CAMERA Op-Ed: Political Advocacy Journalism Distorts Coverage of US Policy on Settlements

The gold standard for journalists, at one time, was to fulfil the role of diligent truth-seeker who thoroughly and independently gathered news and reported objectively without inserting his or her own opinions. Journalists were accountable to their readers to deliver the truth as best they could. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, last revised five years ago, still testifies to this.  But this trustworthy, accountable approach seems to have fallen by the wayside, with many reporters too fearful to depart from a herd-mentality approach to journalism. Instead, they echo each other, editorializing and spinning the facts to promote the same preconceived positions.

There is no better illustration of this than the recent coverage of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement about the current administration’s position on Israeli settlements. Pompeo declared that his administration was reversing the position taken in the last days of the Obama administration.  On December 28, 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared his re-adoption of the position taken by the Carter administration 38 years earlier of Israeli settlements as “inconsistent with international law.”

Explaining the Trump administration’s reversal of that position, Pompeo laid out the history of US public statements about Israeli settlements:

In 1978, the Carter administration categorically concluded that Israel’s establishment of civilian settlements was inconsistent with international law. However, in 1981, President Reagan disagreed with that conclusion and stated that he didn’t believe that the settlements were inherently illegal.

Subsequent administrations recognized that unrestrained settlement activity could be an obstacle to peace, but they wisely and prudently recognized that dwelling on legal positions didn’t advance peace. However, in December 2016, at the very end of the previous administration, Secretary Kerry changed decades of this careful, bipartisan approach by publicly reaffirming the supposed illegality of settlements.

Noting the juridical debate over the legality of settlements, he stated that

after exploring all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President Reagan. The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.

The Journalists’ Spin

The currently sanctioned view in mainstream journalistic circles is that anything stated by anyone in the Trump administration is by default misguided and wrong.  But instead of bothering to investigate whether Pompeo was accurate in his statement, some journalists chose to insert their own editorial comments and twist the facts in order to reflect their preconceived opinion on the issue – namely, that the Trump administration’s stance on settlements is improper and reverses 40 years of a consistent and proper US view of Israeli settlements as illegal.  These journalists are unwilling to present any nuance on the topic, distorting the truth to promote the side of the dispute they agree with and relaying their version prejudicially as if it was settled fact.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Nicole Gaouette and Jeremy Diamond twisted themselves into pretzels in order to present their own spin on the topic, going so far as to suggest that Pompeo was lying when he portrayed the history of US policy. They began by portentously proclaiming :

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced a major reversal of the US’ longstanding policy on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, rejecting a 1978 State Department legal opinion that deemed the settlements “inconsistent with international law.” (“Pompeo announces reversal of longstanding US policy on Israeli settlements“) [emphasis added] 

But this was not a “major reversal” of policy: Pompeo was not announcing a new campaign to promote settlement building. He was presenting the administration’s legal opinion.

Nor was the 1978 legal opinion of Herbert J. Hansell, the State Department’s legal advisor at the time, “longstanding.” It was reversed by President Reagan less than three years after it was adopted by the Carter administration. 

Pompeo was merely reversing a 3-year-old position by the Obama administration that re-adopted the old Hansell opinion.  Ignoring nearly 38 years of history in between, the journalists falsely suggest that the Hansell opinion was held unwaveringly throughout four decades.   

Instead, they suggest Pompeo is dishonest:

Pompeo tried misleadingly to present the move as continuation of a previous president’s policies… [emphasis added]

And later:

Pompeo tried to suggest that the Trump White House was simply echoing an earlier stand by Reagan, saying, ‘This administration agrees with President Reagan.’ But the Trump administration is going significantly farther.

Since President Jimmy Carter, no president has described Israeli settlements as “illegal,” preferring to refer to them as “obstacles to peace” or “illegitimate,” but no president, including Reagan, reversed the 1978 State Department finding. [emphasis added]

They pretend that the Trump administration is the first to reverse that opinion, which they by cunningly inflate by  terming it a “finding”. 

But Hansell’s 1978 legal opinion was only that – a legal opinion based, at least in part, on an arguably faulty interpretation of an earlier “finding” by Julius Stone.  To support his opinion on settlements, Hansell cited Stone’s 1959 analysis, Legal Controls of International Conflict. Yet the same Professor Julius Stone—considered one of the premier legal theorists — subsequently wrote a book, Israel and Palestine: An Assault on the Law of Nations, that dealt with the specific legal aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In it, he maintained that the effort to designate Israeli settlements as illegal was a “subversion. . . of basic international law principles.”

Despite the fact that Hansell’s interpretation of Stone’s intent was contradicted by the latter’s own defense of the legality of settlements, the State Department advisor nevertheless stuck to his opinion.  But an opinion is not a legal document and does not need a written and stamped repudiation to reverse it.  

The State Department makes clear that

Under the Constitution, the President of the United States determines U.S. foreign policy. The Secretary of State, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, is the President’s chief foreign affairs adviser. The Secretary carries out the President’s foreign policies through the State Department and the Foreign Service of the United States.

By clearly rebuking the Carter Administration’s stance on settlements, Reagan thus effectively reversed it. And no subsequent administration endorsed it until Kerry’s comments three years ago.

But in their disingenuous spin to paint Pompeo as a liar, the CNN reporters contradict themselves as they try to play it both ways. If President Reagan’s  rebuke of the Carter administration’s stance on settlements was not a reversal of U.S. foreign policy, then Secretary of State Pompeo’s rebuke of the Obama administration’s stance on settlements similarly does not constitute a reversal of policy and vice versa, if Pompeo’s disagreement with the Obama administration is a “major reversal” of policy, then Reagan’s disagreement with the Carter administration was similarly a “major reversal” of policy.    

CNN’s journalists are hardly alone in deception about Pompeo’s announcement.  In some of the most one-sided, editorialized coverage, the New York Times’ David Halbfinger and Lara Jakes similarly lamented:

The Trump administration declared on Monday that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, reversing four decades of American policy and removing what has been an important barrier to annexation of Palestinian territory.  (“On Israeli Settlements, U.S. Can’t ‘Rewrite International Law,’ Palestinians Say”) [emphasis added]

And later:

Monday’s decision reversed a 1978 legal opinion by the State Department concluding that the settlements were inconsistent with international law. [emphasis added]

The AP’s Matthew Lee declared:

The Trump administration on Monday said it no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be a violation of international law, reversing four decades of American policy and further undermining the Palestinians’ effort to gain statehood. (“US angers Palestinians with reversal on Israeli settlements“) [emphasis added]

And later:

The 1978 legal opinion on settlements is known as the Hansell Memorandum. It has been the basis for more than 40 years of carefully worded opposition to settlement construction that had varied in its tone and strength, depending on the president’s position. [emphasis added]

Reuters distorted the facts, as well. Journalists Arshad Mohammed, Matt Spetalnick, and Humeyra Pamuk wrote:

The United States on Monday effectively backed Israel’s right to build Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank by abandoning its four-decade-old position that they were “inconsistent with international law,” a stance that may make Israeli-Palestinian peace even more elusive.  (“U.S. backs Israel on settlements, angering Palestinians and clouding peace process”) [emphasis added]

These journalists are simply false. For 40 years, US presidents adopted no legal opinion on settlements despite their opposition to settlement construction at any given time.

As Pompeo accurately pointed out, after the Carter administration adopted Hansell’s legal opinion in 1978,  the Reagan administration subsequently reversed Carter’s position, saying: “As to the West Bank, I believe the settlements there — I disagreed when the previous Administration referred to them as illegal, they’re not illegal” (“Excerpts From Interview With President Reagan Conducted by Five Reporters”, New York Times, Feb. 3, 1981).

Subsequent administrations thereafter took care not to label settlements “illegal.”  Under the Bush Sr. administration, Secretary of State James Baker explained that while his administration was opposed to “settlement activity” believing it was an obstacle to peace, they differed from the Carter administration’s policy that settlements were “illegal.” (“That is not our policy. No” he is quoted as saying in answer to the question of whether his administration agreed with the Carter position viewing settlements as illegal.)    Nor did the subsequent Clinton or Bush Jr. administrations revert to the Carter position on settlements.  They deliberately refused to take a position on the legality of settlements.  Even the Obama administration, while remaining opposed to settlement building, did not at first brand them as illegal, choosing instead to refer to them as “illegitimate.” 

Pompeo was also correct about the legality of settlements being a topic of debate.  Legal scholars have weighed in on both sides of the debate, with different interpretations of the meaning and intent of the Geneva convention and its applicability to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Corrections of earlier errors about US policy on settlements that were issued in the past by AP,  New York Times, and others add additional  evidence to the fact that for decades before Kerry’s December 2016 shift, the U.S. did not consider settlements illegal.   But will the truth make a difference now that political advocacy journalism is replacing accountable, honest journalism?

(Note: A slightly different version of this Op-Ed appeared in The Algemeiner on Nov. 20, 2019)

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