2012 Dishonest Reporting Awards
December 17, 2012 15:05 by Pesach Benson
In a break with tradition for HonestReporting readers, this year’s Dishonest Reporter winner is not a member of the international media but someone disturbingly close to home.
It’s no secret that some of the most critical stories concerning Israel in the international press are lifted straight from the pages of Israel’s very own Haaretz newspaper, and all the more so thanks to its English language website.
While Haaretz is entitled to fulfill its role as a critical domestic judge of Israel and its government’s policies, what happened when it published a story that was — quite simply — dishonest?
Gideon Levy’s front page article ”Most Israelis support an apartheid regime in Israel,” backed by a survey, made headlines around the world:
Israeli back discrimination against Arabs: poll (Sydney Morning Herald)
Levy regularly demonizes the Jewish state to foreign audiences and in his own newspaper columns. He regularly goes beyond legitimate criticism of Israel, crossing red lines and allying himself with those who refer to Israel as a racist “apartheid state”, promote boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and wish to see the very destruction of Israel.
On the basis that Levy promotes the canard of Israeli “apartheid”, he is the last journalist who could give an objective analysis of this polls results.
His article opened with the following premise:
Most of the Jewish public in Israel supports the establishment of an apartheid regime in Israel if it formally annexes the West Bank.
Levy’s entire premise was based, however, on a hypothetical situation where Israel annexes the West Bank – a policy that the majority of Israelis are opposed to according to the very same poll.
Other statistics were casually tossed into the mix by Levy in an attempt to fit the figures to his framing of Israel as an apartheid state. Minority opinions were highlighted and illustrative graphs that appeared in the Haaretz Hebrew edition were noticeably absent from the English article.
Levy stated that the survey was commissioned by the New Israel Fund’s Yisraela Goldblum Fund. It was perhaps an indicator of just how politicized and toxic this poll was that the New Israel Fund publicly disassociated itself (Hebrew) from it.
After an outcry over the article, Haaretz was forced to issue a clarification stating that the original headline did not accurately reflect the findings of the poll and amended the headline. While it did not represent a correction or apology, Haaretz did publish an opinion piece by Dr. Yehuda Ben Meir, who shredded Levy, concluding:
There’s a lot of room for improvement in Israeli society, but this article does an injustice to the State of Israel, the Jewish people and the truth. an injustice to the State of Israel, the Jewish people and the truth.
Toronto’s Globe Mail (to its credit) was the only non-Israeli paper to report the clarification – an indication of just how much damage the original story had caused to Israel internationally.
But Levy wasn’t finished. While acknowledging an error, he appeared to be utterly unrepentant, writing a follow up piece in Haaretz claiming that the errors were negligible and going on to attack those who called him out. Levy continued milking his apartheid agenda in, of all places, the South African Mail Guardian.
In most organizations and businesses, a major error that causes immense damage results in those responsible being held accountable — perhaps even heads rolling. But not at Haaretz.
For his slander against the State of Israel and his persistent promotion of the falsehood even after he had been found out, HonestReporting readers judged Gideon Levy a worthy winner of the 2012 Dishonest Reporter Award.
The 2012 Dishonest Reporting Awards:
- The 2012 Dishonest Reporter: Gideon Levy, Haaretz
- Most Feckless Fact-Checking Fail: Associated Press
- Shallowest View of Terror: Globe Mail
- Biggest Train Wreck Over Principle: The Guardian, and UK Press Complaints Commission
- Poison Pen Award: Michael Leunig, The Age
- Most Unholy Row: Bob Simon, 60 Minutes
- Special Achievement in Bigotry on Live TV: Vincent Browne, TV3
- Photo Editors Asleep At the Wheel Award: SABC
- Biggest Twit (USA): Anthony De Rosa, Reuters
- Biggest Twit (UK): Jon Donnison, BBC
- Biggest Twit (UN): Khulood Badawi, OCHA
- Dumbest Conspiracy Theory: Geneive Abdo
- Worst Ambush Interview: Mishal Husain, BBC
- Most Specious Statistic to Bash Israel: Justin Martin, Columbia Journalism Review
- Most Anti-Semitic-Themed Cartoon: Steve Bell, The Guardian
When Arab rioters stormed US diplomatic missions in Benghazi and Egypt, it appeared — at first glance — to be spontaneous rage over Innocence of Muslims, an obscure, tawdry film ridiculing Islam in general and Mohammed in particular.
AP sought to find the people behind the video, and they found “Sam Bacile.” He identified himself as an Israeli Jew, said the film “was financed with the help of more than 100 Jewish donors,” and called Islam a “cancer.”
But when The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg started fact-checking what was known about “Bacile,’ he found more questions than answers; Goldberg then ripped AP for not independently verifying the man’s claims.
It turned out that “Sam Bacile” and “Mark Basseley Youssef” were aliases for Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian living in the US — with no ties to Israel. In November, Nakoula was sentenced to one year in prison for fraudulently opening 60 checking accounts with numerous aliases. Nakoula told the NY Times he had no regrets for the movie.
Hamas, under the leadership of Khaled Meshaal, dispatched no shortage of suicide bombers, fired thousands of rockets, violently took over the Gaza Strip, stymied Palestinian unity, kidnapped Gilad Shalit, and is in bed with both Iran and Sinai jihadis.
But when it was reported in February that Meshaal considered stepping down as the Hamas politburo chief, the Globe Mail‘s Patrick Martin painted him as a pragmatic individual whose moderation was needed more than ever.
Martin also depicted lulls in violence to Meshaal’s loftiness, not Israeli security measures. But as Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Shalah conceded in a moment of candor, the lack of terror was due to the lack of Palestinian ability, not desire. He told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV:
For example, in the West Bank, there is the separation fence which is an obstacle to the resistance. And if it were not there, the situation would be entirely different.
By the end of 2012, Palestinian rocket fire escalated, leading to Operation Pillar of Defense. Meshaal returned to Gaza and gave a fiery speech saying he would never concede anything to Israel, and that “Jihad and the armed resistance is the only true path to liberation.”
If that’s moderation, what would the Globe Mail consider “radical?” As liberal American columnist Michael Tomasky pointed out after the speech:
But I ask you how any progressive person can fully support a movement like Meshal’s. Granted, the world doesn’t always offer us clean choices. We must prioritize, and the clear priority here is opposing occupation and working to end it.
But secular liberal people must also have the fortitude to demand that leaders of the occupied move away from destructive positions like Meshal’s, which just make for a downward spiral to nowhere.
That Jim Hollander’s image just happened to be in Jerusalem was irrelevant. The moment he captured was about the emotion of Israelis remembering the six million Jews who perished in the the Holocaust.
The Guardian published Hollander’s photo, noting in the caption that the scene took place in Jerusalem, “the Israeli capital.” The extra info wasn’t relevant to the image, but nonetheless accurate. But then The Guardian did something strange.
It issued a correction, insisting that the paper’s style guide considers Tel Aviv to be Israel’s capital. A look at The Guardian’s style guide found this:
Had The Guardian referred to Jerusalem as the “disputed” capital, that would’ve been one thing. But Tel Aviv is not Israel’s capital any more than Manchester is Britain’s capital.
An HonestReporting complaint to the Press Complaints Commission was inexplicably turned down, so HonestReporting and the law offices of Trevor Asserson threatened legal action against the PCC. The matter even prompted Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to take the unusual step of declaring on video the self-evident fact that Tel Aviv is not Israel’s capital.
When the PCC notified HR it was reconsidering its ruling, The Guardian brass realized it couldn’t prove that Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital; it unilaterally issued another correction and amended its style guide.
[W]e accept that it is wrong to state that Tel Aviv – the country’s financial and diplomatic centre – is the capital.
Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is sick enough, but using Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous statement is even more warped. Is it any wonder that the Australian Jewish community is fed up with this Michael Leunig cartoon published in The Age of Melbourne?
But the cartoon also took a swipe at the Australian Jewish community as well, making it impossible for activists to protest without the perception of “bitterness and spiteful condemnations” Leunig described.
The leadup to Christmas means de rigueur news content ranging from reasonable to ridiculous: shrinking Christian demographics, Bethlehem’s tourist industry, reporters tracing the footsteps of Jesus, and Santas scuffling with soldiers. All these angles have been spun against Israel in shorter dispatches barely scratching the surface.
Unfortunately, even big-name journos with time and budget to do the story right have fallen short. Christiane Amanpour failed so miserably with “God’s Warriors,” she won he 2007 Dishonest Reporter Award.
So Israelis took note with understandable trepidation when Bob Simon of 60 Minutes began working on “Christians of the Holy Land.” Their concerns proved to be well-founded.
Simon’s report, among other things:
- Blamed Israeli settlements and checkpoints for Christian flight.
- Didn’t take into account Palestinian Muslim persecution of Christians — particularly land-theft, forced conversions, discrimination, and creeping Sharia.
- Whitewashed the controversial Kairos Palestine Document.
- Featured Simon’s theatrics with Ambassador Michael Oren.
The broadcast had the potential to drive a wedge between Israel and its Christian supporters, which would explain why Ambassador Oren wrote a Wall St. Journal op-ed addressing the Christian exodus. But the broadcast made for an unholy row between CBS News and Israel’s supporters.
Later in the year Simon and 60 Minutes made nice by returning to Israel, doing a softer piece: From Fear to Fortune: Tel Aviv’s New Attitude.
What an unholy row that was.
On his live Irish TV3 show, veteran broadcaster Vincent Browne crossed the line from legitimate criticism to demonization by calling Israel “the cancer in world affairs.” Strong language? Everyone knows there’s only one way to deal with cancer.
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But rather than apologize, Browne added fuel to the fire:
Mr Browne admitted that his choice of language could have been better but insisted that the criticism was justified.
“What I resent is the suggestion that because you’re critical of Israel, you’re automatically anti-Semitic. I don’t think that’s acceptable,” he said.
Mr Browne refused to apologise for his remarks, saying that Israel was founded in 1948 by taking land from the Arabs.
At that point, nobody had called Browne an anti-Semite. His reaction to the fuss suggests he’s tone deaf to the difference between reasonable criticism and bigotry. Whether he realized it or not, Browne sounded too much like uncouth Iranian smacktalk. Cancer indeed.
The status of African migrants in Israel was certainly contentious in 2012. So when South African Broadcasting Corp. News searched for a photo to illustrate one such update, the obvious image of choice taken from the wires should’ve been one of the plentiful images of the Africans themselves, or of Israeli protesters.
Instead, the SABC chose an image that A) featured a monkey B) labeled as Jewish C) on a placard calling Israel a terrorist state D) at an Indonesian protest for the Mavi Marmara E) two years ago. The photo was not only irrelevant, it was anti-Semitic too.
SABC removed the photo, replacing it with map equally useless to the story.
During the Gaza war, Anthony De Rosa of Reuters took a swipe at at Israel on Twitter. The twitterverse reaction was massive and furious. One response in particular, by Robbie Guy even went viral. De Rosa — the news service’s social media editor — removed the tweet. But the memorable exchange was preserved in screengrabs.
Early into the Operation of Pillar of Defense, Palestinian journalist/activist Hazem Balousha tweeted a moving a photo of a girl lying in a hospital gurney, purportedly injured in an Israeli air strike.
BBC reporter Jon Donnison was touched and retweeted it. However, activists discovered that the photo was actually taken in Syria a month before the war. Donnison tweeted an apology for not carefully verifying the image before sharing it. After the war, at a formal Government Press Office hearing, Donnison was given a warning, while HonestReporting made him the first inductee in the Media War Hall of Shame.
And what of Balousha? Two days after Donnison’s apology, Balousha co-authored a Deutsche Welle article about the social media war. He gallingly addressed false photo tweets without disclosing he did the very same thing:
False information about the current war is also being spread via Twitter and Facebook – pictures of dead children, for example, that are actually from Syria. That angers Ebaa. “We have to stick to the truth, or no one is going to believe us any more.” Ulla Papajak also believes that pictures and information need to be verified for accuracy – even if he also understands that there is no time to do so.
Khulood Badawi, an Israeli Arab foreshadowed Donnison’s screw-up when Israel launched air strikes on Gaza in March. She posted this photo:
Badawi’s tweet set in motion this chain of events:
- Bloggers discovered the photo originated in 2006.
- HonestReporting discovered that Badawi was an information and media coordinator for a UN agency, the Jerusalem-based Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
- Israel’s ambassador to the UN demanded Badawi’s dismissal.
- The UN launched an inquiry.
- HonestReporting delivered a petition to OCHA — with 15,000 signatures — calling for Badawi’s removal.
- The UN completed its probe, but didn’t release its findings.
Badawi and OCHA remained silent, so it’s not known how she came to post that image, or her current UN status. Badawi may have ended the chapter where it all began by closing her Twitter account.
Terror targeted Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, New Delhi, and Tbilisi over two days in February, and there was enough evidence to implicate Iran. Yet one pundit, Genieve Abdo, had the audacity to suggest Israel attacked its own envoys.
In an Australian radio interview, Abdo said:
ELEANOR HALL: Iran’s leadership says it’s sheer lies that it’s behind the attacks and that the Israelis have planted the bombs themselves to discredit Iran?
GENEIVE ABDO: Well I think that’s entirely possible. I mean, if you consider what the Israelis did for many years in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, that theory is not so farfetched.
. . .
Well, you know, there are many theories. I mean theory one is that the Iranians did it in retaliation for attacks on their own nuclear scientists. Theory two is that the Israelis have carried out this attack as a pretext to attack Iran. I mean the Israelis are seriously considering now launching a war against Iran. So that also has to be taken as a possible motivation for these assassinations.
You’d think a charge like that is beneath Abdo, a former journalist with a successful academic career. She heads the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, authored two books, and received a prestigious fellowship. But ivory tower honorifics add no credibility to brainless conspiracy theories.
What initially looked like a standard news segment about Operation Pillar of Defense featuring Jerusalem Post reporter Gil Hoffman turned out to be one of the most biased episodes of “news” broadcast during the conflict.
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After several tough but fair questions about the conflict, BBC interviewer Mishal Husain began pressing Hoffman to answer a question about how many Israelis had been killed by rocket attacks from Gaza before the conflict began.
Hoffman insisted that the number of people killed didn’t matter because the intention of every rocket was to kill as many as people as possible. Husain, however, pressed on, ultimately revealing a less-than-hidden agenda to her question.
“Well, that’s your view, but we’re trying to bring this story to our audiences around the world,” she declared, and then proceeded to answer her own question, citing figures published in another publication, which she had prepared ahead of time.
Unfortunately for those audiences around the world, Husain’s idea of “bringing the story” meant feeding them her own view – that the number of Israelis killed by Hamas rockets was strangely low – rather than exposing them to the views of the person actually being interviewed.
These data are very helpful, but I think we can consider them under a new lamp by taking into account each country’s size. China and Eritrea, for example, have about the same number of journalists rotting in prison, 27 and 28 respectively. But the population of China is over 250 times that of the small dictatorship.
It’s a flawed statistic because there’s no relationship between a country’s general population and the number of reporters it imprisons. It’s no more valid than tying the number of jailed journalists to a country’s population of, say, penguins.
According to Martin’s metrics, Israel and Eritrea were the world’s worst proverbial press predators, ahead of countries like Syria, Iran, and China, who systematically suppress free speech and imprison journalists who run afoul of the ruling regimes:
Eritrea attracts few tourists that it otherwise might need to satisfy with a better human rights record, and the regime has done little more than yawn at outsiders’ objections to its brutality.
Israel, though, wants to be called a modern democracy and gets cranky when critics point out that it is not.
The blowback prompted this CJR followup by Iranian born journalist Sohrab Ahmari:
Allowing Mr. Martin to skewer the Jewish state using faulty statistics undermines CJR’s role as professional watchdog. But the harm done extends beyond journalistic standards. The ultimate impact of pieces like Mr. Martin’s is a softening of the reading public’s moral intuitions and sensitivities. By placing Israel on the same plane as the likes of Iran and Syria, Mr. Martin minimized the threats faced by journalists working under genuine authoritarianisms—not to mention the broader human rights catastrophes underway in these societies.
Postscript: At year’s end, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a special report on jailed reporters. Turkey was cited as the world’s leading jailer of journos; Israel didn’t even make the CPJ’s top 10 list.