Two complainants, Gordon Vineberg and Jack Chivo, objected to a reference to the motives of the Israeli Prime Minister in participating in the rescue of some White Helmets from Syria. They considered it biased and consistent with an anti-Israel slant in CBC reporting. The statement they challenged required more explanation but was a legitimate editorial inclusion.
This office received two requests for review regarding a report by Susan Ormiston about the rescue of the Syrian White Helmets in July of this year. There were two stories broadcast on The National on July 22nd. The first recounted the details of the rescue - that Canada had played a role in galvanizing the international effort, and that Israeli troops were involved in their actual rescue. The second story by Ms. Ormiston provided background about the organization ending with a reference to Israel’s role, including a televised statement from the Israeli Prime Minister about Israel’s role in the operation. She concluded by mentioning that opponents accused him of doing so to deflect criticism of the conflict with Gaza.
It was this statement that caused the two complainants, Gordon Vineberg and Jack Chivo, to express their concerns. Mr. Vineberg questioned the inclusion of the statement because it added a negative element to what was - what he considered a rare occurrence in CBC coverage - a story that put Israel in a positive light. He thought a news editor deliberately included it to leave a negative impression:
The White Hat story had nothing to do with Gaza. If the CBC really wanted to inform their audience about Gaza they could have told them how many hundreds of rockets the Gazans have launched at Israel in the last week or so. Or they could have mentioned the thousands of hectares of Israel's crops and nature reserves the Gazans have destroyed with their fire kites and balloons. The statement about Israel attacking Gaza clearly has it backwards. But it serves to leave your audience with the thought that Israel is really a nasty bully.
Mr. Chivo had the same concerns. He saw this coverage as part of CBC News’ “anti-Israel hysteria.” He said that Ms. Ormiston’s statement that Mr. Netanyahu had initiated the rescue to deflect criticism of Gaza was an “anti-semitic canard… Which is part and parcel of the centuries-old and vile description of Jews as a people who never do anything, if it is not something they can profit from.” He challenged CBC News management to come up with legitimate sources to this criticism which would justify the reference in the news story. He also believed that CBC deliberately downplayed Israel’s role in the rescue.
Jonathan Whitten, Executive Director of News Content, replied to both complaints. He noted that the first story run that night dealt with the actual extraction of the aid workers, including the fact that the operation was “smoothly carried out by the Israeli military.” He added the second story presented by Ms. Ormiston dealt mostly with the history of the White Helmets, and the reference to the Israeli Prime Minister came in the last few seconds of the piece:
...she said that as the war in Syria crept closer to the Israeli border, Prime Minister Netanyahu was asked to help the White Helmets. She included a video clip of the prime minister’s televised statement made earlier that day hours after the rescue. “Today he said the lives of the people who saved others are in danger,” she said. She added, “but his opponents accused him of trying to deflect criticism away from the escalating campaign against Gaza”.
He noted that she did not state or imply that this was the reason Mr. Netanyahu had initiated the operation. He said that the reference was not clear and should not have used the word “opponents” because it implied that the criticism came from the political opposition. Rather, what she was referring to was criticism that came from commentators on social media. He added that this mention did not imply bias and noted that earlier coverage on The National and throughout the day had featured the role that Israel had played in the rescue.
CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices demand accuracy and fairness. The most basic part of that is, of course, getting the facts correct. It is true that there was a social media flurry which called into question the motives of the Israeli Prime Minister’s motives for participating in the White Helmet rescue, as there was regarding the true role and activities of the White Helmets. Mr. Whitten has already acknowledged that there was imprecision in the language used. I agree. There was also a lack of context. If the reporter felt it was important information to report that there was a strong reaction and a questioning of the motives of Israel’s participation in the operation, then it would have been preferable to cite the sources. It is not inaccurate to say there was skepticism about Israel’s participation. Ms. Ormiston explained she created the story just hours after the event, and there were many aspects of it that needed to be taken at face value. Just as other aspects of the two stories that night quoted sources who questioned the claims of the White Helmets, there were those who questioned Israel’s motives. She also pointed out this occurred at a time when the level of violence in Gaza was growing. So soon after the event there were only government sources to go on, and little way to verify what was being reported by official spokespeople. That was an editorial judgment for her to make. To allege that it arose out of some agenda or a CBC desire to besmirch Israel is entirely without merit and is based on a set of assumptions that are simply not the case. It is a reminder, though, that providing additional analysis which leads to a particular conclusion is helpful.