Friday, February 6, 2009

FAIR challenges CBC Ombud's Report

As the BBC continues to come under fire for refusing to carry an aid appeal for Gaza, the U.S. media watch group FAIR is challenging the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for making false and biased claims after a campaign by groups that advocate for uncritical coverage of Israel.

The campaign was launched in response to CBC’s October 23, 2008 airing of the 2003 educational documentary Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land. The film cited a FAIR report on U.S. media coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict, prompting the CBC's French-language radio ombud Julie Miville-Dechêne to question the independence of FAIR’s research, referring to the organization as a “pro-Palestinian” and “militant group.”

FAIR is an independent nonprofit group whose research is widely cited by respected media scholars in both the U.S. and Canada. Its spokespersons have appeared on several occasions on the CBC to discuss issues ranging from media coverage of the Kosovo War to radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Faulting the film for "failure to account for the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip," Miville-Dechêne also cited a 2001 FAIR study that found only 4 percent of U.S. network news reports "concerning Gaza or the West Bank mention that these are occupied territories" as an example of an "anachronism" in the documentary, because Israel had subsequently withdrawn military forces and settlements from Gaza.

Under international law, however, Gaza remains an occupied territory, because Israel continues to control its borders. FAIR's finding of a chronic failure by leading American media organizations to mention the occupation is actually even more true today: a search of the Lexis Nexis database during the most recent war (12/2/08-1/18/09) reveals that the percentage of network news programs about Gaza or the West Bank that mentioned the occupation has fallen from 4 to only 2 percent.

While the ombud said FAIR’s 2001 finding that only 4 percent of U.S. news reports mentioned the occupation was “shocking,” the coverage on CBC’s own evening newscast, The National, from the same period was roughly equivalent, with only 5 percent of reports concerning Gaza or the West Bank referring to occupation.

FAIR contributing writer Seth Ackerman, who authored the report, today issued a response to the president of the CBC.
Dear Mr. Lacroix,
I was surprised and a bit puzzled to read the remarks concerning Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (where I am now a contributing writer) in a recent report from the CBC Radio-Canada Ombudsman. The ombudsman's report, which deals with the Middle East documentary Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land, had this to say about FAIR and the use of our research by the film:

This proximity between militant groups and documentary filmmakers is disconcerting. For example, one shocking item of information featured in the documentary is that only four percent of televised news reports mention that the West Bank and Gaza are “occupied.”

A small note at the bottom of the screen attributes this statistic from 2001 to the group “Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR.” This is a pro-Palestinian media watch group, the counterpart of pro-Israeli groups likes CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in the Middle East Reporting in America) and Honest Reporting, which is involved in the bulk of complaints to my office against this documentary. It is not a case of independent research.”

I will address the "shocking" factual issue raised in this passage, but first I can't help but express my puzzlement at the characterization of FAIR as a "militant group," a "pro-Palestinian" pressure organization whose analyses don't constitute "independent research."

I distinctly recall that in 2000, as a FAIR media analyst, I was invited by CBC Radio, along with former Canadian ambassador James Bissett and others, to analyze news coverage of the Kosovo war in a post-broadcast panel discussion of Sandra Bartlett and Michael McAuliffe's prize-winning Kosovo documentary The Road to Racak. Other FAIR spokespeople have appeared on CBC to discuss everything from Rush Limbaugh to media coverage of the Afghanistan war. Evidently the CBC ought to be more careful about screening out the extremist groups it invites on the air to discuss international affairs.

It is also hard to understand why, after trying to cast a cloud of doubt over FAIR as the source of the cited statistic about TV news coverage of the West Bank and Gaza, the ombudsman apparently never attempted to discover whether the statistic was actually accurate or not. Had the ombudsman's office done so, it might have learned that this fact is easily verifiable.

As the report notes, the statistic came from a November 3, 2000 online FAIR analysis (which I wrote). The analysis stated:

The three major networks' evening news broadcasts-- ABC's World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News and the CBS Evening News--aired 99 stories mentioning the West Bank or the Gaza Strip from the outbreak of fighting on September 28 through November 2 [2000]. But only four of these stories informed viewers that Israel occupies those lands.

It would have been a simple matter to confirm that all of this is true. If you go to the Nexis news database, you can ascertain the number of stories containing the words "West Bank" or "Gaza" that aired on the three above-named newscasts within the specified dates, by entering the following search string:

[show (World News Tonight or NBC Nightly News or CBS Evening News) and date (is aft 9/27/2000 and bef 11/3/2000) and West Bank or Gaza]

When you do so, 99 stories come up. You can then find how many of these stories mentioned that the territories are occupied simply by adding the term "and occup!" to the search string.

This brings up all of the stories within these 99 that contain any variation of the word "occupied" (“occupation,” “occupy,” “occupying,” etc.) There are six such stories, two of which are false positives. (One refers to the occupation of Lebanon while the other refers narrowly to contested control of a specific holy site in Nablus.)

Thus, it is a fact that during the first month or so of the Second Intifada, only four out of the 99 stories mentioning the West Bank or Gaza on the three main U.S. evening newscasts reported that the territories are occupied – approximately 4%. I find it amusing that even the ombudsman's office thinks this omission on the part of the U.S. networks is "shocking."

If the ombudsman’s office believes this to be an issue worth pursuing further, it might consider airing a documentary on CBC investigating pro-Israel bias in the news media.

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