PBS Goes to Israel and Palestine–Mostly Israel

warner-westbankOn the January 22 broadcast of the PBS NewsHour, correspondent Margaret Warner reported on the outcome of the Israeli  elections. It told the same story as most other reports on the issue, trying to sort out the implications for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Palestinians basically do not exist in the report;  Warner makes one reference to ultra-right Israeli politician Naftali Bennett, who she says believes “the time for negotiating with the Palestinians is over.”

But what was most intriguing was a comment at the end of the piece, from anchor Gwen Ifill: “We will hear more from Margaret as she travels through Israel, the West Bank and Gaza over the next week and a half.”

That sounded like it could be be an interesting opportunity for TV viewers to get a glimpse of Palestinian life. But that’s not what PBS chose to put on the air.

The next installment (1/25/13) was also about the Israeli elections: “So, Margaret, a few days after the election, what kind of government seems to be taking shape?” asked anchor Jeffrey Brown. The emphasis was on Israeli society: “How divided does it feel politically and culturally?”

Warner explained that

the old divide used to be over how much and how to deal with the Arabs and the Palestinians in particular and whether to give land for peace. The new divide is very cultural, and it is between the ultra-orthodox religious and also the pro-settler nationalist movement, which aren’t the same.

Later on Brown asked Warner to explain what her reporting would be touching on. Warner explained that the big stories are “the Iranian nuclear program, the conflict in Syria, and the Israeli/Palestinian issue.” She added that, “of course, we have talked to a lot of Israelis. But, yesterday, for instance, we went up to the Golan Heights, which is, you know, land that the Israelis captured from the Syrians.”  So Israelis one day, Israeli-occupied land the next day.  Warner nonetheless promised “some textured stories next week that look at all three of those.”

The next report (1/28/13) was again about the Israeli elections–a look at the relationship between Netanyahu and Barack Obama, including their plan to deal with “the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.” Warner started in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights:

The sweeping vistas of the Golan Heights plateau and the bucolic life of the Israelis who live here bear quiet witness to the strategic importance of this area, which Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Arab/Israeli war.

The report was entirely about how Israeli officials view the possibility of the Syrian war “spilling over” into the land they were occupying.  Warner shifts the focus to include a look at Tel Aviv, where houses include safe rooms, and she recalled

the conflict last November,when radical Palestinian groups in Hamas-controlled Gaza fired rockets into Tel Aviv, sending residents scrambling to their shelters.

In Gaza, such safe rooms mostly do not exist; over 100 civilians were killed in those Israeli attacks.

At the end of the piece, anchor Gwen Ifill previewed the next installment: “Margaret’s next story looks at the debate in Israel over how to deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

And that’s exactly what viewers got on January 30, a report that started out with Warner’s unsubstantiated claims about an Israeli airstrike inside Syria, relying on the Israeli and U.S. governments were saying. Warner also referred to how several nations were “concerned about Iran’s nuclear weapons program”–a false description of the state of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which has not been shown to be connected to any weapons program.

On January 31, Warner was back–with another report about what Israelis think of the world. Anchor Judy Woodruff offered this description:

Tonight, Margaret Warner, on assignment in the Middle East, reports on the growing debate within Israel about how much of a threat Iran really is.

The piece was an exploration of Iran from various Israeli perspectives–from those who see Iran as an “existential threat” to those who do not. Current and former military officials occupied much of the conversation. And Warner took a look at an Israeli emergency medical facility. 

Margaret Warner interviews Gaza resident.

NewsHour’s Margaret Warner talks to a Gaza resident–but not many interviews like this one made it onto the air.

It wasn’t until the February 1 broadcast–in a series that was supposed to take viewers around Israel, the West Bank and Gaza–that viewers actually started hearing from Palestinians. 

The report started with a furniture business in the West Bank, which used to do a lot of business with Israelis. “Then came the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising,” explained Warner, “that brought suicide bombings and terror to Israel.”

Had violence ever been “brought” to Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank? Warner didn’t say.

And years later, this West Bank shopping district “has become a virtual ghost town.” Israelis and Palestinians are not hopeful about the future and are suspicious of each other. Warner makes a brief stop in Gaza, interviewing a Palestinian fisherman who used to work alongside an Israeli who lived in a Gaza settlement.

So what the PBS NewsHour gave viewers was the view from Israel–with a few moments at the end of the series to include Palestinian perspectives, never as subjects in their own right, but to illustrate a “divide” that exists on “both sides.”

On February 5, anchor Jeffrey Brown remarked,  “All last week, Margaret Warner and a NewsHour team reported from Israel on many facets of its increasingly tense relations with its neighbors.” That is a far more accurate description of what PBS actually gave viewers.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.