Christmas in the Holy Land:
A Year-End Bias Study
December 27, 2007
By: Mike Fegelman
Dear HonestReporting Canada subscriber:
Every Christmas, journalists descend on Bethlehem, speak with the mayor, conduct person-in-the-street interviews with pilgrims, and report on tourist activities and religious festivities. Many of the resulting news reports falsely implicate Israel for the economic, tourist, political and security problems that afflict the city.
Favouring the symbolic (“the wall”) over the facts (increased business, tourism and security accompanied by decreased Israeli/Arab friction), the media frame the complex narrative of Bethlehem in conventional black-and-white terms.
HonestReporting Canada meticulously monitored and analyzed the Canadian media’s coverage of “Christmas in the Holy Land” and published the following findings in our year-end bias study.
Summary of Findings:
- Media manipulated by staged demonstrations and PR campaigns
- Israel’s security concerns were omitted, misrepresented, or truncated in news coverage
- Media ignored or downplayed Muslim persecution of Christians
One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Dubbed a “Pallywood Xmas Special” by our colleagues at HonestReporting.com, many media outlets were duped into giving press coverage to a staged demonstration by “Santa and his elves” (a group of Palestinian activists) who scuffled with Israeli soldiers.
As part of an ongoing campaign in which photojournalists and newswires are willing participants, agitators turned up at Israel’s security barrier to provoke a police or military response. Professional cameramen dutifully documented the event and news agencies distributed the images around the world. Yet the captions and news coverage provided by the media rarely, if ever, remind readers that Israel built the security barrier to defend its citizens from deadly terror attacks and that the barrier has dramatically reduced infiltrations from the West Bank, saving hundreds of lives.
CBC Radio’s “The World This Hour” was just one of those media outlets that was manipulated. According to the program on December 21: (listen online here)
- “Now to Bethlehem where new barriers keep going up, protestors march to object to the security wall being built by Israel that will largely surround the town of Bethlehem. Villagers who will be cut off from their farmland decided to give the protest a seasonal twist. The leader approached the line of Israeli soldiers dressed as Santa Claus and offering sweets.”
Putting aside the fact that the CBC didn’t inform viewers that this was a staged event, this report erroneously claimed that “new barriers keep going up” and that the barrier surrounds Bethlehem, statements that are patently false.
Bethlehem and Bigotry
When famed British street painter Banksy’s Bethlehem murals were vandalized, CTV News and the Globe and Mail gave prominence to the story. CTVGlobeMedia colleagues Janis Mackey-Frayer and Mark Mackinnon featured reports that failed to adequately reference the raison d’etre for the barriers implementation, while misrepresenting the barrier’s own dimensions.
The Globe and Mail featured a front-page report on December 21 entitled “Tourists see writing on Bethlehem’s Walls,” which, to its credit, did mention the huge influx of tourists to Bethlehem this year, but blamed Israel alone for the city’s malaise and “economically depressed” society. The report also featured two large photo’s (see here and here) displaying some of Banksy’s “artwork” on the barrier.
Mackinnon offered an anemic explanation for the barrier’s purpose which read more like an afterthought: “The eight-metre-high barrier around the city – which Israel says it built for security reasons, but Palestinians call the “apartheid wall.””
He also incorrectly referred to “the wall around Bethlehem,” even though the security barrier is mostly fence and does not fully encircle the city. If this report seems familiar to you, it should, because Mackinnon made the same erroneous claims in a December 28, 2005 report entitled “Wall Cast Shadow Over Bethlehem.”
Times Online columnist Michael Gove recently commented on the wonky news coverage secured by Banksy’s Bethlehem:
- “This year we’ve already had our first exercise in demonizing Israel for its treatment of Bethlehem with the graffiti artist Banksy enjoying extensive coverage for his trip to decorate the security barrier near the town with his work. The message of Banksy’s work and the coverage it has generated is the same: oppressive Israel has snuffed the life out of the town where the Prince of Peace was born. Herod’s spirit lives on, even as the spirit of Christmas is struggling to survive. The truth is very different. The parlous position of Palestinian Christians, indeed the difficult position of most Christians across the Arab world, is a consequence not of Israeli aggression but of growing Islamist influence.”
Mackey-Frayer’s report on CTV (watch online here) relied heavily on pan-shots of the barrier for dramatic effect. Although she mentioned that the barrier was meant to stop suicide attacks, like Mackinnon, she also falsely claimed that “the barrier surrounds the town.” But Janis’ cardinal sin was her misrepresentation of one of the most successful tourist seasons in Bethlehem since 2000 and her failure to acknowledge Israel’s easing of security restrictions and scaling back of security operations in the Bethlehem-area.
According to Mackey-Frayer “Where it should be festive now, it isn’t. Shops are shuttered, more than half the town unemployed because so few tourists venture beyond the barrier.”
In an apparent contradiction in a follow-up report only two days later, Mackey-Frayer (watch online here) acknowledged that “foreign tourists are welcome and after several lean years they’re back. More than 70,000 pilgrims are expected to mark Christmas in Bethlehem this year, with hotel rooms at rare full capacity.”
Yet, the focus of this report continued to falsely portray Israeli security measures as the main obstacle for Palestinian pilgrims retracing the steps of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
What evades the media year after year is both simple and obvious: the systematic persecution of Palestinian Christians by their Muslim neighbours and rulers.
For many foreign correspondents, the plight and flight of Palestinian Christians under siege by Muslim extremists didn’t merit mention, and this proverbial elephant in the room was altogether ignored.
A report by the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs concluded that the Christian population in the West Bank and Gaza is likely to dissipate completely within the next 15 years as a result of increasing Muslim persecution and maltreatment.
The Ottawa Citizen, to its credit, published a column by David Warren on December 23 commenting on this suffering minority:
- “Bethlehem, for many, many centuries an entirely Christian town, has now been largely depopulated of Christians. While this is generally explained, in media accounts, as the result of “harsh Israeli security measures,” other factors may well have contributed to the exodus, such as violent impositions of the Shariah code, the takeover of their church by Palestinian gunmen in 2002, and the hideous desecration that followed, the use of Christian homes by “militants” of both Fatah and Hamas as cover for the shelling of Jewish targets in south Jerusalem, and sundry murderous attacks on Christians around the town during the Al Aqsa Intifada and since. Against which background, the loss of the pilgrim trade has deprived the dwindling Christian community of their chief source of income. The town is now overwhelmingly Muslim, and may be Christian-free very soon.”
CBC News reporter Nahlah Ayed and CTV’s Mackey-Frayer also featured coverage on the demise of Palestinian Christians in Gaza, but not of those in Bethlehem in the West Bank.
- “Christians privately admit an uneasy relationship with the Muslim majority. During the fighting that saw Hamas wrest control, a convent and Christian school were ransacked. And fears grew in October, when the owner of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore was murdered, people whisper about death threats and intimidation… Some 3,000 who live in the Gaza Strip pray here among 1.5 – million Muslims – Many Christians fled to escape the uncertain born of Hamas’ bloody rise to power here.”
Yet prominent media outlets like the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the National Post failed to even address this obvious red herring which has contributed to the exodus of Christians from the West Bank and Gaza.
Several Canadian media outlets missed an important opportunity to report on the complex interactions of Christians, Muslims and Jews at this unique moment in history. Christmas in the Holy Land, a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, was instead used by the Canadian and international media as an opportunity to malign the state of Israel.
We saw our public broadcaster, the CBC, get manipulated by staged Palestinian demonstrations, while Canada’s paper of record, the Globe and Mail, falsely misrepresented the security barrier and ignored the rampant Muslim persecution of Christians in the region. Meanwhile, CTV News downplayed Israeli efforts to boost Bethlehem’s tourist trade and to streamline access to the city’s holy sites.
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