Measuring Balance at “Nightline”: Divergent Views Need Not Apply

Nightline and ABC News devote a significant amount of time to both Israeli and Palestinian issues and we consider our record even on the whole,” wrote Kerry Smith Marash, ABC’s VP for editorial quality, in her Nov. 13 letter to CAMERA. If the Dec. 2 “Nightline” focusing on “Israeli issues”– the 27 pilots objecting to Israel’s targeted killings followed by a piece on the “demographic bomb”– was meant to balance the tendentious Oct. 9 broadcast featuring the suicide bomber as victim and criticizing Israel’s security barrier, it didn’t come anywhere close.

Despite the fact that the 27 pilots are a tiny minority out of hundreds of pilots in the Israeli Air Force, Hilary Brown did not interview even one pilot who disagreed with the dissenters. In this completely one-sided segment, viewers heard from Yiftah Spector, Yoel Pieterburg, Alon, Assaf, Ron Ben Ishai, Avner Ra’annan, and Jonathan–all of whom shared one view–that Israeli actions in which innocent civilians are injured are “illegal and immoral and are the direct result of an extended occupation that is corrupting the Israeli society as a whole.”

And what is brought to “balance” these more than half dozen interviewees presenting the identical point of view? In three sentences, Hilary Brown paraphrases responses from Prime Minister Sharon, the chief of staff, and the air force commander (she doesn’t even name the latter two): “Prime Minister Sharon said Israeli servicemen can’t just do as they please. The chief of staff said their action was illegitimate and forbidden. The air force commander accused them of stabbing their country in the back.”

Surely, had she wanted, Brown could have found intelligent, articulate pilots who believe that Israel’s actions are just and legal. Danny Grossman, for example, an English-speaking retired lieutenant-colonel in the Air Force, spoke out against the pilots’ letter Oct. 5 in the Jerusalem Post, stating:

Virtually ever aspect of the letter was tainted with an ever-so-slight misrepresentation geared to reduce a nuanced discussion of legitimate ethical issues to a sound bite.

Spector will be the first to tell you that IAF has the highest standard of moral sensitivity of any air force in the world. Even when the target is a monster out to murder defenseless civilians while hiding behind the shield of innocent mothers and children, we still anguish over the risks and consequences of taking him out. . . .

In what other country do questions of operational effectiveness versus collateral damage regarding the use of 250- or 1,000-kilo bombs become topics for public scrutiny?

A differing point of view might have exposed the falsity of the 27 pilots’ argument that it is “illegal” for Israel to attack militants hiding among civilians. In the words of Assaf (which aired twice during the segment), “This is definitely illegal. Killing civilians is illegal.” In fact, according to the Geneva Convention, parties in a conflict cannot use a civilian area to render themselves off-limits to attack:

The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations. The Parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations. (Emphasis added. Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions, 1977, Article 51)

In other words, according to the Geneva Convention, Israel’s targeted killings cannot be considered illegal because the targets seek refuge among Palestinian civilians. Legally, these civilian areas are not exempt from Israeli military actions.

In addition, a truly balanced report would have placed Israeli actions in context of other countries’ actions in similar situations. Are Israeli actions–including dropping a one-ton bomb July 23, 2002 on Hamas leader Shahadah’s hideout, resulting in the death of 14 civilians–extraordinary when compared to other countries’ operations? For instance, how does the United States measure up when it targets enemies seeking shelter in civilian populations? On April 8, 2003, American forces dropped four 2,000 pound bombs on a compound attached to a restaurant in the Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad where Saddam Hussein was believed to be.

The New York Times reported: “The Iraqi authorities and neighbors said as many as 14 civilians had been killed in the attack and scores wounded” (“U.S. Tightens Grip; Rockets Rain on Baghdad,” John Broder, April 9). Similarly, on April 9, American aircraft bombed the Adhamiya neighborhood in northern Baghdad, destroying part of a cemetery behind a mosque where Hussein had been sighted 12 hours before. In the bombing and troops’ assault that ensued, 18 people were killed, among them civilians, according to locals on the scene (New York Times, April 16). There were even reports that during that time period U.S. forces dropped cluster bomblets in Baghdadi neighborhoods. An April 16 San Jose Mercury News article reported:

[Army Corps of Engineers Capt. Thomas] Austin defended the bomblets’ used, saying the Iraqi military sometimes put anti-aircraft artillery in civilian neighborhoods and that the bomblets were meant to rain down on armor or anti-aircraft batteries, exploding when they hit their metal surfaces.

Without any point of comparison, how are viewers to decide for themselves whether Israel’s actions are unique and unusually cruel, or whether they are a common, although imperfect, means of dealing with a threat from an enemy which endangers its own population? Why is Israel placed under a microscope for its targeted killings in which civilians have also died without even mention of the fact that it is standard military practice in conflicts around the world?

Rather than drawing a specific comparison between the two countries’ practices to provide necessary context, Ted Koppel pejoratively suggests that the Israeli government exploits the Sept. 11 attacks on America by drawing such comparisons:

American politicians have always found it difficult to criticize Israel publicly. And the Israeli government has done a particularly skillful job of tapping into this country’s post-9/11 psyche. If Americans didn’t appreciate the complexities of dealing with s uicide bombers in particular, and terrorism in general, before those attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, they would surely empathize afterwards. American policy towards the Palestinians, therefore, has rarely been tougher. Prime Minister Sharon has pointedly echoed some of President Bush’s toughest rhetoric in the war against terrorism.

Koppel editorializes that American policies are a result of Israel’s “skillful job” of playing off American fears. Notably, he focus on Israel’s political efforts as opposed to the fact that Israel and America both face a common threat from attackers who deliberately murder innocent civilians to achieve their radical objectives. In a discussion about the legality and morality of Israel’s air strikes targeting terrorists seeking shelter in civilian areas, it seems more on point to cover similarities to the American situation, as opposed to harping on Israel’s exploitation of those similarities, which the segment does not actually cover.

In short, this segment–which argues that Israel’s air strikes are immoral and that they fuel the “circle of revenge”–fails to balance the Oct. 9 broadcast in which Israeli actions are blamed for causing Palestinian suicide attacks against Israel. In light of Marash’s Nov. 13 statement that “Balance is not measured by any one particular broadcast, but in coverage over time,” can we now expect multiple one-sided reports singling out Palestinians for amoral and illegal actions in order to balance the one-sided broadcasts of Oct. 9 and Dec. 2 which singled out Israel?

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