Benjamin Netanyahu's congressional address

The executive director of Honest Reporting Canada, Mike Fegelman, complained that Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel said that Benjamin Netanyahu offered no alternative to U.S. and other western powers negotiating a deal with Iran on its nuclear capability. Netanyahu called for more and stricter sanctions, and called this an alternative. The reporting was not clear in its use of language.

COMPLAINT

In your capacity as Executive Director of Honest Reporting Canada you wrote to complain about the characterization of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments to the United States Congress about a potential deal with Iran over its nuclear program. On March 3, 2015 the Israeli prime minister spoke to the members of Congress. The speech was controversial for many reasons. Its main focus was the ongoing negotiations between the United States and some other western powers and Iran. The Israeli prime minister has been, and was during the address, very critical of the United States’ positions on negotiations. On the 7:00 a.m. EDT version of World Report, Derek Stoffel broadcast a story from Jerusalem about Netanyahu’s address. You said “Derek erroneously said the following: ‘He (Netanyahu) didn’t say anything new yesterday. He presented no alternatives to make sure Iran isn’t able to build a nuclear weapon and that has left many Israelis wondering if the speech was worth it.’”

You said this was a mirror of Barak Obama’s characterization of the address. You added the truth was that “Netanyahu says he gave a ‘practical alternative’ to the Iran deal.” You pointed out that he said that a much better alternative would be to use the threat of sanctions to keep Iran in line, and that any easing of sanctions would have to be contingent on good behavior – on the nuclear front and more generally in the region. You think that Netanyahu was clearly proposing an alternative “wherein he insisted in his speech that the world powers not accept the present deal, walk away and increase sanctions against Iran.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, Managing Editor of CBC Radio and Television News, replied to your concerns. He told you that Mr. Stoffel’s report was not analysis of the speech but focused on Israeli reaction to it. He acknowledged that Mr. Netanyahu referred to his proposition to impose stricter sanctions as a “practical alternative.” He added:

Is that an alternative plan? Bear in mind that by definition an alternative is one of several possible courses of action and, commonly, a choice between two mutually exclusive possibilities. So is a call for more sanctions and added conditions actually an alternative? While the speech itself is open to interpretation in many places, it is not at all clear that Mr. Netanyahu came to Congress offering what could be properly called an alternative to the US initiative.

He said it was accurate for Mr. Stoffel to say that there was no alternative because:

In the absence of a deal (which neither the U.S. and its partners nor Iran have agreed to as yet) or any knowledge of what restrictions the U.S. and other powers might impose if a deal is reached, then it’s unclear whether what Netanyahu said can fairly be labelled an alternative. He’s supporting his overarching message that any deal with Iran is fraught, but should it happen, it must be carefully monitored.

Finally, he acknowledged that because of the “highly charged political atmosphere” related to the Congressional speech, the report could have been clearer and nuanced. He said Mr. Stoffel might have had a “slightly more detailed” description of the Israeli prime minister’s proposal.

REVIEW

CBC News Journalistic Policy calls for accuracy in reporting. Some of the tools that add to accuracy and understanding are precision of language and context. The context of Mr. Stoffel’s report was a view from Israel and its impact on the electorate there. He characterized the speech but did not report any of the details. What he said about the speech in this World Report piece was this:

...Netanyahu has been beating the drum against Iran for years. He didn’t say anything new yesterday. He presented no alternatives to make sure Iran isn’t able to build a nuclear weapon. And that’s left many Israelis wondering if the speech was worth it.

The fact is, though, the Israeli prime minister did say he was offering an alternative, and the script should have mentioned it. His alternative is continued and possibly stiffer sanctions to prevent Iran from building a bomb. The transcript of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech says:

The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal. A better deal that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short break-out time. A better deal that keeps the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in place until Iran’s aggression ends.

According to the reporter, the intent was to link the two thoughts – Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t say anything new, and his proposed alternative to a negotiated deal with Iran. His intent was to say that there were no new alternatives. While the two thoughts are in the script, the language is too ambiguous. There either should have been attribution – that some observers, including the president of the United States, did not consider there had been any alternatives presented – or a clarification that the Israeli prime minister considered his proposals an alternative to any negotiated deal with Iran he could envision. (At the time of the speech no deal had been announced yet.)

Clarity of language would have avoided this problem. Experienced reporters are able to draw inferences and provide some interpretation. If that was the intent in this case, more information should have been provided to show how the conclusion was reached. If more details of what had actually been said in the congressional address had been provided, members of the public would have more easily been able to draw their own conclusions as well.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman