Israel, the Islamic State and the danger of the 140 character tweet

Robert Wittes complained about a tweet from CBC News Jerusalem-based correspondent Sasa Petricic. The review was conducted by the Radio-Canada Ombudsman, Pierre Tourangeau. I asked him to do so because I have known the complainant for many years. M. Tourangeau found that while the tweet was clumsy, it did not create an equivalence between ISIS and the Israel Defence Forces, as the complainant claimed.

THE COMPLAINT

The complainant is Dr. Robert Wittes, a CBC audience member residing in Thornhill, Ontario. I should state off the top that I’m reviewing this complaint at the request of my fellow ombudsman from CBC/Radio-Canada English Services. Esther Enkin felt she was not in a position to handle the complaint, given her personal connection with Dr. Wittes.

Dr. Wittes took issue with a tweet by CBC’s Middle East Correspondent, Sasa Petricic. Posted on April 23, 2015, the tweet referenced an article in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz about young foreigners enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The complainant found it outrageous that the tweet made what he deemed to be a comparison with young people volunteering to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Allow me to summarize the complaint by quoting a few passages from it:

I am writing to suggest in the strongest possible terms that the CBC should harshly discipline Sasa Petricic for the Tweet that he posted today: “Fighting for/ag[ainst] #ISIS isn’t [the] only combat drawing youth to MidEast. Many more foreign recruits to #Israel, inc[luding] Cdn [Canadians]”. He then referenced an article in the newspaper Ha’aretz which referred to non-Israeli-born volunteers joining the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and made no mention of ISIS.

In Dr. Wittes’ view, Mr. Petricic’s tweet drew an analogy that was “an outrageous and anti-Semitic comment,” because it compared the legitimate defence force of Israel, a member of the United Nations, with ISIS, “a group of barbarians who sell girls into marriage, who rape women, who behead men […] and who commit ethnic genocide.”

To make a comparison between the IDF and ISIS is odious and portrays an underlying anti-Semitic bias that has no place on the airwaves of our public broadcaster.

RESPONSE FROM CBC NEWS MANAGEMENT

Jack Nagler, Director, Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to Dr. Wittes on behalf of CBC News.

Mr. Nagler stated that it not been Mr. Petricic’s intention to offend anyone with his tweet.

He then went on to acknowledge that any juxtaposition of the IDF and ISIS was dangerous. He also conceded that Mr. Petricic’s tweet, “written in haste, was certainly clumsy.” He continued as follows:

However, you may have freighted his tweet with an implication that goes well beyond the plain meaning of his few words.

I want to [be] very clear – to compare ISIS and the IDF is not only without any factual basis, but completely absurd. No CBC journalist or any other reputable journalist for that matter would ever draw such a parallel or make such a comparison.

Mr. Nagler then stressed the excellent reputation of Mr. Petricic, a reporter who has won numerous awards for this work over the years, including Canada’s top award for television journalism.

He mentioned that Mr. Petricic had been posted to Jerusalem for over four years now, and had filed reports regularly since then for all CBC News platforms.

Mr. Nagler pointed out that because tweets are limited to 140 characters, there is no room for nuance, explanation or context.

He then explained the context for the tweet – that the news had been full of stories about the thousands of young men and women from Western countries, including Canada, heading off to fight for ISIS.

And he added:

What is not as well known is that young men and women from Western countries also travel to the Middle East to join the Israel Defense Forces. Mr. Petricic’s interest was piqued by a longish piece in Ha’aretz earlier that day (“Israeli army cites rise in number of overseas volunteers joining its ranks” – April 22) noting that some 3,500 “lone soldiers” join the IDF every year from more than 70 countries – some 3 percent of them from Canada.

In Mr. Nagler’s view, the tweet, however clumsy it may have been, made no parallel; neither did it make any implicit or explicit comparison. He maintained that all the reporter was trying to say in his message was that while everyone has heard about young Westerners going to the Middle East to join ISIS, most people are probably unaware that youth are also travelling to the region to enlist in the IDF.

And he pointed out that, a few hours after his initial tweet, Mr. Petricic posted a second tweet to clear up any ambiguity regarding the previous one: “Of course not saying joining the Israeli army is the same as joining ISIS. But seems something in ISIS awakened desire to oppose it & defend Israel too.”

THE REQUEST FOR REVIEW

Dr. Wittes was not satisfied with Mr. Nagler’s explanations and asked that my CBC colleague Esther Enkin review his complaint.

As I mentioned earlier, Ms. Enkin felt that she was in a conflict of interest given that she’s known the complainant personally for many years. That’s why she asked that I review the complaint on her behalf.

In his request for review, Dr. Wittes reiterated to Mr. Nagler that the analogy used by Mr. Petricic in his tweet was “very offensive,” regardless of what was intended.

And he added:

If he meant it to be offensive, then he should be disciplined for anti-Semitism. If his offence was inadvertent, then he should be disciplined for incompetence.

In the complainant’s opinion, there was no doubt that Mr. Petricic’s tweet inferred a similarity between ISIS and the IDF.

Dr. Wittes also took issue with Mr. Petricic’s second tweet, which he considered just as offensive as the first, because the reporter failed to explicitly mention the “incredible level of barbarity” by ISIS, describing it merely as “something.”

Lastly, Dr. Wittes questioned Mr. Nagler’s assurances that the reporter doesn’t have an anti-Israel bias:

Surely you realize that I am not alone in perceiving an underlying anti-Israel bias in the reporting of Mr. Petricic in particular or of the CBC in general. […] My case for claiming that there exists an anti-Israel bias in the reporting of both Mr. Petricic and the CBC is not one that can be addressed with just an exchange of emails such as we are having; frankly, as a non-journalist, I do not possess the analytic tools to defend my position. However, I do want to go on record that this is my position, one which is shared by many Jewish friends and colleagues. I am certain that you must be aware of the same criticism of the CBC that is regularly expressed by Honest Reporting Canada (http://www.honestreporting.ca/), with many more factual references than I am able to muster.

THE REVIEW

It’s always risky for reporters to use Twitter, especially when they tweet about complex and controversial topics.

And during my time as ombudsman, I don’t think I’ve dealt with any issues more complex, controversial and sensitive than those involving Israel.

I agree with Jack Nagler, the CBC News spokesperson, that reporter Sasa Petricic’s tweet giving rise to this complaint was clumsy. One must indeed proceed with extreme caution when including ISIS and the IDF in the same 140-character sentence to draw attention to a newspaper article.

The complainant saw Mr. Petricic’s tweet as making an analogy – a comparison between ISIS and the IDF. I don’t share that opinion. At best, the reporter drew a parallel because he saw similarity in the fact that the two organizations were attracting fighters from abroad. But that’s far from inferring, as Dr. Wittes argues, that there are similarities between ISIS and the IDF.

As for the rest, it’s all about understanding and perception.

In the many reviews that I’ve had to produce as ombudsman, I’ve regularly noted and explained that the public perceives events and, by extension, how they are reported, through the lens of their personal values, ideals, opinions, beliefs, prejudices, etc. In journalism, this phenomenon – which has been documented and studied in universities – is known as the “hostile media effect.”

On controversial issues, particularly those that viewers, listeners and readers are passionate about and directly involved in (election campaigns, social movements, etc.), it’s not uncommon for people to complain about the same news story, report or interview for entirely opposite reasons.

The complainant inferred from Mr. Petricic’s tweet that the reporter was equating ISIS with the IDF and saw anti-Semitic bias. But Dr. Wittes’ interpretation of the tweet isn’t the only one that can be made.

For instance, one might well infer from it that blind terrorism isn’t the only cause attracting Western youth: that they’re also drawn by more noble values, such as those espoused by Israel in the Middle East; that causes both good and bad are attracting Western youth; that these young people are willing to risk their lives to defend their ideals, whatever those may be. And also, of course, what the tweet literally says, that ISIS isn’t the only group in the Middle East attracting young volunteers – that some are going over to fight for Israel as well.

Once again, tweets leave no room for nuance or explanation. In the case at hand, Mr. Petricic used it as a hook to drive his followers to a Ha’aretz article that he felt was relevant to Canadian audiences.

Later, after realizing how his first tweet might be interpreted, the reporter issued a second one to clarify that he was in no way suggesting that joining the IDF was equivalent to joining ISIS. He added that it “seems something in ISIS” awakened in young Westerners “the desire to oppose it & defend Israel too.”

Dr. Wittes found that this “something” was too light a term to describe the atrocities committed by ISIS jihadists. So be it. But once again, we’re in the Twitterverse.

In requesting this review, the complainant rejected Mr. Nagler’s arguments defending the integrity and impartiality of CBC’s Jerusalem correspondent. Many of his friends and colleagues from the Jewish community, he said, shared his opinion that the CBC in general and Mr. Petricic in particular regularly showed anti-Israel bias in their reporting. Even though he said he was unable to provide evidence of this, he referred to the numerous (and, in his opinion, substantiated) critiques that the organization HonestReporting Canada posts on its website about CBC’s coverage of Israel.

I myself, like my predecessors, have had to review multiple complaints about Radio-Canada reports at the request of this organization – complaints that I have often partially or wholly upheld, but that I have even more often dismissed.

But HonestReporting is an international pressure group, with a Canadian chapter, that sees Israel “in the midst of a battle for public opinion – waged primarily via the media” (to quote from its website). This lobby has therefore adopted the specific mission of monitoring the media and exposing what it considers to be cases of bias and unfairness toward Israel.

HonestReporting plays its role to perfection, but its pronouncements can’t be taken as the Gospel. It clearly and effectively defends a partisan, pro-Israeli position – which doesn’t mean its criticisms are never justified.

With regard to Mr. Petricic’s tweet, HonestReporting condemns it on its website for the same reasons cited by Dr. Wittes: because, in its opinion, the tweet “implicitly drew a moral equivalence between ISIS terrorists and foreign recruits to Israel’s armed forces.” (http://www.honestreporting.ca/cbc-reporter-compares-isis-terrorists-to-foreign-recruits-of-israeli-forces/15168)

It’s a point of view I cannot share, any more than the assertion contained in the headline to HonestReporting’s article on the subject (“CBC Reporter Compares ISIS Terrorists to Foreign Recruits of Israeli Forces”), which doesn’t even bother to include the word “implicitly.”

I won’t expand on the “arguments” that the article presents to support its critique, except to say that I believe they’re based far more on interpreting Mr. Petricic’s message and imputing motives to the reporter than on the facts themselves.

I’ve also noted that HonestReporting isn’t universally admired in the Jewish community, some of whose members feel that its aggressive stance is also driven by fundraising and mobilization considerations. I should mention here that I have no opinion on this matter.

CONCLUSION

The tweet posted by CBC’s Jerusalem correspondent on April 23, 2015, linking to an article in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz did not violate CBC/Radio-Canada’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Pierre Tourangeau
French Services Ombudsman
CBC/Radio-Canada