The ABC’s of Journalism

With Peter Jennings at the helm as Anchor and Senior Editor of World News Tonight, ABC News has won a reputation for unflagging bias against Israel. The ABC spin has tinged coverage over many years, from such reports as a May 1989 segment in which Mr. Jennings introduced the story of the fatal stabbing of two elderly Jews in Jerusalem as an Israeli attempt to “use a Palestinian act of violence to discredit the PLO,” to more recent stories by the network that malign Israeli leaders and portray as vengeful and malicious Israeli measures against terrorism.

However, after concerted effort by CAMERA to expose ABC’s reckless charges against Israel, the network has begun to report more accurately. Embarrassed by press coverage of CAMERA’s findings, ABC has apparently instructed reporters to check their stories with Israeli officials prior to going on the air. According to these Israeli officials, such fact-checking, which ABC reporters had not done prior to CAMERA’s intervention, has resulted in the refutation of stories which otherwise might have been broadcast. Only time will tell whether these trends are lasting.

The tale of ABC malfeasance in the last year is dramatic. CAMERA investigated numerous allegations against Israel by ABC that were found to be without any basis in fact. They included:

  • The claim that Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s opposition leader, had called Prime Minister “Rabin a traitor because of his deals with Arafat”;
  • The charge that Israel’s “policy of collective punishment” prompted demolition of a Palestinian’s home in retribution for his daughter’s murder of an Israeli;
  • The assertion that Israel continues to hold a Palestinian teenager imprisoned more than 6 years ago for “throwing stones at soldiers”;

  • The allegation that among a specific group of Palestinian prisoners released by Israel, “many” had been “held for many years without trial.”

The “Traitor” Charge

ABC’s report of October 2, 1995 charging that then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had called Prime Minister Rabin “a traitor because of his deals with Arafat,” led to astonishing revelations about the network. The erroneous report, which could have been swiftly and simply corrected, as CAMERA urged, instead prompted a coverup that involved senior officials and research staff of ABC. As Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe wrote, ABC turned “a negligent goof into a deliberate deception.”

When CAMERA researchers were unable to find any supporting evidence for the traitor charge, ABC was challenged to substantiate it. Four days later Peter Jennings read a “correction,” stating that even though Netanyahu denies using the word, there were “numerous references to him doing so in press reports from the region.” In other words, Jennings’ “correction” averred that Netanyahu had called Rabin a traitor and now was lying about it.

Since standard news databases contained no such references, CAMERA again wrote to ABC News President Roone Arledge, asking that he provide citations for the press reports in question. In a terse reply Richard Wald, ABC’s Senior Vice President for Editorial Quality, claimed that his network’s assertion was substantiated by two unspecified articles appearing in the Des Moines Register and the Edmonton Journal, both of which he claimed to have read. Mr. Wald concluded by saying, “Like others we make mistakes from time to time and we are ready to correct them. I’d appreciate the same courtesy from you.” Though hardly amounting to “numerous references…in press reports from the region,” the two articles cited by Mr. Wald, if accurate, would have vindicated ABC.

Was ABC vindicated? CAMERA’s investigation revealed that:

  • The Edmonton Journal article, dated January 23, 1994, was an unsigned editorial. It charged, with no supporting details, that Netanyahu had called Rabin a traitor;

  • The Des Moines Register article, dated August 31, 1993, was patched together from wire service reports and claimed Netanyahu had called Rabin a traitor during a Knesset debate the day before;

  • Both articles were inaccurate;
  • In a conscious attempt to deceive, ABC cited these articles despite knowing they were erroneous.

ABC’s startling conduct was uncovered when CAMERA called the Edmonton Journal, asking an editor the source for the “traitor” reference in the paper’s editorial. The editor cited a British newspaper, the Guardian. Significantly, he added that he had also told this to two ABC News researchers who had separately asked the same question just weeks earlier.

CAMERA’s search of the Guardian database revealed no reference to the traitor charge whatsoever. Clearly the ABC researchers searched the same database with the same negative results, and they therefore knew the Edmonton editorial was baseless. The Edmonton editor later admitted to CAMERA that the paper had not been sufficiently "rigorous" and had used the word "traitor" as shorthand for Netanyahu's criticism that the peace deal would threaten Israel's security.

The equally baseless Des Moines Register story was an AP report with a few lines added from other wire service reports, none of which contained the traitor charge. The managing editor of the Des Moines Register was unable to say how the false charge got into his paper. CAMERA then spoke with Nick Tatro, the Israel-based AP reporter who covered the Knesset debate in question. Tatro was certain that Netanyahu had not called anyone a traitor, and said that if the opposition leader had, it would have been widely reported.

The bottom line: ABC made an error when they reported Netanyahu had called Rabin a traitor. They seriously compounded the error with Peter Jennings' malicious "correction." The network then crossed into the territory of full-blown coverup when it cited the Register and Journal stories despite knowing them to be false.

Neither Richard Wald nor other senior ABC executives have replied to follow-up letters from CAMERA charging the network with this egregious breach of journalistic ethics, nor has ABC run a correction. Nor has ABC responded to critical coverage of the affair in the New York Post, the Boston Globe, and the Columbia Journalism Review.

The "Collective Punishment" Charge

According to an October 6th report by ABC's Ron Allen, Israel's alleged "policy of collective punishment" led it to demolish the home of Mohammed Wahidi because Abeer Wahidi, his daughter, was directly involved in the murder of a Jewish settler. Once again, ABC's charge was simply untrue. The home was torn down because it was seriously damaged during an IDF search for wanted terrorists. Consistent with standard IDF policy in cases of collateral damage, full compensation was offered to Mr. Wahidi. He accepted the offer, received over $400,000 from Israel, and rebuilt his home. Contrary to ABC's report, there was no punishment, colle
ctive or otherwise.

Compounding the matter, ABC had, without informing viewers, used exactly the same footage of the home's destruction one year earlier to illustrate an entirely unrelated story, a report about tougher measures Israel would employ against Hamas terrorists following the 1994 Tel-Aviv bus bombing.

CAMERA once again wrote to senior ABC executives, asking that they air appropriate corrections if they could not rebut the criticism.

Richard Wald responded on January 16th, admitting ABC had improperly used the house demolition footage to illustrate the unrelated 1994 story: "We regret the error," he wrote. He also admitted the Wahidi story was unfounded, writing "... the fact remains that we were wrong. We regret it."

On January 22nd Peter Jennings read a brief and oblique correction:

And we have a correction to make tonight. In a story some time ago about Palestinian prisoners our reporter said that this house was destroyed by the Israelis as a matter of government policy. In this case it was destroyed during what the Israelis said was a raid on suspected terrorists. There were no terrorists in the house, and the Israeli government paid to rebuild it. And we regret the error.

Jennings ignored the network's use of the same footage one year earlier to illustrate an entirely unrelated Hamas story. Moreover, viewers not fully acquainted with the entire affair could only have been mystified by Jennings' elliptical language. Thus, the correction was no more than minimal acknowledgement of ABC's dereliction.

The Jailed "Stone-Thrower"

The Wahidi story is one example of the ABC penchant for broadcasting unsubstantiated anecdotes that malign Israel. Hilary Brown's December 12th report from Nablus was another.

Brown portrayed Israel as callously imprisoning Palestinian teenagers for the flimsiest of reasons. She introduced viewers to the father of one such youth and uncritically recounted his story:

Abu Shahar is a butcher. His son, Omar, was arrested six years ago at age 16 for throwing stones at soldiers. He's still in jail in Israel.

Today, Abu Shahar joined the tens of thousands of Palestinians celebrating the Israeli withdrawal from Nablus. There was no violence today, only clapping and dancing in the streets. "Of course I rejoice today," says Abu Shahar, "but my happiness won't be complete until my son is free. And I mean all my sons because I think of all those young people still in prison as my own."

Hilary Brown, ABC News, Nablus

There were at least two questions raised by Hilary Brown's story. First, since "Abu Shahar" is a nickname rather than a real name: Who is Abu Shahar? Second, since Israel rarely imprisons those under sixteen unless they have committed a grave offense: What crime led to Omar's long prison term? Parenthetically, allowing "Abu Shahar" to level grave accusations without informing viewers of his real identity was a deception by ABC and a clear breach of journalistic ethics.

If Abu Shahar was not a real name, what about Omar? Was there an Omar from Nablus who had committed a serious offense some six years earlier? CAMERA's research indicated there was: a young man named Omar Sa'ad plotted with friends to lure an Israeli soldier under a balcony, where accomplices waited, ready to drop a heavy stone. An Israeli paratrooper, 24-year-old Binyamin Meissner, was lured under the balcony by Omar Sa'ad, the stone was dropped, and Meissner's skull was crushed, killing him. Omar Sa'ad was caught and eventually found to be an accomplice to premeditated murder.

Was Omar Sa'ad the son of ABC's "Abu Shahar"? CAMERA sent a copy of the ABC interview to former Israeli security officials familiar with Nablus and also made other inquiries. These sources confirmed that the man ABC identified as "Abu Shahar" was in reality Abdel Karim Fayez Sa'ad, and that his son, Omar Abdel Karim Sa'ad, is serving a 15 year term for his direct role in the murder of Binyamin Meissner. ABC's youthful "stone-thrower" was, in fact, a murderer.

CAMERA wrote to senior ABC officials, documenting the network's dishonest rendering of the Omar Sa'ad story and once again asking that the network either rebut the findings or issue a contextual, on-air correction.

ABC's Richard Wald responded with an admission that CAMERA was correct about the identity of "Abu Shahar" and Omar. But Wald disputed CAMERA's assertion that the Omar story was implausible, and added some new charges against the Jewish state:

Our report was not at all implausible. Israel imprisoned thousands of minors in the seven years of the Intifada. One prison on the West Bank was called, I am told, the "Intifada Kindergarten." In the year of Omar's arrest, in East Jerusalem alone, there were 1,307 minors arrested --according to B'tselem. There are currently 130 Palestinian minors [sic] on political charges in various jails.

Mr. Wald's principal charge, that Israel routinely imprisoned Palestinian minors, is wrong. Even Middle East Watch, the self-proclaimed human rights group not known for pro-Israel tendencies, reports:

While many Palestinians aged 15 have been arrested by the IDF, few have been imprisoned for extended periods.

During our visit to IDF detention camps, we encountered few inmates aged 16 and under...

The IDF's stated policy on the West Bank is not to admit youths under 16 to its detention camps except in cases involving serious offenses... With stone throwing the most common juvenile offense, few youths are imprisoned.

As for ABC's "Intifada Kindergarten," area experts have never heard of such a place, and there is not a single press reference to the term in standard news databases. CAMERA has challenged ABC to provide this prison's exact name and location.

CAMERA also challenged ABC's misuse of the B'Tselem report on juvenile detainees. The number 1,307 cited by ABC was both irrelevant and inaccurate. As the B'Tselem report clearly indicates, that number referred
to all juveniles picked up by the police in east Jerusalem, including many who were merely questioned and immediately released. According to the same table in the report, the number actually accused of some offense was only 599. No doubt, the number actually imprisoned was substantially fewer that 599. Moreover, considering the demographic totals, the arrest rate for Moslem youths in Jerusalem is actually lower than the overall arrest rate for juveniles in the US.

Wald's charge that Israel is holding Palestinian minors on "political charges" is also groundless, and regrettably indicative of a network mindset that attaches credibility to virtually any anti-Israel charge. As CAMERA pointed out, since Israel has released all Palestinians under the age of 16, which is the age of majority, Israel actually holds no Palestinian minors.

Israel does hold roughly 100 Palestinians who are between the ages of 16 and 19. If Mr. Wald's charge refers to these prisoners, his assertion that they are held on "political charges" is outrageous. According to Israeli officials many of these detainees are guilty of violent crimes including a substantial number of murders. CAMERA has asked ABC if it is the position of the network that murdering Jews is a political act, and the murderers "political prisoners?" As yet there has been no response from the network.

The Jennings Fabrication

ABC reporters - present and past - have admitted privately that stories critical of Israel are looked upon with favor by Anchor and Senior Editor Peter Jennings. The network's correspondents know which stories will advance their careers, and which will do the opposite; the impulse to report accordingly is evidently difficult to resist.

It should come as little surprise that Mr. Jennings own assertions about Israel are just as inaccurate as those of his correspondents. On January 10th, for example, the ABC anchor reported Israel's release that week of Palestinian prisoners:

In the Middle East today, to keep a promise, Israel has released another 800 Palestinians who have been held in Israeli jails, many for many years without trial.

Mr. Jennings' statement was false. According to Israeli officials, none of the released prisoners were administrative detainees or had been held without trial. Indeed, PA officials were quite open in their criticism that Israel had freed common criminals instead of security prisoners. The wire service AFP reported that Israel's prisoner release "sparked widespread complaints that most were non-political detainees who had already completed their sentences." In a story filed the next day, AFP quoted the PA official who negotiated the prisoner release with Israel, Hisham Abdelrazek, as saying most of the released prisoners had been held for simple violations of Israeli travel restrictions.

On March 20th CAMERA once again wrote to ABC officials, asking:

...what credible evidence, if any, Mr. Jennings was relying upon when he made his inflammatory charge. Did Mr. Jennings, for example, have information on the released prisoners which was unavailable to the above-quoted Palestinian official?"

If there was no credible evidence we expect that Mr. Jennings will issue a timely, forthright and contextually clear on-air correction.

To date, there has been no reply from the network.

Journalistic Standards

Even with the forced improvements in ABC's coverage, the network's refusal to discipline employees who have repeatedly flouted journalistic canon, and its refusal to correct false reports that malign Israel, call into question the reliability of all its reporting.

The danger to journalism arising from such conduct, and the attendant threat to journalists' crucial role in a free society, were recently noted by Nightline anchor Ted Koppel. After interviewing Janet Cooke, the former Washington Post reporter who was drummed out of the profession when it was discovered that her Pulitzer Prize-winning story was a hoax, Koppel observed:

Many of you have such a low opinion of us [that is, journalists] anyway, and are so convinced that we twist the facts, ignore the truth, make it up, that you may think we secretly revere Ms. Cooke as a role model... What we should do is fire everyone in the business who is as deliberately careless of the truth today as she once was.

If Mr. Koppel's recommendation were the rule at ABC, things might get very lonely at the network's headquarters.

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