Media Comment: When is a hoax punished?

Channel 10 News would do well to heed the admonition of Leo Rennert and work hard to bring to us the “real” news.

army radio reporter (photo credit: REUTERS)
army radio reporter
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Leo Rennert, a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers, recently complained that too many Israel-related stories were being ignored by such global mainstream media outlets as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
In April alone, such stories included arrests of journalists by the Palestinian Authority, various rockets launched from Gaza exploding in Israel, Muslims rejection of shared prayer areas at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, armed Arabs, several teenagers, trying to infiltrate Israel for purposes of terror on two separate occasions, a stabbing of Jews in Jerusalem on Holocaust Remembrance Day and again on April 26 as well as Hamas’ refusal to honor any peace treaty with Israel. A defacement of the Ammunition Hill Memorial was broadly broadcast, but perhaps this was due to the suspicion falling on haredim (ultra-Orthodox) rather than Arabs.
Some of these stories also did not make it into the Israeli media, and certainly not with great prominence. A story that was featured, however, on Channel 10 television news, turned out to be false.
Reporter Sivan Cohen delivered on Sunday what was actually nothing more than a hoax. Her viewers heard that a nine-year-old Israeli girl had nearly been abducted at Disney World in Orlando but was shortly after found by her parents drugged in a bathroom with her head shaved. The parents were unnamed, no corroborating information was aired either in the form of an audio interview or a video. By Monday, Ms. Cohen had been suspended and an inquiry is being conducted.
Cohen was quoted saying, “I spoke with the father and he claimed that the story was true, and was filmed and recorded. Since yesterday was Sunday and we knew that there was no one to answer at Disney, we discussed it at the studio and we attributed the allegations to the father.”
But is Ms. Cohen the sole person responsible for the story? Did she did not have an editor? A fact-checker? A foreign-news desk head? Is Israeli professional journalism, before we discuss ethics, dependent on but one person within a large news organization? Another story, not quite a hoax, but spun ideologically, was the item first presented by Haaretz, in its front-page placement, as a gang rape. An unnamed female employee of the Jerusalem District Prosecutor’s office was the source for a tale about a beach orgy, so the public was informed, with a woman out of control and being taken advantage of and incapable of resisting the advances of the young men. It ran for several days and then, after a police investigation, turned out to be a “happy hooker” tale of an alcohol-fueled prostitute on her day off trying to get her boyfriend jealous.
But Haaretz wouldn’t let go and began accusing the police of negligence, claiming they were not interested in arresting the guilty or, worse, simply ignored the complaint.
To Professor Steve Plaut’s understanding, “radical feminists took advantage of the opportunity to lecture the patriarchal male chauvinists among us on how badly women are oppressed in Israel.” Haaretz was not only taking its readers for a ride, but taking a ride on this social orientation. News it was, but truth it wasn’t.
However, Haaretz is not alone in providing us with inaccurate “news.” Channel 10’s Orr Heller is another purveyor of questionable stories. His unethical recording of Lt.-Col.
Shalom Eisner’s conversation with a third party was not an isolated incident. Heller acts as a spokesperson for B’tselem. He brings to Channel 10 their edited stories.
For example, as reported on the Latma website, in January 2010 he reported a story of Arab youths demonstrating near Neveh Tzuf. They are contained by the army through the use of smoke bombs and other standard methods to break up demonstrations.
Heller described the Arabs as nonviolent even though a jeep’s mirror was broken, a shed was burned down and the Arabs engaged in forcible shoving. This is the model of civil nonviolent demonstrations? Then, some Jewish youths appear on the scene and throw rocks at the Palestinians.
The IDF, according to the report, does nothing to stop them. To show that it is IDF policy to do nothing against the Jewish hoodlums an interview is conducted with a lieutenant who “explains” that his job is not to arrest Jews but only Palestinians.
The clip was a B’tselem production. The “interview” was old and had nothing to do with the Neveh Tzuf demonstrations. Did Channel 10 dismiss Heller for presenting a fabricated and edited clip? Was an investigation initiated? No.
A year later, he presented another clip, supposedly documenting “how police violently arrest a Palestinian child.” In fact, the video does not show any violence, only an arrest of a youngster the police claim was throwing rocks. Again, Channel 10 permitted a “star” reporter to present questionable headlines.
Perhaps though, the most striking aspect of this whole saga is the dichotomy between the channel’s reaction to Orr Heller and to Sivan Cohen. Cohen was duped into broadcasting what was a hoax. Probably motivated to provide a “scoop,” she acted rashly, as did her editors, and she paid the price immediately. Heller, on the other hand, is the channel’s “star.” His politically-motivated stories, which have a common thread of giving the IDF an unjustified black eye, lead to no reaction, if anything to promotion. It is this kind of unethical journalism which gives our media a bad name, much more than the silly error of Ms. Cohen.
Channel 10 pays a price for its folly for the public clearly prefers other news sources.
Channel 10 News would do well to heed the admonition of Leo Rennert and work hard to bring to us the “real” news. Yet it is the public that ultimately pays the price. The channel’s news corporation does not live up to the expectation of having a third news broadcaster which successfully competes with channels one and two. The politicians who fought for its existence, hoping for a highquality news channel, were duped. Isn’t it time to give the stage to someone else?
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.