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60 Minutes: At War With The Truth

ct cover 12-2-11By Cindy Mindell

On April 22, 2012 CBS’s 60 Minutes aired “Christians of the Holy Land,” reported by Bob Simon and produced by Harry Radliffe. There were several factual errors in the segment, the most glaring of which described the security barrier built to stop suicide bombers entering Israel from the West Bank “completely surrounds” Bethlehem.

In fact, maps provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations, B’tselem, and even the PLO indicate that this is not so: the security fence is located to the north and west of Bethlehem and leaves the rest of the city’s perimeter open to the West Bank.

In response, the Boston-based watchdog organization, CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) posted articles on its website indicating the errors and informed CBS of the network’s error. Leaders of the organization showed up at a CBS shareholders’ meeting and submitted a proxy to call on the CBS Board of Directors to make sure that CBS News lived up to its policy of corrections. In August 2012, CAMERA took out a half-page ad in the Wall Street Journal pointing out the erroneous information included in the report.

CBS never made the correction.

Then, on April 7 of this year, CBS chairman Jeff Fager spoke at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, where he is a member, as part of the church’s weekly program, “Abraham’s Tent: Jews, Christians and Muslims in the World Today.” The church website states the intent of the program as follows:

“We must educate ourselves with a basic understanding of each other’s perspectives. We must also look honestly at our conflicts, and we must work to live together in peace.  This series will give people the knowledge and understanding they need to do this.

Dexter Van Zile

Dexter Van Zile

“The educational program from September to June will be organized in three terms around these three topics. In the fall, St. Mark’s will look at The Common Word, examining what we have in common. In the winter, they will look at our conflicted history, and in the spring they will explore ways in which to live together in peace.”

On the day Jeff Fager spoke, CAMERA media analyst Dexter Van Zile was in the St. Mark’s audience. Upon entering the church, he first noticed copies of CAMERA’s August 2012 Wall Street Journal ad displayed on a table for audience members to take. Before Fager began his presentation, Reverend Peter F. Walsh, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, distributed copies to those who did not have one. According to Van Zile, “Fager showed the 60 Minutes segment and then complained about the angry response the show had elicited. In particular, he condemned the Wall Street Journal’s decision to run CAMERA’s ad, which he said was intended to create havoc on the CBS show’s reporting. Fager then told his audience that CAMERA got it wrong about the security fence in its ad and that ‘Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall.’”

After Fager’s presentation, during a Q & A session, Van Zile identified himself as a CAMERA employee, pointed out the error and offered to give $5,000 from his own pocket to a charity of Fager’s choice if Fager could prove that the security barrier in fact completely surrounded Bethlehem. According to Van Zile, Fager answered, “Okay.” But he ignored the challenge until May 1, when Van Zile phoned the chairman’s office. The next day, Fager contacted CAMERA through a CBS staff-person who stated, “We are looking into your points about the security barrier.”

To date, however, 60 Minutes has failed to issue a correction, either during its Sunday broadcast or on its website – contrary to CBS’s corporate policy which states that “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…”

The wall surrounding – or not surrounding – Bethlehem is not the only information provided in the 60 Minutes report with which CAMERA takes issue.

“Christians of the Holy Land” focuses on the communities of the West Bank, but ignores two important statistics: the growing Christian population within Israel, and the Islamist hostility toward Christians in the West Bank,” says Van Zile.

Andrea Levin, executive director of CAMERA

Andrea Levin, executive director of CAMERA

In “60 Minutes Smears Israel for Christian Exodus from Holy Land,” an article he wrote for CAMERA after the segment aired last year, Van Zile points out, “The reality is Palestinian Christians cannot speak freely about the Muslim-dominated environment in which they live. Their leaders often publicly condemn Israel while remaining silent about groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Occasionally, they might admit that Muslim hostility is a problem, but not very often and not very loudly.”

CAMERA also took issue with the inclusion of the “Kairos Document” in the 60 Minutes report, which Fager also defended in his April 7 presentation. Issued by Palestinian Christians in 2009 as a peacemaking document, the “Moment of Truth” statement is allegedly signed by influential church leaders in the Holy Land. When Van Zile inspected the document more closely, he discovered that the signatories are not in fact church “patriarchs,” as CBS claims, but low-level church officials and lay members. “The document is so hostile and one-sided that the Central Conference of American Rabbis described the text as antisemitic,” he says.

“The 60 Minutes story was so one-sided, and any reporter could find information about Christians suffering at the hands of Muslims in that society, but Rev. Walsh wanted to hear, and have his parishioners hear, that Christians suffer at the hands of Israelis. That is not representative of what’s happening. Here’s a pastor telling us that he’s interested in interreligious dialog and in the end, Israel gets defamed. And then, when somebody comes along to give the other side, he says no,” Van Zile points out.

Fager himself has spoken publicly many times about the importance of correcting journalistic mistakes. As keynote speaker at the City Club of Cleveland October 2011 Conference on Free Speech, he talked about how devastating to CBS “the famous President Bush National Guard story, questionable documents and all,” was when it aired in 2004, produced by 60 Minutes II.

“No doubt about it, one of the most serious threats to a free press is a big mistake without an apology or a correction, particularly when it’s flawed the way it was flawed,” he said. Of the reporters responsible, he surmised, “They had their minds made up before they set out to report the story and then they set out to prove it. When that happens, you tend to leave any mitigating factors out because they might work against your theory and only disaster can come of that. Talk about hurting the spirit of a free press and free speech. It can be so badly harmed when it’s used to prove a point.”

In response, Van Zile says, “I think this is a pretty good description of the segment we’re talking about. CBS bought into the notion that Bethlehem was an open-air prison and that Islamist hostility against Christians was not a problem. That’s why they didn’t want to admit that the barrier did not surround Bethlehem. And it’s why they ignored the arson against Christians in Taybeh in 2005.”

Van Zile had brought copies of an article that he and CAMERA Executive Director Andrea Levin had written for the organization’s magazine and website on the 60 Minutes segment. He left the documents in his car.

After the presentation, Van Zile told Walsh that he would like to make a presentation as part of the Abraham’s Tent program, but was turned down, as “having CAMERA speak wouldn’t fit into the Abraham’s Tent agenda,” Walsh told Van Zile. “Peter Walsh might say, ‘We’ve had Orthodox rabbis and discussion about ugly passages in the Koran,’ but the game is rigged at St. Mark’s.”

Van Zile learned from 60 Minutes’s producers that the description of the security barrier had been provided by the Israeli Ministry of Defense. After “Christians of the Holy Land” aired, he called the government ministry to confirm the information. He was told that, in the wake of the 60 Minutes broadcast, the Israeli government had issued a correction, stating that the original information was wrong and that the security barrier in fact did not completely surround Bethlehem. CAMERA posted the amended information on its website, along with a map of Bethlehem that showed the security barrier; CBS continued to ignore the correction.

“What really bothers me is that Jeff Fager misled the people in that room,” Van Zile says. “The pastor had introduced him, talking about how much integrity he has. The implication is that Fager has integrity and this absent other – CAMERA – doesn’t.”

“What I found surprising was that, at this point, we had pretty much come to the end of the line with what we could do,” Van Zile says. “We had published an article in our magazine and on our website, we had alerted our supporters about it, we showed up at a CBS shareholders’ meeting and submitted a proxy to call on the CBS board of directors to make sure that CBS News lived up to its policy of corrections – and there wasn’t more we could do. From my perspective, I thought that, maybe going forward, CBS won’t make these mistakes again and that will have to be it. But when Jeff Fager got up in his church and restated some of the same inaccuracies that we called him on a year ago, I said, ‘We have more work to do.’”

“What’s obvious is that CBS News – and, specifically, CEO Jeffrey Fager – have abandoned their fundamental role and responsibility to the public: to provide reliable facts and to correct errors if they’re made,” says Levin. “It’s particularly absurd that CBS continues to claim that the town of Bethlehem is completely surrounded by a wall, like ‘an open-air prison.’ This is patently false and it’s shocking it that hasn’t been corrected a full year after the broadcast. The charge is one favored by anti-Israel propagandists. The question is: is CBS now in that category?”

According to Levin, CAMERA will continue, as it has in the past with many other major media outlets, to challenge CBS until the network sets the record straight. “Often, large institutions try stonewalling to wear down members of the public,” she says. “But we’re used to that. We’ll only stop when the damaging falsehoods are corrected.”

CBS declined to comment for this article. As of press time, the Ledger’s requests for input from Rev. Peter Walsh had gone unanswered.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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