It’s happening at 60 Minutes, one of the most storied franchises in the history of American journalism. Jeff Fager, the man who was appointed chairman of CBS News to restore the luster of the network’s news division after a series of scandals, is stonewalling. He’s stonewalling about a 60 Minutes segment that aired in April 2012.
The segment was a distorted and demonstrably inaccurate hatchet job that blamed Israel for the suffering of Christians in the Holy Land that falsely stated the security barrier completely surrounded the city of Bethlehem. It omitted well-documented and notorious acts of Muslim violence and hostility against Christians in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite receiving thousands of complaints, 60 Minutes has not made any corrections to the segment.
CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager demonstrated just how far he was willing to go to hide the truth about the problems with this segment when he spoke at his home church, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, Connecticut on April 7, 2013.
Instead of coming clean about the factual errors and distortions in the segment, Fager repeated them and tried to portray himself and his news network – one of the most powerful media institutions in the country – as the victim of bullying by CAMERA, a group that tried to get 60 Minutes to correct the record.
He couldn’t even get the details right here. In telling his “we’re the victim” story, Fager mischaracterized CAMERA’s efforts to hold 60 Minutes accountable for its errors.
It was a pretty ugly use of an invitation from his pastor, Rev. Peter Walsh, who had asked Fager to speak to his fellow congregants about the segment on Christians in the Holy Land and the response to it as part of the church’s “Abraham’s Tent” series about Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Fager’s lecture attracted an audience of 200-300 people, a good showing for the first Sunday after Easter, which by the way, was Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Instead of promoting the cause of interfaith reconciliation, Fager incited hostility toward the Jewish state by repeating already refuted misstatements, stating for example, that Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall, when in fact it is not.
Fager also defended the “Kairos Document” issued by Palestinian Christians in 2009 as a peacemaking document signed by influential church leaders in the Holy Land. The fact is the document is so hostile and one-sided that the Central Conference of American Rabbis described the text as anti-Semitic. Moreover, the text was not signed by denominational leaders in the Holy Land but by low-level church officials and lay members.
The Story and the Response
The controversy began on April 22, 2012 when 60 Minutes aired its segment, “Christians of the Holy Land,” reported by Bob Simon and produced by Harry A. Radliffe II. The segment presented a false account of life for Christians in the Holy Land, blaming Israel for their difficulties while ignoring Islamist oppression of Christians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and in the rest of the Middle East.
CAMERA produced an analysis of the segment, alerted its supporters to the problems with the story and published an ad in the Wall Street Journal drawing attention to some of the more egregious errors in the segment.
CAMERA activists also appeared at a CBS shareholders meeting and subsequently submitted a proxy resolution (rebuffed by the Securities Exchange Commission) calling on CBS Corp.’s Board of Directors to ensure that CBS News abided by its corrections policy which calls for the news network to get its facts right and to make on-air corrections when it gets them wrong.
Throughout all of this, CAMERA’s goal was to convince CBS News to correct the factual errors to the story. CBS News, led by its Chairman, Jeff Fager, stonewalled the entire time. In June 2012, Fager wrote a letter stating: “I believe our story was responsible journalism which included the position of Israel’s Ambassador to the United States quite extensively. It was fair and accurate reporting about a newsworthy subject.”
It was nothing of the sort.
Episcopal Church in New Canaan Enters the Fray
The controversy was revived in early 2013, when St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, Connecticut, announced that Jeff Fager would be speaking about Christians in the Holy Land on April 7, 2013.
The church’s publicity about the event indicated that Fager would show the 60 Minutes segment about Christians in the Holy Land and speak about the response it received. As stated above, the event was advertised as part of a lecture series about Christian, Muslim, and Jewish relations.
At the event, the church’s rector, Rev. Peter Walsh gave Fager a laudatory introduction, stating that the CBS executive is “a man of extraordinary integrity and character. He’s a man of grace in a world without grace. He’s a trustworthy soul in a world where people ain’t always so trustworthy.”
Rev. Walsh also told the crowd of more than 200 that Fager was going “to tell you some stories that are really, really cool and really valuable for us to hear.” He also handed out a copy of CAMERA ad published in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 14, 2012 stating that Fager would refer to it later.
Fager then spoke for a few minutes, telling his fellow congregants that “fairness and accuracy is such a huge part of what we do” at 60 Minutes. For example, Fager said, he does not like it when journalists report that someone “refused to do an interview” because no one should have to do an interview. “It’s our job to make sure we get their side of the story whether they cooperate with us or not.”
Fager also described how Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States allegedly tried to “kill the story” about Christians in the Holy Land. Michael Oren was upset that 60 Mi
nutes was even doing the story because in Fager’s words, “he had heard it was going to be a hatchet job. I don’t like that phrase associated with 60 Minutes.” Fager added:
… Michael Oren was very upset and I said, “We don’t do hatchet jobs.” And he said, “Yes you do and this is going to be another one.” And I said to him, if you’re that concerned about it, you should come on and do an interview with us and we’d be happy to interview you because you’re in the story.
After some thought, Oren agreed to do the interview, during which he was accused on camera of trying to kill the story. Fager justified this by stating 60 Minutes believed that “part of the story is that he called to try and kill it and you can’t ignore that. So as you’ll see we asked him about that as well.”
As it turned out, Ambassador Oren’s statement about the 60 Minutes piece was prescient. The segment was a hit job and an inaccurate one at that, which may help explain why Fager felt obligated to show and defend the segment to his fellow congregants at St. Mark’s in early April.
Wrong About Barrier
After Fager showed the segment to his fellow parishioners, he told the audience what happened after it aired. Referring to the CAMERA ad that that was handed out to the audience by his pastor, Fager offered a point-by-point refutation of CAMERA’s complaints as they appeared in the Wall Street Journal ad, stating that “There’s nothing accurate to their accusations.”
Fager said that CAMERA’s is wrong about the security barrier and that “Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall.”
This is a patent falsehood. Maps provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations, B’tselem, and even the PLO all indicate that the security fence does not completely surround Bethlehem.
This writer (who attended the event) challenged Fager on this point, offering to give $5,000 to a charity of Fager’s choosing if he could prove that the security barrier completely surrounds Bethlehem.
Fager said “OK” in response but has not followed upon the offer for one simple reason: He can’t prove the barrier surrounds Bethlehem because it doesn’t.
So much for Fager’s assertion that there is “nothing accurate” to CAMERA’s assertions.
Fager also took issue with CAMERA’s complaint that 60 Minutes ignored the plight of Christians elsewhere in the region while obsessing about violence against Christians elsewhere in the Middle East. To buttress his point, Fager stated Bob Simon, “a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx” had been given the Christian beat and that 60 Minutes had in fact done stories on the plight of Christians in Iraq and on the oppression of Christians in Turkey.
Watching the segments Fager mentioned, however, raises questions about 60 Minutes’ ability to give the oppression of Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East the attention it deserves. For example the segment on Iraq, which documented the ethnic cleansing of several hundred thousand Christians from Iraq lasted four and a half minutes. (Correction, May 2, 2013: CBS News informs CAMERA that the original segment was the standard length (13-14 minutes) for a 60 Minutes report. CAMERA did not find the full segment on the 60 Minutes website, but only an excerpted version. A transcript of the segment reveals the piece includes approximately the same number of words as the report on Christians in the Holy Land.)
By way of comparison, 60 Minutes’ episode on Christians in the Holy Land, whose population is growing in absolute terms, was more than 14 minutes in length.
Why the disproportionate attention?
The segment on the oppression of Christians in Turkey, which aired in 2010, downplayed that country’s brutal history of anti-Christian violence. During the segment, Bob Simon reported that, “At the turn of the last century there were nearly 2 million Orthodox Christians in Turkey; 1.5 million were expelled in 1923, and another 150,000 left after violent anti-Christian riots in Istanbul in 1955.”
The report, however, omits any reference to the Armenian Genocide, which resulted in the murder of approximately 1.5 million Christians between 1915 and 1918. The report also fails to mention earlier massacres of large numbers of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians in the late 1800s and early 1900s – all prior to 1923.
How can 60 Minutes fail to acknowledge the massacres of huge numbers of Christians in Turkey in a story about the status of Christians in that country? Did 60 Minutes cave into demands from the Turkish government that it refrain from mentioning this story? It wouldn’t be the first time. Just ask the folks at MGM who tried to make a movie about the genocide in the 1930s. Update (May 2, 2013: CBS News has contacted CAMERA to note that it did a story on the Armenian Genocide on Feb. 28, 2010. The segment can be viewed here. The fact remains that the story about the oppression of Orthodox Christians in Turkey, which aired on Aug. 8, 2010, made no reference to the Armenian Genocide, nor did it mention the massacres of Assyrian and Greek Christians. CAMERA never claimed that 60 Minutes did not cover the Armenian Genocide, but faulted them for not including vital information about the Genocide in its Aug. 8, 2010 story. Such context is vital to a full understanding of the status of Christians in Turkey.)
Coverage Since the Bombings?
Interestingly enough, both of the stories that Fager invoked to demonstrate that 60 Minutes is not ignoring the oppression of Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East were broadcast prior to two notorious bombings – the first in Baghdad on Oct. 31, 2010 and the second in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011.
These two bombings were not enough to prompt 60 Minutes to address the issue, but some exaggerated complaints about an exodus of Palestinian Christians leaving the Holy Land was enough to instigate an anti-Israel report on the status of Christians in the Holy Land.
Again, it’s reasonable to ask, why the disproportionate coverage? Why is it that Palestinian Christians who publicly blame Israel for the suffering merit so much coverage why other acts of violence are passed over?
Defended Kairos Document
Fager also de
fended 60 Minutes depiction of the Kairos Document, which CAMERA described as a “screed that demonizes Israel and whitewashes terrorism.” CAMERA also stated that the people who signed the document were not “leaders” but anti-Israel agitators, low level officials and laymen.”
Fager’s response was to flatly assert that the document does not demonize Israel and that it was in fact signed by leaders including the Patriarch of Bethlehem, the leader of the Anglican Church in the Holy Land “and I’m assuming the Roman Catholic Church.”
Fager simply does not know what he’s talking about. Malcolm Lowe, a New Testament Scholar who writes in Jerusalem reports the following:
With the exception of Arab Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, the Heads of Churches played no role in the origins of this document. Some of them were taken by surprise when it appeared. They were, however, put under political pressure to toe the line propounded by the document. Four days later, consequently, they issued a brief statement of their own. (Emphasis added.)
Lowe reports that Younan soon asked that his name be removed from the document soon after it appeared. Lowe also reports that one of the signatories, long time anti-Israel activist Michel Sabbah “retired as Latin Patriarch in early 2008, so he spoke only for himself and not the Latin Patriarchate.” Lowe continues:
The case of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna is even more acute. Online one can find that back in 2007 he publicly called for withdrawal of the official recognition of Greek Patriarch Theophilos III. As a consequence, his salary from the Greek Patriarchate was suspended for several months, the account says. Far from being a leader, he is rather an opponent of the Christian leadership.The other signatories are parish priests, low level officials and laypeople. For sure, some of them are fairly well known as long-term agitators on behalf of Palestinian political aims and echoes of their familiar views are easily discerned in the document. A recent recruit is Yusuf Daher, whom the WCC secretariat has set up with an office in Jerusalem in order to mobilize Christians on behalf of the Palestinians. So the document, as it now appears on kairospalestine, does not have any bona fide Christian leader among its authors.
Lowe’s article clearly contradicts the original 60 Minutes report, which stated the Kairos Document was “was endorsed by the leaders of 13 Christian denominations including Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican.” This is simply false, as is Fager’s subsequent defense of 60 Minutes’ reporting on the document.”
As far as the Fager’s assertion about the Kairos Document not demonizing Israel, he should read the statement issued by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), comprised of rabbis from the Reform movement in April 10, 2010. The statement reads in part as follows: “The cause of peace is not served by pronouncements which vindicate one side while demonizing the other, but by the courage of moral clarity and respect for truth.” That’s a pretty clear indication that there’s a problem with the text.
Fager also took issue with CAMERA’s contention that 60 Minutes got wrong about the numbers of Christians in the Holy Land. In the ad, CAMERA asserted that 60 Minutes falsely reported that in 1964 Christians in Jerusalem’s Old City numbered 30,000 and then declined to 11,000 today. CAMERA also asserted that in reality, there were only 11,000 Christians in Jerusalem in 1964. About the only response Fager could muster to this challenge was that 60 Minutes worked hard to get the numbers right and was “comfortable” with its reporting.
He offered no sources to back up his assertion that 60 Minutes got it right.
Fager also responded lamely to CAMERA’s assertion that 60 Minutes “deceptively concealed the reality that in Israel the Christian population has quadrupled since 1949, from 34,000 to 122,000 in 2009.” He stated that the focus of the segment was on Christians in the Holy Land and not Israeli Christians. He continued:
Our story was about Arab Palestinian Christians. I don’t know what the population of Ethiopian Christians are in Israel but it’s grown significantly as have other Christians in other parts of the world.
Ethiopian Christians? What is Fager talking about? There has been a huge influx of Ehtiopian Jews into Israel in the past decades, but not Ethiopian Christians. The fact is, the increase CAMERA between 1949 and 2009 was of Arab Christians living in Israel, many of whom live in Galilee. Is that not part of the Holy Land?
And in any event, the population of Christians in the West Bank, where 60 Minutes did most of its reporting for the segment in question, has also increased since 1967. CAMERA reported the following in April 2012:
The numbers,compiled by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, reveal that in the late 1940s, there were approximately 60,000 Christians living in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gazaand that this population declined to approximately 40,000 just prior to the Six Day War in 1967. Today, there are approximately 52,000 Christians living in these areas.
These numbers did not make their way into the segment. Instead, 60 Minutes merely reported about a decline in the percentage of Christians in the Holy Land. This decline is due to a growth in the Muslim and Jewish populations, not because of a decline in the Christian population.
Fager also accused CAMERA of filing a petition that would change CBS’s corporate bylaws so that CBS News’s editorial decisions would be placed under the control of the corporation’s board of directors and corporate officials.
This is an outlandish interpretation of what CAMERA actually did. CAMERA filed a proxy motion that called on CBS shareholders to “request that the Board of directors ensure” that CBS Corporation’s policy regarding journalistic accuracy and corrections “is adhered to by CBS News programming.”
The proxy also stated that the board of directors “should
report back to the stockholders no later than the next annual meeting on progress in ensuring adherence to this policy.”
The proxy also quoted the relevant passage of CBS’s corporate policy, which reads as follows:
Our reputation for accuracy in reporting depends upon our efforts to get the story right, or, if you get it wrong to broadcast a correction. Significant errors of fact must be corrected clearly and promptly in the broadcast or on the web page of the program in which the error was made…
So what CAMERA did was file a proxy asking CBS corporate officials to ensure that the corporation they control adheres to its own pre-existing policies.
This is no nefarious attempt to deprive 60 Minutes of its editorial freedom. It’s merely an attempt to ensure that it tell the truth.
60 Minutes’ refusal to correct, and Fager’s stonewalling is a breach of faith with CBS’s viewers. Fager and 60 Minutes need to do the right thing, make the corrections, promise to do better next time and move on.