Irris Makler article

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Irris Makler article, “Is Netanyahu's promised moratorium coming undone?”

You filed a complaint regarding an online story posted on CBC.ca on December 2, 2009, by reporter Irris Makler entitled “Is Netanyahu's promised moratorium coming undone?”

The story concerned the Israeli government's declared moratorium on further Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. The announcement of the moratorium was made on November 25, 2009. The moratorium was specific: it would involve only the building of new settlements or expansion of pre-existing settlements. It would last for ten months in order to demonstrate a willingness (on the part of the Israeli government) to create an environment where peace talks might occur.1

The report stated that only a few days into the moratorium, pressure from the political wing of the settler movement inside the Israeli government was causing a “thawing around the edges” of the agreement.

Your objections to the story are as follows:

1. That the report stated US President Barack Obama, in his speech in Cairo, said a settlement freeze is a precursor to good faith negotiations.

2. That Ms. Makler's essay was not fact-based reportage but, in effect, was an opinion piece and not identified as such.

3. That Ms. Makler appeared to be engaged in a defense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's position when she stated that a freeze was a precondition to talks when neither the “Quartet” (the UN, Russia, the US and the EU) nor the Israelis have stated this, but only the Palestinians.

4. That the description of the moratorium by Ms. Makler as an “historic step” was Ms. Makler's interpretation alone and not supported by any of the parties involved.

5. That the report stated that the election of the Netanyahu government was the single cause of the stalling of negotiations when the Palestinians refused to respond to similar offers from the previous Olmert government.

6. That an official Swedish proposal to recognize a Palestinian state was presented by Ms. Makler as a European Union proposal when it was not.

7. That the story remained on the CBC.ca website for five weeks without emendation, updating or correction. Mary Sheppard, the executive producer of CBCNews.ca, responded at length to your list of concerns. While Ms. Sheppard answered each specific complaint in detail, you remained unconvinced.

Ms. Sheppard responded on the following points:

  • Ms. Sheppard insists that Ms. Makler did in fact, address the issue of whether the Israel moratorium is “thawing around the edges” in the third paragraph of the report which states:
    Indeed just a week after declaring the moratorium – and hiring batches of new inspectors to enforce it – Israeli authorities have now approved the construction of 84 buildings in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, saying they do not fall under the strict terms of the moratorium.2
  • Ms. Sheppard further states that the question of whether this approval of new construction is prima facie evidence of “thawing around the edges” is not clear. However, she also states that the story itself was simply a positing of a question (“thawing around the edges?”) and not a presumed statement of fact.
  • Ms. Sheppard states that President Obama's Cairo speech implicitly and explicitly calling for a settlement freeze as a precursor to renewed negotiation was, in her words, “a…fair enough understanding of his remarks.”

  • Ms. Sheppard acknowledges that Sweden's chairing of the EU foreign ministers committee gave impetus to the impression that the Europeans were willing to move toward unilateral recognition of an independent Palestinian state in a draft proposal.

  • Ms. Sheppard disputes your claim that the report in question fails to cast equal blame on both Israelis and Palestinians for the failure of peace talks to resume. She writes that, “There have been no peace talks since Prime Minister Netanhayu took office last March.”

  • Ms. Sheppard also states that to describe Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as “dispirited” seems “fair enough” under the circumstances.3


I would like to acknowledge the substantial contribution of Jeffrey Dvorkin, Rogers Communications Distinguished Visiting Chair in Journalism at Ryerson University, in the preparation of this review.

The question of Israeli occupation vs Palestinian rights is a long and painful narrative, in which both sides claim a moral imperative and a legal basis for their respective actions and justification.

For the purposes of this specific complaint, it is more useful to confine the investigation to a limited aspect of the overall conflict, to wit, did the Israeli announcement of a moratorium on settlement activity immediately begin to unravel as Ms. Makler stated in her report? Or did the Israeli government act as a good faith partner in making the announcement as you maintain? And did the story as posted on the CBC's website deserve to remain there for as long as it did?

Some background on the moratorium:

The moratorium came at the urging of the United States, and the “quartet.” Efforts to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis to resume stalled negotiations had been continual but not always a diplomatic priority for the parties involved since 2008, when the previous talks broke off. Those talks were suspended after the election of the Netanyahu government, which the Palestinian Authority deemed as more hostile to their aspirations than the recently ousted Olmert government. A renewed impetus to start the talks came from the Americans, eager to demonstrate that the new Obama administration would advance stalled negotiations.4

Throughout 2009, the Obama administration continued to call on the Israelis to initiate a complete freeze on all settlement activities as a precursor to renewed negotiations with the Palestinians. These appeals were made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton5, and on one occasion, by President Obama himself.6 However, American pressure for renewed negotiations made no discernable headway in convincing either the Israelis or the Palestinians until the announcement on November 25, 2009, by the Netanyahu government of the 10-month moratorium. According to some analysts, the Israelis appeared emboldened by their ability to rebuff American demands without any apparent consequences, while the Palestinians became more frustrated with the apparent failure of American efforts.7

Throughout this period, the newly installed Netanhayu government was also dealing with the demands of a reinvigorated settler movement and their political allies within the government coalition, even as they attempted to placate an increasingly impatient Obama administration. The Israeli press was able to report regularly that critics on the left in Israel were concerned that domestic Israeli politics and the political demands of the more rightwing coalition partners would impede any movement by the Netanhayu government toward renewed peace talks.8

Finally the Netanyahu government agreed to a moratorium, but with strict and clearly articulated limitations: that the moratorium would not apply to East Jerusalem (the Israelis have stated it would not be relinquished or shared with the Palestinians); that construction would continue on pre-moratorium projects and that post-moratorium projects could be announced but would not be initiated during the moratorium period.

The report in question touches on two aspects mentioned in the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices guidelines.

One is whether it was complete and contextual. Did the report show partisanship or appear unduly sympathetic in any way?

On the question of balance, the guidelines state in part,

CBC programs dealing with matters of public interest on which differing views are held must supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of view. Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.9

Second, did the report, as part of its ongoing coverage of this story, avoid appearing partisan on a matter of great interest and importance for many in the CBC audience? On that question, the guidelines state in part:

Continuing news and current affairs programs must present a balanced overall view of controversial matters, to avoid the appearance of promoting particular opinions or being manipulated into doing so by events… Such continuing news and current affairs programs, particularly magazine programs, are expected to present the general flow of ideas prevalent in our society. This will entail, at times, broadcasting the views of a single author, scientist, thinker, expert, artist or citizen, whose thoughts merit airing on their own account. In performing this role, those responsible for journalistic programming must avoid a cumulative bias or slant over a period of time and must be mindful of the CBC's responsibility to present the widest possible range of ideas. 10

Furthermore, Ms. Makler's report might appear to be one in which reportage and opinion were mixed. According to the CBC Journalistic Standards,

Journalists will have opinions of their own, but they must not yield to bias or prejudice. For journalists to be professional is not to be without opinions, but to be aware of those opinions and make allowances for them, so that their reporting is, and appears to be, judicious and fair. 11

Since this story first appeared on the CBC website, tensions in the region have grown considerably. Many of the issues implied by the report have indeed come to pass, including the announcement of construction of an additional 1600 housing units in East Jerusalem. This coincided with the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden, whose visit to Israel on March 9, 2010 was designed to encourage renewed talks conducted by special envoy George Mitchell.

Ms. Makler's piece, coming as it did in December of 2009, was either lucky or prescient in its anticipation of events. However, journalism is, at best, a work of contextualization of present or past events, and not of prognostication.

It may be useful to note that the Makler report and your objections to that report see the same events in two distinct frames of reference. A relatively recent study on this divergence may be useful to an understanding of your objections and Ms. Makler's intentions.

In 2002, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University released a study entitled Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government and the Public, edited by Pippa Norris, Montague Kern and Marion Just, and published by Routledge in that year. It notes that while journalists often report on long-standing disputes such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by framing the story around “empathy” and “suffering,” many readers, listeners and viewers are frustrated with that approach because they expect the reportage to be framed around concepts of “justice.”

This is a frequent complaint about journalism's approach to the Middle East conflict, and one that the CBC has previously heard about. The public (as you have) complains that journalists have already framed the story in keeping with a tradition of story-telling that prefers the “politics of pity/empathy” rather than the “politics of justice” – the latter being the preferred “frame” of non-journalists who are on one side or the other:

According to the politics of empathy, the urgency of the action to bring about an end to suffering overcomes considerations of justice. Justice will enforce its rights only in a world that has driven out suffering. 12

Ms. Makler's report focuses on the implications of justice (or apparent lack of same) of the moratorium while you see the moratorium as a straightforward legal declaration of intent in which Israeli motives were evident throughout. Thus you are correct in your complaints in these specific regards:

President Obama never referred to a settlement freeze as a pre-condition for talks in his Cairo speech.

The election of the Netanyahu government was not the only impediment to renewed talks. The previous Olmert government was also engaged in stalling tactics, as was the Palestinian administration. It hoped for a more robust American presence in the form of the newly elected Obama administration to exert pressure on the Israelis.

The Swedish presidency of the European Union did add some diplomatic pressure to the notion of a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. But this was rejected by France, despite Swedish intentions, and the motion never achieved any serious consideration in diplomatic circles.

The five-week presence of the original Makler story on the CBC website is not an anomaly, since there is no time limit on such stories. Ms. Makler's report was accurate in that many in the Obama administration, including the Secretary of State, did refer to the moratorium as a “historic event.”

Yet her description of President Mahmoud Abbas as “dispirited” is clearly Ms. Makler's own interpretation that Middle East diplomacy is without any public relations implications. This is a naïve assumption and one that ill-suits a news organization as sophisticated as CBC News.

Ms. Makler's essay is not entirely a work of fact-based reporting since she ascribes few sources to her assessments. It appears to be a piece of analysis.

Conclusion

1. There is no time limit on reports on the website. Of course that implies greater vigilance in updating and correcting.

2. Reports that are analytic in tone and assessment should be labeled as such in order to distinguish them from strictly factual reportage.

3. CBCNews.ca should append a correction to the report that President Obama never referred to a settlement freeze as a pre-condition to renewed peace talks in his Cairo speech.

4. CBCNews.ca should append a correction to the report that the election of the Netanyahu government was not the only impediment to renewed peace talks but that the previous Olmert government was also resistant to US pressure.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman


  1. Israel government declares moratorium http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/About+the+Ministry/Behind+the+Headlines/Behind-the-Headlines- The-Ten-Month-Israeli-Moratorium-on-Settlement-Building-26-Nov-2009
  2. Makler, December 2, 2009, cbc.ca
  3. Sheppard email to Henry, January 8, 2010
  4. According to the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, “From the start of his tenure, President Obama identified a Middle East peace deal as critical to US national security, but his efforts have been hampered by the (US) administration's missteps…Last fall, he softened his demands for a full freeze on settlement construction, accepting a limited 10-month moratorium that did not include the East Jerusalem area…(US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham) Clinton at the time hailed the Israeli plan as ‘unprecedented.'” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp- dyn/content/article/2010/03/13.
  5. Ha'Aretz (English Edition), May 24, 2009, Clinton calls on Israel to halt “any kind” of settlement activity, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1087098.html.
  6. Washington, Post, May 29, 2009, Obama presses Israel on settlements issue, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/28/AR2009052803771.html
  7. Avishai, Bernard, Keep The Heat On, Bernard Avishai Dot Com, March 15, 2010, http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/blogspot/dcEI/~3/C1YcqsjEh_4/keep-heat- on.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email
  8. Ha'Aretz (English Edition), April 1, 2009, Americans for Peace Now: Netanyahu coalition does not bode well for peace, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1075239.html.
  9. http://www.cbc.radio-canada.ca/accountability/journalistic/balance.shtml
  10. Op. cit.
  11. Op. cit.
  12. Norris, et al, p. 62.