Dreaming of a Dark Christmas (December 28, 2005)

December 25, 2005

Dreaming of a Dark Christmas

December 28, 2005

Dear HonestReporting Canada subscriber:

Every year at Christmas, journalists visit Bethlehem, interview the mayor, conduct person-in-the-street interviews, report on tourist activities and show religious festivities. Many of the resulting news reports implicate Israel for the economic, tourist, political and security problems that afflict the city.

This year, information compiled by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics foretold a positive change in the 2005 Christmas season: Tourism to Bethlehem doubled from 110,000 tourists in 2004, to more than 218,000 by mid-December 2005; and while 15,000 tourists visited Bethlehem for Christmas 2004, over 30,000 visited in November 2005 alone.

While Israel’s existing security measures had already decreased terror attacks, the newest security terminal in Bethlehem, opened on November 15 2005, enabled a larger volume of traffic into and out of Bethlehem and reduced waiting times. And in a calculated security risk, Israel announced it would speed up passage through the security terminal by not checking every tourist bus.

But two major Canadian news outlets — both of which HonestReporting Canada recently cited for problematic coverage of security checkpoints — focused their pre-Christmas coverage on the new Bethlehem security terminal. As before, their narrow focus on the impact of Israeli security measures came at the expense of other information that might give viewers a better understanding of the situation.



While CBC Radio’s Margaret Evans turned in a generally balanced report quoting both Palestinian and Israeli spokespersons, CBC TV’s Paul Workman filed a one-sided report that included his own editorializing. Workman’s Dec. 22 report on CBC’s The National focused on graffiti that said “stop apartheid.” He portrayed the barrier, which is mostly fence, as a giant wall, and even referred to it as “the wall around the city.”

In all of this, Workman failed to interview any Israelis who could explain the purpose of the barrier or how the situation in Bethlehem has improved. Instead he summed up Israel’s position as, “The Israelis, in fact, say they’ve streamlined the crossing procedure, eased the rules of crossing, even for Palestinians.” In contrast, he presented a clip of Palestinian-Canadian tourists saying, “That’s sad, you know, the wall, like you are in a big jail, really it’s a big jail.”

And finally, Workman crossed the line that divides news reporting from commentary, by stating that: “The barrier is meant to keep Palestinians in, but the people of Bethlehem are afraid that it will simply keep tourists out.” As Workman must know, the security barrier keeps terrorists out, and Palestinians who meet security criteria are able to pass through.

Amid all of this, Workman’s anemic admission that “the barrier snaking through the West Bank is Israel’s answer to suicide bombers” seems like a mere afterthought.

How You Can Make a Difference:

Globe and Mail

On Dec. 24 the Globe and Mail published a front-page article by Middle East bureau chief Mark Mackinnon, who said the mood in Bethlehem “has had a pall cast over it” by Israel’s new security passage.  

Mackinnon quoted shop owners as saying business was “so bad that they wouldn’t bother opening until right before Christmas Day.” But on the very same day, Najib Farraj of Agence France-Press, in an article carried by the National Post, quoted Bethlehem’s mayor as saying, “Christmas this year is special… We are expecting 30,000 tourists in comparison with 18,000 in 2004“, and quoted Khaled al-Bandak, who runs the 107-room Grand downtown, as saying, “The number of guests is larger than the last four years. I still have empty rooms but I am expecting more reservations at the last minute, especially after midnight Mass.”

Like CBC’s Paul Workman, Mackinnon incorrectly referred to “the wall around Bethlehem,” even though the security barrier is mostly fence and does not fully encircle the city. A Globe and Mail graphic accompanying the article also portrayed the barrier as a wall all along its route.

Like Workman, Mackinnon included person-in-the-street quotes including “It’s a prison” and “People shouldn’t be building walls, they should be building bridges.” Unlike Workman, he devoted several sentences to Israel’s security rationale for creating the new checkpoint; but in an apparent editing error, half of the first sentence was omitted.

How You Can Make a Difference

Taking the Easy Road

Favoring the symbolic (“the wall”) over facts (increased business, tourism and security accompanied by decreased Israeli/Arab friction), Workman and Mackinnon filed flawed reports. By framing a complex story in conventional black-and-white terms, CBC and the Globe and Mail missed an opportunity to report the complex interactions of Christians, Muslims and Jews at a unique moment in history.

As Christmas fell upon Bethlehem, the reporters’ dire predictions proved untrue. An Associated Press report in the Dec. 26 edition of the Globe and Mail related that, “Although the crowds are still a fraction of the peak years in the mid-1990s, about 30,000 pilgrims converged on the birthplace of Jesus for Christmas celebrations this year, Israeli officials said, about twice as many as last year and by far the highest turnout since fighting broke out in the fall of 2000.”

     Thank you for your ongoing commitment to fair and accurate
media coverage of Israel and the Middle East


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