Sunday, October 24th | 18 Heshvan 5782

December 7, 2017 12:14 pm

Why Won’t ’60 Minutes’ Tell the Truth About Israel?

avatar by Dexter Van Zile


Palestinian police officers in Bethlehem. Photo: James Emery via Wikimedia Commons.

Jeff Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” is at it again — telling everyone just how principled he and his fellow journalists are. His message goes something like this: “Yes, sometimes we make mistakes, but not very often. When we do, we own up to it, figure out what happened and move on.” (Fager loves that phrase: “own up to it.”)

There’s just one problem. What Fager says about his beloved show is simply not true — at least when it comes to a notorious error regarding Israel.

During a 2012 segment about Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, “60 Minutes” offered its viewers a factual misstatement about Israel’s security barrier.

In the segment, correspondent Bob Simon falsely reported that the barrier completely surrounded Bethlehem, “turning the little town where Christ was born into what its residents call ‘an open-air prison.” The misstatement of fact fed into an ugly theological trope about Jews trying to obstruct God’s purposes for humanity, as embodied by Jesus.

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Despite repeated efforts to convince CBS News to correct the error, it was never fixed. A year after the show aired, Fager himself falsely declared in his own church, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, Connecticut, that the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) got it wrong — and that Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall. Clearly, Fager was offended by the pushback from Jewish groups in the US, which may help explain why “60 Minutes” never corrected its error.

Unbeknownst to Fager, I was in the audience during his Connecticut event, and after he made his statement, I told him — in front of 200 or so of his fellow congregants — that I’d give $5,000 to a charity of his choice if he could prove that the security barrier completely surrounded Bethlehem.

He said “OK,” but never followed up on it. A few days later, CBS employee Alison Pepper called me to say that the folks at “60 Minutes” were looking into my concerns — but that I had made two mistakes of my own in an article about the controversy.

I corrected my errors, but “60 Minutes” did not, revealing a deep cynicism in the corridors of power at CBS News.

All this contradicts the “own up to it” message that Fager gave in a self-congratulatory segment that aired on Sunday, December 3, 2017 — which celebrated the show’s 50th anniversary.

In the segment, correspondent Steve Kroft recounted three instances in which “60 Minutes” made mistakes. In 1997, the show aired a segment about drug traffickers that included fabricated footage of drug smuggling.

Thirteen years later, it aired a segment about President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard that was based in part on fabricated documents, which Kroft described as having come “into question and could not be verified.” (The documents used by the show didn’t just come into question. They were fake.)

And then in 2013, “60 Minutes” aired a story about the attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi that relied on a source who lied. Despite these scandals, Kroft declared: “Fortunately, the mistakes had been few and far between.” (Interestingly enough, the list of journalistic errors did not include Mike Wallace’s description of Syrian Jews as having a good time of it under the Assad regime in a segment that aired in 1975, just a few weeks before an anti-Jewish pogrom in that country.)

To reassure his audience that everything is still on the up and up at “60 Minutes” despite the rare mistake, Fager declared: “I think the most important thing is to own up to it, to help the viewer understand how we made the mistake and to move on, one story at a time to bring our credibility back.”

Fager offers a similar statement in a book published this year by Simon and Schuster about the 50th anniversary of “60 Minutes.” The text purports to be an inside story of the news show, but is really a compendium of self-serving war stories that — according to The New York Times — was manhandled by Fager himself to downplay the second-class status of women). In the book, Fager writes: “”I do believe that after you admit mistakes in journalism — and we have had our share of them over the years — you do your best to understand how the mistakes were made and start to earn back your reputation, one story at a time.”

Fager has offered up this message many times before — such as when he addressed students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University in 2012, and at the City Club of Cleveland in 2011.

Yet, clearly, Fager and the staff at “60 Minutes” refuse to abide by these declarations when it comes to its segment regarding the Jewish state.

Until “60 Minutes” offers an on-air correction, an apology and an explanation to its viewers about why it took so long to correct this error, neither Fager nor his colleagues can look their viewers in the eye and tell them that “60 Minutes” is owning up to it.

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