U.S. President’s visit to Israel

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant objected to what he felt were two instances of “misinformation” in reports about U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel. CBC caught one error and corrected it. There was no violation of policy in the second report.

On the morning of March 20, 2013, CBC News Network ran extensive coverage of U.S. President Barack Obama’s arrival in Israel. You (Paul Gazin) wrote to object to two different instances of “misinformation given by CBC.” The first instance involved the showing of some images of defaced posters featuring Obama. The host, Heather Hiscox, said that the video was from Jerusalem, which was incorrect.

The second exchange you characterized as incorrect was a statement made by CBC News Middle East correspondent Sasa Petricic. In a reply to the host’s question about what would be the main topic of conversation between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said: “Obviously the talk that can’t be avoided is the topic of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That’s actually a topic that Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has avoided for the last couple of years. He has avoided negotiations with the Palestinians.” You asked that the CBC "issue swift on-air corrections to remedy the misinformation it broadcast and set the record straight." You were "not satisfied with the content, tone or manner" of the management reply.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jonathan Whitten, Executive Director of News Content, responded. He explained that CBC had inadvertently wrongly identified where the defaced posters were located. They were in fact in Ramallah and not Jerusalem. He quoted from a letter written by his colleague Todd Spencer, Executive Director of CBC News Network, who explained that in re-editing some video that ran the night before on The National, the error was made. “We regret the error,” he added. A correction and apology ran in a similar time slot on CBC News Network the following Monday morning.

On the second point, Mr. Whitten replied: "Under CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices journalists are able to make assessments based on facts. That was the case here." He went on to say, "For Mr. Petricic to say he is avoiding the issue is a fair choice of language and a reasonable exercise of judgment based on his assessment of the circumstances."

He also provided a fairly lengthy analysis of Mr. Netanyahu’s statements and positions in the last four years or so as an illustration of those circumstances:

Four years ago in a speech at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, under pressure from the United States, Prime Minister Netanyahu invited the Palestinians to begin talks immediately. It was a notable gesture that appeared to signal a break with two decades of the Prime Minister’s strident ideological opposition to a deal. But having offered to talk, he went on to set out a series of conditions – an undivided Jerusalem, recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”, Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, a demilitarized Palestinian state, Israeli controlled airspace, and no halt to building settlements – that the Palestinians could be expected to reject out of hand. The speech was widely analyzed, but the general conclusion was that it would make it more difficult to bring the two sides together.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position has changed little since then. He has repeatedly declared his determination (including to the U.S. Senate) that Israeli sovereignty is indisputable, Jerusalem would never be divided. The Palestinians see that, coupled with continued settlement building, especially in the sensitive E-1 corridor, as major roadblocks to resumed talks.

Avigdor Lieberman, until a few months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s foreign minister and the senior partner in his coalition, has repeatedly suggested further roadblocks. Indeed, there seems to be little appetite for renewed negotiations among the members of Israel’s governing coalition, or members of the Knesset. Recent polls suggest many Israelis are disillusioned with the peace process and have turned their attention to other issues. Prime Minister Netanyahu is nothing if not an astute politician. With more pressing matters on the table over the past few years (Iran and Syria, among them) and little apparent appetite to resume the peace process in his government or among Israelis, or for that matter among Palestinians, he may well be avoiding the distraction and devoting his energies elsewhere. For Mr. Petricic to say he is avoiding the issue is a fair choice of language and a reasonable exercise of judgment based on his assessment of the circumstances.

REVIEW

As Mr. Whitten pointed out in his letter, CBC caught the error related to the video and made an on-air correction. This is consistent with CBC policy and practice, and there is no need for any comment or input from me.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on record as saying he is willing to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians. He is on record setting some conditions for support of a two-state solution that have been rejected by his negotiating partners. It borders on cliché to say that there is not a story more complex nor one where “facts” are as hotly contested as that of the Arab-Israeli peace process. It is an ongoing challenge for journalists to report or tell any part of the story without having to background and qualify everything they say. Clearly that is not practical or possible. It demands clarity of language and precision to do the job well. It also allows for some judgment on the part of the reporter, based on evidence and experience. One of the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices stated values is impartiality, which in part states: "We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise." That value was observed here.

In this case, it is important to note that this was not a lengthy analysis of the roles of the various partners in the peace process. The reporter was not providing analysis of the relative positions of the two sides. He was giving the audience some sense of what Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama would be tackling in their upcoming meeting. He did not say Mr. Netanyahu was solely responsible for the lack of talks. He said he had “avoided” talks. It is reasonable when dealing with politicians of any country to judge them by their actions more than by their words. What they say matters, but what they do matters more.

You did not agree with Mr. Petricic’s comment, nor the analysis provided to explain the thinking behind it. But that does not make it inaccurate or denote bias. I would expect that over time, CBC journalists will deal with the complexity of the negotiations in more depth, and present a range of views and perspectives. In the case of this broadcast, there was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin CBC Ombudsman