment of an Arab state as well.

In sum, the podcast omits the central role Arab and Palestinian rejectionism has played in prolonging the conflict that Sennott blames on Christian Zionists. This is a problem.

NPR’s Code of Ethics (reprinted in Jonathan Kern’s book, Sound Reporting) declares: “We guard against errors of omission that cause a story to misinform our listeners by failing to be complete.”

This standard was not met.

The series reports that the Christian population in the Holy Land has been withering over the past few decades and suggests that this “withering” is the result of Evangelical support for Israel. This is false and needs to be corrected.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has increased since the late 1940s. In 1949, the year after Israel was founded, there were 34,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. In 2017, the latest year for which there are numbers available, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported there were 133,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. That’s an increase of 291 percent. In absolute terms, that is a huge increase. So much for the Christian presence in Israel “withering,” as stated in the podcast.

The numbers indicate that the Christian population in the West Bank has remained steady over the years, as well. According to a census conducted by the Jordanian government (and cited in a 2012 report published by the Diyar Institute, a pro-Palestinian organization), there were approximately 35,000 Christians living in the West Bank in 1961. The most recent estimate from Open Doors indicates that a total of 46,000 Christians live in what the organization calls “The Palestinian Territories” (which includes the Gaza Strip).

Given that there are probably fewer than 1,000 Christians living in the Gaza Strip, that indicates that the population of Christians in the West Bank has increased by approximately 10,000 since Israel took control of that territory during the Six Day War.

That the total Christian population in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased over the past 50 years is a fact acknowledged by the above-mentioned pro-Palestinian organization called the Diyar Institute (whose founder, Mitri Raheb, was quoted in the series). In a 2012 report (mentioned previously), this organization stated that the population of Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank had increased since the early 1960s, declaring that “the number of the Christian population has grown ever so slightly in the past 50 years.”

The series promotes a bigoted and monolithic view of Evangelical Christians in the United States, portraying them as crazy end-timers intent on starting World War III who have put Christians in the Holy Land at risk. In fact, it is jihadists in the Middle East who have worked to bring about the apocalypse and who have terrorized Christians in the region.

Regrettably, in his reporting about Christian Zionists in the Holy Land, Sennott relied almost exclusively on testimony from Palestinian Christians such as Mitri Raheb and Munther Isaac, both of whom have established their careers as critics of Christian support for Israel while downplaying the role of jihadist violence and hostility against Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. He also relied on commentary from Harvey Cox, Dean Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, a Protestant theologian who has been critical of Evangelical Protestants for most of his career. 

GTP did not, however, include any scholars who would provide more sympathetic context to Christian Zionism. If the organization had cast its journalistic net a bit wider — outside its preconceived notions about Evangelical Christians — Sennott might have interviewed scholars such as Faydra Shapiro and Gerald McDermott, who could challenge many of the assumptions that he brought to the table when producing this series. (The work of Shapiro and McDermott is referenced in the previously mentioned article post on CAMERA’s website.)

On this score, it might be helpful if GTP had followed the advice provided in an article posted on its own website on May 2, 2019. In the piece titled “The Dos and Don’ts of Religion Reporting,” the author encourages reporters to “forget” all they think they “know about other people’s beliefs” and to “resist the allure of extreme views.”

The series makes unethical use of sound to portray Christian Zionists as untrustworthy and alien participants in debates over American foreign policy.

The series plays weird and anxiety-inducing background music to unnerve listeners when prominent Christian Zionists and their allies are being interviewed or spoken about during the podcast. It happens a number of times when Sennott mentions or speaks with the late Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Sennott uses the ominous-sounding music to portray Christian Zionists as the weird, alien “other.” This is journalistically unethical.

In response to these problems, CAMERA asks that WGBH engage in the following actions to rectify the problems created by the podcast. CAMERA asks that WGBH:

  1. Prevail upon the GroundTruth Project to do a follow-up story on the anti-Jewish incitement promoted by Muslim clerics in the Holy Land. There are numerous experts and sources who can speak about this problem and GTP could obtain some excellent sound of the messages broadcast in mosques in the West Bank and on the Temple Mount.
  2. Assess GTP’s use of melodramatic and sinister sound in the “End of Days” series and issue guidelines for the use of “ambi-beds” in future reports.
  3. Prevail upon GTP to do a follow-up story on Evangelicalism and Christian Zionism that challenges some of the pre-conceived notions that viewers might have about these communities. (If GTP will not do the story, then it may be necessary for WGBH to cover the story.)
  4. Insist that GTP inform its listeners about the increase of the Christian population in Israel and promote a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding about the challenges faced by Christians in the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East. Muslim supersessionism and supremacism are huge problems that need to be addressed.

WGBH’s Twitter bio declares that the organization is a “trusted source of public media content for Boston and beyond, creating experiences that educate, inspire and entertain.”

In light of this, we look forward to redress of the severe distortions and errors in the GTP podcast.

Sincerely,

Dexter Van Zile
Media Analyst
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America

Appendix Two: Text of the GroundTruth Project’s August 22, 2019 Letter to CAMERA July 17, 2019

8/22/2019

Mr. Dexter Van Zile                                                    
C.A.M.E.R.A.
Committee for Accuracy in
Middle East Reporting in America

Dear Mr. Van Zile,

We are writing in response to your feedback of our podcast series, The End of Days as expressed through your July 17 letter to WGBH’s Board of Trustees and in the two articles you published in June in the Times of Israel and on the CAMERA website. Both articles did not include comment from GroundTruth as our team was on the road for most of June. And, as you know, when you first contacted us requesting a transcript of the series, we promptly made one available on our website, here: https://thegroundtruthproject.org/the-king-iscoming-the-rise-of-christian-zionism/

We take feedback and criticism seriously, and we make every effort to address listeners’ concerns when they are presented in a productive and respectful way. However, some of your comments have amounted to what feels more like personal attacks, which we will not address. It may be useful for you to know about the experience our team brings to the project.

Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer of Podcasts, has been producing radio and podcasts for 20 years. He launched Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett in 2003, and received a Peabody Award for his work with the program. Hanley takes great care in presenting religious figures and movements fairly and respectfully. Assisting with on-the-ground reporting and audio recording was our GroundTruth reporting fellow Micah Danney, a graduate of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, and a recipient of the prestigious Overseas Press Club Fellowship. He spent six months reporting in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and in Texas on the project.

Executive Producer Charles Sennott has covered the Middle East for 25 years and covered religion more broadly for more than 30 years. His life-long body of work reporting on religion, includes: award-winning reporting that uncovered the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal; being among the first reporters in America to highlight the growing threat of Al Qaeda in the years before 9-11, and courageous field work in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and across the region in pursuing that story. He also served as The Boston Globe Middle East bureau chief and did daily reporting on all of the Middle East, including Israel and Palestine. He covered the aggressive building of Jewish settlements fueled by the religious rightwing in Israel as well as on-the-ground accounts of the devastating and violent tactics of the Islamic fundamentalist group, Hamas, in the West Bank and Gaza. He has authored two books on religion titled Broken Covenant: The Story of Father Bruce Ritter’s Fall From Grace and The Body and The Blood about the diminishing presence of Christians in the Middle East and co-authored a third titled Cradle and Crucible: The History of Faith in the Middle East.

The team’s depth of experience guided the production of this podcast, as did careful, thoughtful and respectful reporting over the better part of two years. We take our work seriously, and we also consider the impact of our reporting. We did not rush to respond to your letters or your articles, and took the necessary time to consider each of your complaints with respectful reflection. Included in this letter is a detailed response to each of your concerns. Please see below.

Although the podcast series was published in April and May of this year, it was actually only a part of a breadth of reporting we’ve done on religion in the Holy Land, going back to 2016. You can find a compendium of that coverage here:  https://thegroundtruthproject.org/projects/the-way-of-sorrow/

As you heard from the podcast, we mentioned at the end of each episode that we’ve posted 10 extensive and nuanced profiles of people we spoke with during our reporting. You can find that here: https://thegroundtruthproject.org/the-faces-of-the-end-of-days/ I hope that you took the time to review these profiles and considered them when you were assessing our work.

As stated earlier, we respect and appreciate feedback and productive appraisals of our work and, moving forward, we will continue to respond to any reader or listener who wants to engage in a dialogue, as long as it is productive and respectful.

Sincerely

Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer and Charles Sennott, Executive Producer

 

DETAILED RESPONSE TO EXCERPTS OF VAN ZILE’S LETTER ON BEHALF OF CAMERA

CAMERA: The series falsely promotes the notion that because of their support for the Trump Administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Christian Zionists and Evangelicals are “spoilers” of the peace process.

 In promoting this false narrative, the podcast series omits crucial facts, such as:

  •  Palestinian leaders have been declaring the death of the peace process since it began;
  • Violating the letter and the spirit of an agreement signed in August 1994, Palestinian elites have, over the two decades, engaged in a systematic and persistent campaign of antisemitic incitement against Jews and Israel;
  • A majority of Israelis have supported a negotiated settlement to the conflict despite numerous terror attacks perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists;
  • Anti-Israel violence from the Gaza Strip had been underway for years prior to the embassy move, (which was the result of legislation passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress in 1995);
  • Palestinian leaders have turned down numerous peace offers presented to them, including most recently in 2000/2001 and 2008;
  • UN Resolution 181, which the Arabs rejected, did more than call for the establishment of a Jewish state (as Sennott reported), but called for the establishment of an Arab state as well.

In sum, the podcast omits the central role Arab and Palestinian rejectionism has played in prolonging the conflict that Sennott blames on Christian Zionists. This is a problem.

NPR’s Code of Ethics (reprinted in Jonathan Kern’s book, Sound Reporting) “guard against errors of omission that cause a story to misinform our listeners by failing to be complete.”

This standard was not met.

GROUNDTRUTH REPLY

It should first be noted that GroundTruth is committed to complete transparency. When CAMERA requested a transcript of the series, we provided one on our website.

We took great care in explaining the context for the U.S. Embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In almost 2-½ minutes (Ep 1: 23:34-25:10) we cover the circumstances and consequences from the wars in 1948, 1967, and Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980.

We continued:

SENNOTT: …Since then, Jerusalem has been a disputed capital, and would ultimately become a centerpiece of the peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

That’s why the US and nearly every other country in the world have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv. The official sovereignty over Jerusalem was to be determined in the final status agreements of the Israeli Palestinian Peace Process.”

The fact of the matter is that the US Embassy move is seen by Palestinians and their leadership as nullifying the stakes that were once crucial to negotiating a final peace agreement.

CAMERA: The series reports that the Christian population in the Holy Land has been withering over the past few decades and suggests that this “withering” is the result of Evangelical support for Israel. This is false and needs to be corrected.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has increased since the late 1940s. In 1949, the year after Israel was founded, there were 34,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. In 2017, the latest year for which there are numbers available, Israel’s [Central] Bureau of Statistics reported there were 133,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. That’s an increase of 291 percent. In absolute terms, that is a huge increase. So much for the Christian presence in Israel “withering,” as stated in the podcast.
The numbers indicate that the Christian population in the West Bank has remained steady over the years, as well. According to a census conducted by the Jordanian government (and cited in a 2012 report published by the Diyar Institute, a pro- Palestinian organization), there were approximately 35,000 Christians living in the West Bank in 1961. The most recent estimate from Open Doors indicates that a total of 46,000 Christians live in what the organization calls “The Palestinian Territories” (which includes the Gaza Strip).
Given that there are probably fewer than 1,000 Christians living in the Gaza Strip, that indicates that the population of Christians in the West Bank has increased by approximately 10,000 since Israel took control of that territory during the Six Day War.
That the total Christian population in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased over the past 50 years is a fact acknowledged by the above mentioned pro-Palestinian organization called the Diyar Institute (whose founder, Mitri Raheb, was quoted in the series). In a 2012 report (mentioned previously), this organization stated that the population of Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank had increased since the early 1960s, declaring that “the number of the Christian population has grown ever so slightly in the past 50 years.”

 GTP REPLY

The population data that CAMERA presents to counter the findings of our reporting is skewed and wrong. Executive Producer Sennott spent the better part of two years in 1998 and 1999 researching a book on the Christian presence in the Holy Land, and can go point by point through why it is inaccurate to use raw population numbers when measuring the shrinking presence of a population.

Sennott has also continued his demographic research in the years since the book was published. In his reporting, Sennott has confirmed that demographers believe population comparisons throughout history should be measured by percentages of the whole. That’s because population subsets, to be accurately understood, have to be measured against the groups around them and the rising Jewish immigration and higher birthrates of Muslim Palestinians have all contributed to an ever shrinking percentage of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.

It is also not clear if, in the population numbers CAMERA cites, that includes migrant workers from Africa, Asia and elsewhere who have been brought in to work in Israel and who are often Christian. And it is unclear if the data include Russian and Eastern European immigrants to Israel who entered the country claiming Jewish ancestry, but who have reverted back to identifying with the Orthodox Christian traditions of their native Russia and Eastern Europe.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, there is virtually no historian or demographer with experience in research in the Middle East who would disagree with the historical trend that Christianity’s presence as a living community is dwindling as a proportion in the Holy Land, including all of Israel-Palestine, and in the greater Middle East.

——————————

CAMERA: The series promotes a bigoted and monolithic view of Evangelical Christians in the United States, portraying them as crazy end-timers intent on starting World War III who have put Christians in the Holy Land at risk. In fact, it is jihadists in the Middle East who have worked to bring about the apocalypse and who have terrorized Christians in the region.

Regrettably, in his reporting about Christian Zionists in the Holy Land, Sennott relied almost exclusively on testimony from Palestinian Christians such as Mitri Raheb and Munther Isaac, both of whom have established their careers as critics of Christian support for Israel while downplaying the role of jihadist violence and hostility against Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. He also relied on commentary from Harvey Cox, Dean Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, a Protestant theologian who has been critical of Evangelical Protestants for most of his career.
 GTP did not, however, include any scholars who would provide more sympathetic context to Christian Zionism. If the organization had cast its journalistic net a bit wider — outside its preconceived notions about Evangelical Christians — Sennott might have interviewed scholars such as Faydra Shapiro and Gerald McDermott, who could challenge many of the assumptions that he brought to the table when producing this series. (The work of Shapiro and McDermott is referenced in the previously mentioned article post on CAMERA’s website.)

GT REPLY:

The End of Days series focused on Christian Zionists in Jerusalem, and Israel, more broadly. The extent of our focus on evangelical Christians in the United States was limited to their financial support to Christian Zionist organizations in Israel, and the West Bank settlements. Although we spoke with American evangelicals both living in and visiting the Holy Land, we did not seek out any particular individuals or ideologies.

Nowhere in the podcast did we speak on behalf of Christian Zionists or American Evangelical Christians; each of the participants spoke freely for themselves on their beliefs. The truth of the matter is that there is a diversity of thought within Christian Zionism, which we portrayed  accurately: from Episode 1’s opening interview with Kevin Burnor, who believes in and shared his apocalyptic end times vision, to the closing words of Jim Shutz, who disavows that vision as “rejected by the mainline Christian Zionist movements and organizations.” (Ep 3: 19:25-20:24)

As for Christian Zionism putting fellow Christians at risk, it is noteworthy that CAMERA takes no issue with our reporting citing Haaretz’s finding that there is $65 million flowing from Christians in the United States into the Israeli settlements in the West Bank (Ep. 3 14:15). This funding supports these settlements, which in effect displace and often cut off Palestinian villages, which include Christians from the West Bank, thereby negatively impacting their presence as a living community in the Holy Land.

——————————

CAMERA: The series makes unethical use of sound to portray Christian Zionists as untrustworthy and alien participants in debates over American foreign policy.

The series plays weird and anxiety-inducing background music to unnerve listeners when prominent Christian Zionists and their allies are being interviewed or spoken about during the podcast. It happens a number of times when Sennott mentions or speaks with the late Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
 Sennott uses the ominous-sounding music to portray Christian Zionists as the weird, alien “other.” This is journalistically unethical.

GT REPLY:

As with any audio production, the music theme used in the podcast series serves to bridge the sections together–there are no “character” themes anywhere in the series. Music’s effect on the listener is always subjective, and the listener can impute qualities that are not the intention of the producers. Perhaps Van Zile’s description of “creepy music” is one of these instances. We tried to illustrate the rise of Christian Zionism as a growing movement with a pulsing cadence, something that elicits ideas of movement, building momentum. But if we were trying to paint the Christian Zionists in a negative light, we missed the opportunity in the middle of the second episode. In a segment on Ha Yovel we used the upbeat singing of the volunteer vinedressers as a bed for the montage of voices. Again, we missed the mark in the third episode when we used the sounds of the parade of nations to bed the vox pop interviews with Christian Zionists from all over the world. As producers, it’s hard to know what will strike a listener as “creepy” or “alien-sounding.” Listeners can interpret the music–or the intent of the producers–as they wish.

Appendix Three: Text of September 4, 2019 Response from Ann Fudge, WGBH Board of Trustees

 

September 4, 2019

 

Mr. Dexter Van Zile
Media Analyst
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America[Address Omitted]

 

Dear Mr. Van Zile,

I am responding to your letter of July 17 to members of the WGBH Board of Trustees about the podcast “The End of  Days” produced by The GroundTruth Project. As Chair of the Board, I am writing on behalf of all the trustees.

We understand that the Executive Producer Charles Sennott has  provide you with a detail response to each of the points you outlined in your letter to the Trustees.

The GroundTruth Project is an editorially independent, nonprofit organization with its own governing Board. The WGBH Board of Trustees does not have direct involvement with any editorial content. So, there are no additional steps for the Board to take in this matter.

Sincerely,

Ann Fudge

Chair, WGBH Board of Trustees