CAMERA: Fighting Distorted Media Coverage of Israel and the Middle East
An Interview with Andrea Levin
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) is a leader in the field of pro-Israeli media watching. It has 55,000 paying members and thousands of active letter writers.
CAMERA follows all major print and electronic media in the United States as well as professional journals, websites, encyclopedias, travel guides, and so forth. Often media coverage of the Middle East is distorted, and there are no enforceable codes of professional conduct that apply to journalists.
Success in media watching is manifested in improved accuracy and context in the media criticized. Some of CAMERA's success stories involve the New York Times, Reuters, and the Public Broadcasting Service. National Public Radio remains a major problem.
CAMERA is expanding its activities internationally. Among the media it will follow are CNN International and the International Herald Tribune. Attention will also be given to the Israeli daily Haaretz as its lack of accuracy negatively affects portrayals of Israel in the United States.
Pro-Israeli media watching has rapidly grown over the past few years. The explosive expansion of the Internet enables media-monitoring organizations to transmit their findings quickly to many readers by email or by publishing them on websites without major expense. 1
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), based in Boston, is a leader in the field of pro-Israeli media watching. Its director Andrea Levin says: "Often media coverage of the Middle East is distorted and even more importantly, there are no enforceable codes of professional conduct that apply to members of the media. One can thus elicit change only through private appeals to accuracy, balance, and fair play or through public exposÚs of journalistic malfeasance."
Levin adds: "To deal with media bias, systematic monitoring is vital. We follow all major media and are subscribers to databases such as Nexis and Shadow TV. Beyond that, our professional staff review the major print and electronic media in the United States. This includes not just television, radio, newspapers, and magazines, but also professional journals, websites, encyclopedias, travel guides, and so forth."
Media Assailing Israel
Levin gives examples of some major U.S. media that regularly assail Israel. "One particularly hostile outlet is National Public Radio (NPR), which is the leading taxpayer-funded radio network in the U.S. It often runs one-sided reports denigrating Israel without any balancing voice. Ariel Sharon, for instance, is termed 'toxic,' or Israel an 'apartheid state,' by guest speakers with no rebuttal. In one NPR segment in which only a harsh critic of Israel was interviewed, host Scott Simon asked: 'Is there still a need for the state of Israel?' No such question would ever be asked about any other nation.
"The Associated Press has severely distorted facts about the Middle East. It has falsely claimed that Israel never accepted the Geneva Convention, or that Palestinians never target children in attacks the way the killers did when they gunned down children in Beslan. It has also falsely stated that UN Resolution 242 requires Israel to cede all the West Bank and Gaza.
"The New York Times allows its opinion pages to present extreme views. There authors can term Israel a racist, apartheid state that steals Palestinian land and water. The Times often fails to correct factual errors in opinion pieces that attack Israel."
Countering the Distortion
Levin explains CAMERA's actions in countering these distortions and improving information about Israel. "This is a lengthy and painstaking process. The monitoring activities entail CAMERA staff members typically following three national and regional media. They track everything published there. They are in contact with the editors and the reporters in the field. Their aim is to challenge all errors both in the news and the opinion pages, and to get the media to put the corrections on record.
"We have regular contact with a great variety of experts when we have to check facts. In addition, CAMERA has 55,000 paying members of whom thousands are active letter writers. They also play a crucial role in challenging bias via letters and articles in the media."
How does CAMERA measure whether it is successful? Levin replies: "We look for specific stories and issues that are covered inaccurately and work hard to get media to correct them. We then track whether there is improved accuracy and context rather than recurrence. If there is, we call that a success. As we know that influential media shape what others do, we are especially happy when a leading media outlet such as the New York Times or an influential wire service makes a change, because other media will follow their lead. Another aspect of success is the clear sense that after our interventions there is more caution in newspapers and networks."
Levin considers some of CAMERA's dealings with the New York Times to be highly successful. "In the summer of 2000, the paper reported three times that UN Security Council Resolution 242 required Israel to return to the 1967 lines, which is false. On 11 July the paper wrote that 'the Palestinians won a settlement based on United Nations Resolution 242 which calls for an end to the Israeli occupation of the entire West Bank and Gaza seized in the 1967 war.' We contacted the foreign desk and they corrected the error in the paper.
"Yet again, on 19 August 2000 the Times wrote something similar: 'Israel must accept United Nations resolutions passed after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 and hand over all of East Jerusalem including the Jewish Quarter.' After another intervention by CAMERA, the Times published on 24 August a further correction.
"But the paper still hadn't gotten this straight. On 6 September 2000, the Times wrote: 'the United Nations resolution that calls for Israeli withdrawal from all territory occupied in the 1967 war which includes all of East Jerusalem.' We contacted them again and they corrected it once more, saying: 'An article on Wednesday about the Middle East peace talks referred incorrectly to United Nations resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. While Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 Middle East war, calls for Israel's armed forces to withdraw from territories occupied in the recent conflict, no resolution calls for Israeli withdrawal from all territory including East Jerusalem occupied in the war.'"
No More Repetition of the Error
Levin points out how much labor is required to monitor newspapers and networks closely so as to identify such errors. "In this case there was a significant outcome. Then-editor of the New York Times Joseph Lelyveld convened his staff and said: 'Three times in recent months we've had to run corrections on the actual provisions of UN Resolution 242, providing great cheer and sustenance to those readers who are convinced we are opinionated and not well informed on Middle East issues.' Most importantly, the Times has never repeated this error."
Levin says this also has a multiplier effect, as many other American media take their lead from the New York Times and so also make fewer mistakes in reporting on the important UN resolution. She considers that even though much effort is required in what to the uninitiated may seem a few lines of correction somewhere in the paper, the internal impact is substantial at the publication and greatly affects future reporting. This, she says, is far more important than the printed correction itself.
Levin explains: "The New York Times distributes periodically a paper called the 'Greenies.' It lists errors made by individual reporters, and it is obviously not pleasant to have such public and negative attention drawn to one's work. Ultimately editors become dissatisfied with reporters who turn up repeatedly on that list. Thus, in an American context, media monitoring can have a significant influence through the corrections process."
Levin mentions CAMERA's critique of Reuters as another example of how media watching can have a substantial effect. "This influential British news agency reaches many millions globally. It had routinely minimized or distorted the threat to Israel in hundreds of stories that whitewashed the actual goals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These groups were said to be engaged in an uprising for 'independence' or for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Unmentioned was the fact that Palestinians were offered a state in 2000 and turned it down. Nor did Reuters report that these two terrorist organizations aim for the destruction of Israel."
Levin notes that taking on a major media organization on a substantial subject means one has to invest time and resources to produce change. "It took us a year to see results. We first researched in depth Reuters's coverage on this subject. This meant reviewing more than a thousand stories to document the recurrence of these distorted characterizations. We communicated our concerns directly to Reuters's executives. We sent out alerts to our letter writers urging them to complain publicly about the bias. We published op-eds in the media exposing the bias.
"Ultimately all this led to dramatic change. In 2004 Reuters began describing Hamas and Islamic Jihad much more accurately. For instance, the wording now reads: 'Hamas, sworn to the Jewish state's destruction, has led the three-year-old Palestinian uprising.' Or 'Sworn to Israel's destruction, Hamas and Islamic Jihad opposed 1993 interim Middle East peace deals and have spearheaded a Palestinian uprising raging since September 2000.' This language conveys to millions of readers a much clearer picture of the threat Israel faces and provides a far better context for understanding any action Israel may take."
The Public Broadcasting Service
Levin adds a third example of a significant improvement achieved through media watching. "The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is the television arm of the U.S. public network. For many years, up until the early 1990s, PBS had shown annually two or three extremely biased documentaries about Israel. The Jewish community would often then convene a forum and express its criticism. Such an exercise had no lasting impact. Within a few months PBS would broadcast another biased documentary.
"In 1993, PBS aired a long documentary called Journey to the Occupied Lands. Featured in the work was the claim that Israel had unlawfully taken the land of a West Bank Arab, Sabri Gharib. Gharib claimed that although the courts had awarded him the land in question, the Israeli government refused to implement the court ruling. Many other serious errors marred the work as well.
"After much analysis CAMERA produced a 150-page critique that exposed the many inaccuracies. PBS had even claimed that by satellite photograph one could show the allegedly cancerous growth of Jewish settlements. We discovered that these photographs were bogus. They claimed to show periodic change that was not genuine. Our associate director Dr. Alex Safian, a physicist by training and author of the critique, consulted remote-sensing specialists.
"A detailed and lengthy analysis of the legal records of Mr. Gharib's claim showed that he had never been awarded the land. He had lost all of his lawsuits. The Israeli Supreme Court concluded that Sabri Gharib 'is nothing but a trespasser who tries to rob land from the state, a land that he never cultivated nor legally acquired.'
"The documentary also charged that Israel prevented Gazans from exporting their produce directly to the European market, and it claimed Israel prevented Arab home-building, forcing them to live in 'ghetto communities.'"
Asking for a Response
"We presented the critique to PBS and asked for a response. We generated more letter-writing complaints than they had ever received on any subject. Other media picked up the story and wrote about the controversy. CAMERA testified in Congress about PBS' bias generally and about this specific problem. Eventually PBS had no choice but to concede its errors.
"The network aired a detailed correction on the Gharib land issue, the satellite claims, the Gazan export charges, and the supposedly ghettoized Arabs. It also: issued a corrective memo and a replacement offer for videocassettes of the film; and remastered the documentary to incorporate the corrections. In addition, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the entity that provides tax funding to PBS and oversees the network, called on PBS to prevent airing of biased films and to create a fact-checking department.
"Once again the long-term effect of the critique was even more important than the corrections. For a number of years no further documentaries about the Arab-Israeli conflict were broadcast at all on PBS, despite the major political developments in the region after the Oslo agreements.
"I think PBS felt unable to come up with a program that would be as carefully and factually rendered as it needed to be. In 1999 after a long hiatus it aired The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs, a two-part, five-hour documentary. It was solid history - professional, accurate, and fair. PBS has not relapsed since then into broadcasting extreme and distorted documentaries."
National Public Radio
Even though National Public Radio remains a major problem, some progress has been achieved even there. "We have conducted studies on NPR for more than a decade documenting error and bias and we had long urged creation of a corrections process. They now do have such a mechanism, which they didn't have previously. In a twelve-month period last year we elicited about ten on-air corrections. This alone indicates that the problems continue. We have the impression NPR is being slightly more careful about facts.
"Yet because there has been so little real improvement overall, our emphasis has had to be on discrediting the network as a reliable news source. In this regard, we have certainly affected their reputation - as their own staff have conceded."
When asked whether NPR is only biased against Israel or also against others, Levin answers: "We do not track them closely on any subject except ours. I can only reply in an impressionistic way. It seems that their consistent thematic line is one that represents a very politically correct view of the world. This means being highly critical of the United States and U.S. intervention in Iraq. They put a very heavy emphasis on all politically fashionable subjects such as gay and feminine rights as well as Palestinian rights. It is the same list of favorite causes you would find on the campus. In fact, many NPR affiliates are situated on campuses.
"The coverage of NPR by any objective measure should offend anyone regardless of political position. Tax dollars go to affiliates that, in turn, buy biased NPR programming. We have thus tried to get Congressional support for improving oversight of the dispersal of tax dollars.
"The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is an entity created to funnel government money to the more than seven hundred NPR affiliates, a number that is increasing. The key relevant CPB statute that applies to NPR requires that CPB give funding to those networks that 'provide strict adherence to objectivity and balance in programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.' Needless to say, there is nothing more controversial than the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"In reality CPB oversight doesn't function. Their annual report shows this very clearly. In recent years, there's been nothing but a summary of the numbers of complaints on various subjects. The Arab-Israeli conflict regularly drew the greatest number of complaints, yet there has been no attempt to investigate the merit of the protests. Significantly, this issue does not interest only Republicans but also many Democrats. Brad Sherman, a Democratic Congressman from the Los Angeles area, says there is no issue that draws as much applause from a Jewish audience as when he says: 'I'm going to do something about NPR.'"
"While CNN Domestic now provides more accurate and fair reporting, CNN International is appealing to different audiences. In the last five years, in our observation, CNN Domestic has been essentially solid with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That doesn't mean there are no problems, but fewer than there were. CNN International, however, caters to a European audience, airing many programs that are not broadcast in the United States. Some are problematic but we have not in the past done systematic monitoring.
"At the beginning of 2005, CAMERA opened an office in Israel. CNN International is one media outlet we intend to follow more systematically. Another is the International Herald Tribune. It is owned by the New York Times and carries a substantial amount of material from it. However, it has a different editorial policy and different usages of language in news coverage that concern us.
"The Israel office will also start watching some of the English-language British press. In particular we will look at The Guardian and The Independent."
Another media CAMERA intends to follow more closely is the Israeli daily Haaretz. "The situation has worsened there, it seems, since the previous editor Hanoch Marmori was replaced. I was struck by an interview that Marmori gave at a European conference in which he rightly said that one cannot be naïve as an Israeli journalist producing reportage, particularly in English, and that it is important to take into account that assertions may be used unfairly against Israel by the nation's detractors.
"We are concerned about Haaretz because their articles impinge directly on the American setting. Contributors and columnists are quoted in American publications. Sometimes their articles are even reprinted entirely. We will be looking very closely at Haaretz, attempting the same approach that we use in the United States. Our aim is to counteract the paper's negative impact on how Israel is perceived in the world. We will be monitoring for claims made by Haaretz reporters that are patently false to test whether there are functioning systems of accountability at the paper.
"We had a complaint of a factual nature when the Los Angeles Jewish Journal reprinted an article by the Haaretz writer Gideon Levy in which there were a number of errors. One was his claim that Golda Meir had said: 'After what the Nazis did to us, we can do whatever we want' in the context of policies toward the Arabs. The quote was entirely invented. When Gideon Levy was asked, he could not produce the source. The Jewish Journal then asked for a correction but Levy did not provide it.
"In an American setting there would be a 90 percent chance that a responsible journalist would correct such a serious error. At Haaretz there is great laxity in editorial oversight when it comes to making extreme assertions about Israel. We are working on other examples - they turn up frequently - and we hope to pursue our efforts with Haaretz as we would in an American setting. We won't, for instance, be satisfied with an offer to write a letter to the editor but will insist the newspaper admit its errors. Absent the corrections, we will start to publicize the problem. We will publish advertisements and write op-eds in other media. In the United States one can always find a newspaper to publish critiques on other media. We hope this will also be the case in Israel.
"Haaretz considers itself comparable to the New York Times. While I don't agree with everything the Times publishes, I respect many of their reporters and editors who are serious about getting the facts. If Haaretz wants to be judged by the New York Times' standards, it has a long way to go."
Levin says CAMERA has taken some cautious steps into the non-English-speaking arena. One subject of particular interest is the Mohammed Al Dura issue. France 2 had claimed on the basis of selected publication of the film footage they had that the Palestinian boy Mohammed Al Dura was killed by Israeli soldiers.
"We, like many others, do not consider this a closed chapter. The more so as the journalist who made the report, Charles Enderlin, and his cameraman are still employed by France 2. Recently new information was publicized. Denis Jeambar, editor in chief of l'Express and Daniel Leconte, another French journalist, wrote an article in the French daily Le Figaro. They had seen all the footage shot by the network cameraman, including the famous additional twenty-seven minutes.
"They came to the conclusion that the Israelis did not shoot Mohammed Al Dura. Enderlin had said that the reason the footage aired was so truncated was that he couldn't bear to show the child's agonies, i.e., his death throes. Jeambar and Leconte wrote that there was no such footage and also said staged events were visible in much of the tape with Palestinians pretending to be wounded and being swooped up by ambulances."
Levin adds that in the United States when major media scandals such as this occur, not only do the journalists who misreport get fired but also management often has to leave. In France, apparently, no such tradition exists.
Having explained the problems, Levin elaborates on how CAMERA counters misinformation and distortion about Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict, peace negotiations, the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and Arab conduct toward Israel.
"Our primary focus is on contacting the media and having them correct errors. Beyond that, CAMERA staff write op-eds, letters, and articles that appear in newspapers nationwide, setting the record straight. Furthermore, we publish the CAMERA Media Report, a critique of bias and error that is sent to journalists, CAMERA members, libraries, synagogues, and Congress. Not long ago a friend was in Vice-President Cheney's office and saw our publication there.
"We publish monographs and special reports, for instance, on Arab building in Jerusalem and on NPR's record of bias. These are distributed to thousands of people among the public and elected officials. We also hold media conferences in many American cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington. A recent conference dealt with the problems of the European media, where bias has been so central to fueling anti-Semitism.
"We also run full-page ads on key issues such as the actual content of UN Resolution 242. We recently ran an ad titled 'UN Corruption Includes Bias against Israel: It's Time the Media Set the Record Straight.' It gives a brief synopsis of salient problems in the UN's treatment of Israel. Another ad dealt with the role of Palestinian hate indoctrination in terrorism. We also published an ad as an open letter to the New York Times about its failure to cover the Palestinian Authority's anti-Jewish hate-mongering.
"We have run a number of ads specifically focused on NPR bias. One was titled 'NPR Is Lying about Israel Again.' The ads are typically run in the New York Times and other New York papers, as well as in Washington, West Coast, and Midwest papers. We also tend to publish them in Jewish papers. In this way we reach millions of readers."
CAMERA also maintains a popular website and a web log called Snapshots providing information on media issues and the Arab-Israeli conflict. "Hundreds of thousands of visitors from every part of the globe use these sites. We send information on a nearly daily basis to our thousands of letter writers and we distribute tens of thousands of copies of CAMERA on Campus three times per year to more than 400 campuses in North America. Student articles offer advice on effective action against bias, and factual reports provide targeted data to counteract propaganda. We also have a new program called CAMERA Fellows that offers intensive training for students in effective pro-Israeli activism."
Compared to Others
When asked about media-watching groups that do not focus on Israel, Levin says: "Many of them are focused on Left-Right issues. These are primarily research operations in no way comparable to CAMERA with its sizable paying, activist membership.
"Their work undoubtedly has impact, but the non-Israel-related groups do not have the same activist focus. They produce studies and polls. It is for this reason that I think pro-Israeli media watching has an importance beyond the cause of Israel. Efforts that induce better adherence to ethical journalism in one subject area are positive generally in helping to strengthen American democracy, especially, again, as there are no enforceable codes of professional conduct in the media."
Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
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1. See also Manfred Gerstenfeld and Ben Green, "Watching the Pro-Israeli Media Watchers," Jewish Political Studies Review, Fall 2004, Vol. 16, Nos. 3 & 4, pp. 33-58. (www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-gerstenfeld-f04.htm).
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Andrea Levin is executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a position she has held since 1990. Formerly associate editor of a public policy journal at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, she writes and lectures widely on media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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