Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land was broadcast on the French CBC on October 23, 2008, provoking a flood of complaints to the Canadian network. These complaints overwhelmingly took the network to task for running what they deemed to be a “pro-Palestinian” film, largely sidestepping the critically acclaimed 2004 documentary’s explicit focus on how pro-Israeli pressure groups methodically influence American media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
CBC management asked the network’s Ombudsman to launch a full-scale investigation into the substance of the complaints and the central charge that the film was unduly biased.
On December 8, 2008, the Ombudsman released her findings. She issued a report concluding that Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land should not have been shown on French CBC at all.
In response to the Ombudsman report, Sut Jhally, the executive director of the Media Education Foundation, the producer and distributor of the film, drafted and sent a detailed letter to the president of the CBC challenging the accuracy and professionalism of the Ombudsman report, and criticizing how CBC management handled the pressure they faced.
>> Read MEF Executive Director Sut Jhally’s full letter.
>> Read the full CBC Ombudsman report.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from our studio in Washington, DC. So is the North American media fair when it covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And was our guest today fair in his critique of the North American media? We’re joined by Sut Jhally. He’s a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; founder, executive director of the Media Education Foundation; and was the director of, producer of the film Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land. So, Sut, first of all, thanks for joining us again. And to set the scene here—so you made the film Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land. You sold it to Radio-Canada, which is the French arm of CBC, mostly in Quebec. They aired the film. There was a big—lot of critique of the film as what some viewers and people who wrote letters calling it one-sided. And the ombudsman for Radio-Canada produced a report which is—this is a copy of it. And one of the headings in it is “Was this propaganda? Was this PR? Was it one-sided?” It calls it a pro-Palestinian documentary or a work of propaganda. And the ombudsman for Radio-Canada more or less concludes that this was a work of propaganda and Radio-Canada shouldn’t have shown it. So lead us through. What was her critique, and what’s your response?
SUT JHALLY, MEDIA EDUCATION FOUNDATION: Well, a major critique was, you know, that this was a one-sided, pro-Palestinian film that had numerous inaccuracies that didn’t meet the journalistic standards of CBC, and then she lists some of those inaccuracies. But, in fact, the way I want to use the critique is actually as a case study of how anything that is critical of Israel is treated. And in fact it’s a case study of exactly what not to do when journalists are faced with this, which is to actually absolutely cave to the pressure.
JAY: Which is what you’re saying the ombudsman did.
JHALLY: The ombudsman—I mean, it’s a case study in—. The film actually is about the media coverage, stories that are told around Israel-Palestine. But he also talks about when stories are told that don’t conform to what is expected, that there is flak that comes from organized groups or organized pro-Israeli groups that’s meant to put pressure on journalists to make sure that the next time they toe the line. And, in fact, this is—and that’s what the film predicts; the film predicts that if you have this kind of coverage, this is the kind of response you’ll get, which is exactly what happened. The film was shown. There was an orchestrated response by two pro-Israeli groups.
JAY: Which ones?
JHALLY: :HonestReportingCanada.com, which is an offshoot of David Horowitz’s in the States.
JAY: And the ombudsman says that most of the complaints came from this organization.
JHALLY: A hundred and fifty of those, which means that, you know, this is a coordinated letterwriting campaign that comes as a result of an e-mail going out. And then she says the only other complaints that came we’re from the Israel-Quebec Committee. So if you have responses from two pro-Israel, you know, Zionist right-wing groups critiquing the film, which is exactly what the film predicts.
JAY: Well, let’s go through what the critique was. The majority of this report is about one particular critique, which is the film was produced in 2003-2004, was shown in 2008, and by that time Israeli settlers had left Gaza, but there’s nowhere in the film or in RDI’s, Radio-Canada’s setup for the film do they explain to anyone that the film was older and Gaza is no longer occupied by Israeli settlers, at least. So what do you make of that critique?
JHALLY: Well, you know, history moves on. I mean, the film was made in 2004, and, you know, at that time Gaza was directly occupied by Israel. But, in fact, I don’t think it’s a real issue, ’cause that’s not the point of the film. The the point of the film is not about—it’s not a history of the region. The point of the film is to look at media coverage of how the stories of the region are told. And so I think a legitimate critique would have been: was the coverage of the Gaza withdrawal any different than the patterns that we had identified in the rest of or in the previous—?
JAY: But certainly this point, there’s something to this point, that if somebody had watched the film, didn’t know any context, they might have thought there were still Israeli settlers there.
JHALLY: No, and that’s the—I mean, I think that’s right kind of–should have set it up better and said this was a film made in 2004, and although some things have changed—. I mean, the way when I present this, when I do the screenings of these films now—and I do a lot—you know, history has moved on. And the way I present it is to say, okay, the film actually is about the media coverage and it’s about the patterns of media coverage. And so, since then, history—you know, whether it’s the Gaza disengagement, so-called disengagement, whether it’s the Lebanon War, or whether it’s the erection of the separation barrier, and, more recently, whether it’s about, you know, the Gaza assault, the film says something; the film says when these things happen, the stories that the American media tell will be structured in a certain way. And on that basis the film is absolutely accurate in terms of predicting how the Gaza disengagement was covered, how the war on Lebanon was covered, how the wall has been covered, how the war on Gaza has been covered.
JAY: Well, let’s show one example, because most of the report really is about this issue of the date and the fact that Gaza doesn’t have settlers anymore, so people can make of what—that of what they were [sic]. CBC probably should have explained that in the beginning. But then the report moves into another segment which says: are the facts correct or not? And it picks up one particularly. There’s a point it says the Israeli position is anything but defensive. And here’s where that quote comes from. This is an interview with Hussein Ibish.
HUSSEIN IBISH, AMERICAN-ARAB ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE, USA: Israel’s basic posture is anything but defensive. Israel is the only country in the world right now which, in contravention to UN Security Council resolutions, maintains tens of thousands of heavily armed troops outside its borders in somebody else’s country for the sole purpose of taking their land away from them and, in the process, forcing them to live under the worst form of tyranny imaginable, which is a foreign military dictatorship.
JAY: So this clip kind of goes to the heart of the whole question of what’s fair in covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If, for example, someone had shown someone in an interview saying Saddam Hussein was a dictator, no one would have expected, nor did anyone ever see, anyone from the Baathist party come on and start explaining that Saddam Hussein did whatever he did because it was necessary and justified in some way. So I guess the contention you’re making is: why do you have to do that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And, specifically, this is the real question: Israel says what they do is defensive, and Ibish is saying it’s not defensive.
JHALLY: Well, it really comes to the core of how you produce documentaries, I mean—and news, actually. In news and in documentaries you have pundits giving their opinion all the time. And that’s the way we use Husseini Ibish in the film. It’s not the narrator of the film saying, you know, having an official line of the film; it’s someone that we quote. If this is what the CBC says is an inaccuracy, then I would be willing to bet that 80 to 90 percent of what passes for news and news commentary on CBC itself is also inaccurate, ’cause that’s what news is, that’s what documentaries are, that’s what journalism does. You know, it allows people to say things; it allows people to express their point of view. And so to call this—you know, it is an argument certainly, but to call it inaccurate and the reason why the film should not be shown is to me just truly bizarre.
JAY: Well, the counterargument—.
JHALLY: [inaudible] you know, if that was the case, you could go through CBC evening news and point to numerous examples of where questionable generalizations are made by people who have a stake in what is being talked about.
JAY: Well, there’s a lot of generalizations made about people we’re supposed to not like, like Saddam Hussein. Nobody—you never hear someone defending Saddam Hussein, or Ahmadinejad from Iran. There’s assumptions made which are okay to make if they’re about enemies, I suppose. youBut the counterargument is that this idea that Israel is under siege, according to Israelis, that there are—particularly with Hamas, Israel makes the argument that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel in Hamas’s constitution; the idea that the state of Israel should be eliminated exists. So this gives the construct for why this is defensive, and their argument would be: none of that’s in the film.
JHALLY: Well, when we look at the history of—I mean, if you look at the history of the Middle East, and you look at the history of Israel, and you look at, you know, what happened in ’68, you look at what happened in the first war in Lebanon in ’82, you look at the second war in Lebanon, I mean, if you look at the aggressive power in those—in history in that region in the last, you know, 20 years has been Israel, and you’re really talking then about what Israel’s position is. And I want to be clear: what we’re talking about is Israel and the Occupied Territories. That is what the focus of this, actually, the film, is. We actually don’t go beyond that very much. It’s actually how are those—. You know, we look at 1967, in fact, as, I think, kind of the key watershed mark and how the occupation is treated. And in fact, you know, to the extent that—you know, how can the occupation be defined as defensive? Israel does. Israel says the occupation is defensive ’cause we have to stop suicide bombers, we have to stop the violence creeping into—. Well, and if that’s the case, then you have to look to see, well, what is the cause of the violence, what is the cause of suicide bombings. And, again, you have to go back into history.
JAY: Which is what your film’s about is that American media in general, which is your focus, less Canadian media (but I don’t know if it’s that different a story), doesn’t give that context, and when it reports, it reports it in a one-sided way, you’re saying.
JHALLY: It does. And, in fact, if you tell the story, as I said, from, you know, two days ago or three days ago, then it seems as though what Israel is doing is defensive. If you open up the frame, as you should do to get a real historical context, then that would actually give you the true understanding of how to understand those historical events.
JAY: So to understand this process in the media, is part of the point here is that there’s a rigor being asked for when it comes to stories about Israel that’s never applied anywhere else?
JHALLY: Yes. I mean, in that—or—well, I actually think it happens at other times as well. I mean, I think it’s an ideological filter. You know, again, when stories were coming out, you know, if you go back to Saddam Hussein, you know, when he became Hitler, the previous history of America’s relationship to Saddam Hussein disappeared. And if that history was brought up and the fact that, you know, the facts that when Saddam was committing his most heinous acts, when he was launching chemical weapons against his own people, in fact he was a good puppet, he was supported by the US, it spoils that story, and you can’t just frame him as this, you know, madman Hitler. You have to then look at—it becomes a much more complicated story about the role of the US and its relationship to the Middle East and its shifting relationship with the Middle East.
JAY: The final point in the ombudsman report is—and I’ll read this section. “Repeatedly, the document mentions the ‘illegal’ occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel. The legal reality is more complex,” writes the ombudsman. “Jewish settlement and the construction of security fence in the West Bank are without a doubt illegal. But the experts do not agree on the ‘illegal’ nature of all Israeli military presence in the West Bank because of the ambiguity in the English version of the United Nations Resolution 242 (1967). Withdrawal must be made ‘from territories.’ Is the Israeli withdrawal from the totality of territories mandatory or not under Resolution 242? The interpretation of this provision has never been clarified by the courts.” (Julie Miville-Dechêne, CBC Ombudsman) So what did you make of that argument? That’s sort of her most substantial critique of the film.
JHALLY: And it’s the point that’s made by Zionist organizations all the time when it comes to 242, that, you know, 242 is recognized as the founding framework for what any peace settlement would be. And so it’s this nitpicking, this legalistic nitpicking over whether the word “the,” you know, is in front of the territories. Again, the point I want to make is, I mean, she’s using this argument that comes from the margins of this debate, ’cause in fact it goes against the international understanding of what 242 is about. And she uses this as an example of how our film is inaccurate. And, again, the point that we want to make is what she has done—and it’s really a lazy report. I mean, I think it’s—well, I’m not that sure if she’s naive, but it’s really a lazy report in that she has bought the line of the complaints, and so she takes what the honestreporting.com, what the Israeli-Quebec committee says, and has used that as the framework for her own report.
JAY: And the significance of this is she, in the final conclusion, says that the film should never have been aired by Radio-Canada, by CBC/Radio-Canada, and which creates a precedent for any kind of films that take a position that seems to critique Israel on these issues.
JHALLY: And not only that, but the ombudsman’s report is also circulated widely within the CBC. And if you’re a journalist within the CBC and you see this kind of report coming out, it is going to send a chill into reporting on the region in general. I mean, that’s why we—that’s why, you know, with—I wouldn’t I really mind, you know, I wouldn’t be talking about it if it didn’t have this broader perspective, ’cause this actually now becomes a way that journalists at CBC are going to think about how they report the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is exactly what the complaints are meant to do. The complaints are meant to actually create that climate of fear that if you go outside the bounds of this kind of story, then you’re going to get in trouble. And Radio-Canada and this ombudsman has validated that point of view.
JAY: So what we’re going to do is we’re going to take up the ombudsman of CBC’s recommendations: we’re going to do what we think will be fair and balanced and interview the ombudsman on this issue. So this is the report. You can find it on our Web site. You will also be able to find the response of Sut Jally. Here’s a copy of it. You’ll find a copy of that on our web site, and you’ll find a link to the film. You can watch the entire film there. And you could also, I would suggest, given that the ombudsman seems to respond to letters, you could write the ombudsman and suggest it would be a good thing to appear on The Real News and defend her report and take up this whole question of fairness in covering the Middle East. So her name is Julie Miville-Dechêne, and you can write her at 1400 René Lévesque Boulevard East, Room 2315. And we’ll be calling Julie soon. And, Julie, if you’re watching, we hope to see you soon.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.