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May 7, 2013 8:54 am

CBS, Breaking Faith With Its Viewers One Day at a Time

avatar by Dexter Van Zile


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Reporter Bob Simon on the controversial CBS "60 Minutes" Holy Land Christians program. Photo: CBS.

“You can also talk about the weather. If the weather is not good, the cause is the occupation.” – Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land for the Vatican, November, 2012.

Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News, has a problem and it’s not going away. On April 22, 2012, 60 Minutes, CBS’s flagship news show, aired a poorly reported segment about Christians in the Holy Land. The show was so rife with misstatements of fact that it continues to haunt the network more than a year later.

The problem isn’t just the factual errors that aired in the segment, but the network’s refusal to correct them. With each passing day without a credible response from CBS News, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe the network is committed to factual accuracy in its news reporting.

For example, during the segment reporter Bob Simon told his viewers that the security barrier “completely” surrounds Bethlehem.

It doesn’t. Speaking in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan Connecticut on April 7, 2013, almost a year after the segment first aired, Fager repeated this falsehood. He then said “OK” in response to a promise from a CAMERA analyst to give $5,000 to a charity of Fager’s choice if he could prove that the security barrier completely surrounded Bethlehem.

Fager ignored the challenge for three weeks, responding only after CAMERA made a follow-up phone call to his office at CBS on May 1, 2013.

The next day, Fager contacted CAMERA through a CBS staffer who stated “We are looking into your points about the security barrier.” Nevertheless, 60 Minutes did not air a correction on its May 5, 2013 show and has yet to post a correction on its website, contrary to CBS’s corporate policy which states that “significant errors of fact must be corrected clearly and promptly in the broadcast or on the web page of the program in which the error was made…”

How much longer is it going to take for 60 Minutes to acknowledge it was wrong about the security barrier? CAMERA drew attention to the error within days of the segment’s airing in 2012. A quick search on the Internet and a few phone calls should be enough to demonstrate that 60 Minutes got it wrong about the barrier surrounding Bethlehem.

And it shouldn’t take a personal challenge leveled at Fager, in his church, no less, to prompt an investigation in the matter. Fager had a number of opportunities to look into and then acknowledge the error, but didn’t.

He could have acknowledged the error when it was brought up at a CBS shareholder’s meeting on May 24, 2012. He didn’t.

He could have instructed staffers at 60 Minutes to air a correction after CAMERA published an ad in the Wall Street Journal in August 2012. He didn’t.

He could have acknowledged the error when he spoke before his fellow parishioners at St. Mark’s in New Canaan, Connecticut on April 7, 2013. He didn’t.

He could have instructed the staffers at 60 Minutes to air a correction this past Sunday, May 5, 2013. He didn’t.

There are other errors that CBS News needs to address. In the segment, Simon presented viewers with the prospect that in a few years Jerusalem and Bethlehem will be “without local Christians.” To buttress this claim, Bob Simon reported that the Christian population is “down to less than two percent” in the Holy Land.

What 60 Minutes failed to report is that in absolute terms, the total number of Palestinian Christians living in living in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza has actually increased since the Six Day War in 1967.

In an authoritative analysis of statistics from Israeli and Palestinian sources issued last year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) reports “The demographic data, including those from Palestinian sources, tell a different story than most have been led to believe. The Christian population in West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza is neither vanishing nor diminishing. The population was 42,494 in 1967 and today is at or above 50,000.”

The show also tried to promote the notion that Christianity is in decline in Bethlehem by reporting that in this city, “Christians now make up only 18 percent of what was for centuries an overwhelmingly Christian town.”

Again, by dealing with percentages – and not actual the amounts of Christians – 60 Minutes deceptively obscures an increase in the number of Christians living in Bethlehem.

Statistics gathered and summarized by the JCPA reveal that the mid-1960s, there were approximately 14,800 Christians living in the district of Bethlehem and 6,490 living in the city itself. In 2007, there were 22,440 Christians living in the district and 7,140 living in the city.

Whether one is talking about Christians in the city or district of Bethlehem, the reality is the same: The population has increased, not decreased. In other words, 60 Minutes portrayed an actual increase in Bethlehem’s Christian population as a decrease.

By failing to acknowledge this error, 60 Minutes is breaking faith with its viewers.

And then there is 60 Minutes’ treatment of the Kairos Document, a document issued by Palestinian Christians in 2009. Simon said the document (which uses the notion of the Holy Land to highlight Israeli – but not Palestinian – sin) was signed by “the leaders of 13 Christian denominations.”

Another falsehood. The people who signed this document were “not the leaders the 13 Christian denominations” in the Holy Land, but a collection of what New Testament Scholar Malcolm Lowe accurately calls a collection of “parish priests, low level officials and laypeople.” Lutheran Bish0p Munib Younan, who initially signed the document, asked that his name be removed from the text soon after it was made public. With the disappearance of Younan’s name, Lowe reports, the document “does not have any bona fide Christian leader among its authors.”

And then there’s 60 Minutes’ denial of Muslim hostility toward Christians in the Holy Land. While briefly mentioning violence against Christians elsewhere in the Middle East, Simon said “The one place where Christians are not suffering from violence is the Holy Land…”

Yet another falsehood. The fact is, Christians in the Holy Land have been the targets of Islamist violence for years. Apparently, 60 Minutes did not interview anyone who would talk about it. For example, in the town of Taybeh, where Simon interviewed Christians for a segment that appeared on the show’s website, a dozen Christian homes were burnt to the ground by a mob of Muslims in 2005.

That same year Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land for the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledged publicly that Palestinian Christians were suffering from acts of oppression by their Muslim neighbors when he told a Catholic publication in Italy that, “Almost every day – I repeat, almost every day – our communities are harassed by the Islamic extremists in these regions. And if it’s not the members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, there are clashes with the ‘rubber wall’ of the Palestinian Authority, which does little or nothing to punish those responsible. On occasion, we have even discovered among our attackers the police agents of Mahmoud Abbas or the militants of Fatah, his political party, who are supposed to be defending us.”

Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States tried to tell Bob Simon about Islamist hostility toward Christians in the Holy Land, but Simon was not having any of it. The double-standard is undeniable. Nothing Oren said was accepted as true and yet everything said to Simon by the Palestinian Christians who appeared on camera was offered to the audience as the gospel truth.

Eventually, CBS News is going to have to come to grips with two troubling realities. First, its piece on Christians in the Holy Land was factually inaccurate and based on a false premise that Palestinian Christians are suffering exclusively because of Israeli policies and not Islamist hostility from their countrymen.

Once they come to grips with this reality, the folks at 60 Minutes are going to have to ask themselves why the Christians from the Holy Land who were willing to speak on camera went out of their way to attack Israel.

Once they start asking themselves how and why they got played by the Christians they spoke to, the journalists at 60 Minutes might want to contact Fr. Pizzaballa who was mentioned above.

Fr. Pizzaballa, who is about to step down from his post as Custos, spoke the unvarnished truth in November 2012 while addressing a group of Christians from North America and Europe. When questioned why Palestinian Christian leaders are so vociferous in their condemnations of Israel and blame everything on the occupation he said, “The Arabs hate Israel. Period. The Christians or Muslims, Arabs hate Israel. That’s usually 99 percent.”

When he realized how strong his comments sounded, the Custos backed off a bit and said, “They don’t maybe hate Israel. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. They don’t like Israel.”

And in reference to the tendency of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land to blame everything the occupation, Fr. Pizzaballa said, “You can also talk about the weather. If the weather is not good, the cause is the occupation.”

Whether Palestinian Christians hate or merely do not like Israel, Fr. Pizzaballa’s comments should be cause for alarm for 60 Minutes because they raise questions about whether or not their testimony about Israel can be trusted.

Whether Jeff Fager wants to admit it or not, 60 Minutes blew the story about Christians in the Holy Land. Islamist hostility toward Christians in the Holy Land is a real problem, even if the Christians who appeared on camera during the 60 Minutes segment say otherwise while pointing the finger at Israel.

And whether Fager wants to admit or not, the factual errors that aired on 60 Minutes in April 2012 are not going away.

Neither is CAMERA.

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).

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