TO ERR IS HUMAN, it has been said; to really screw up takes a computer. What does it take to apologize for really screwing up?
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a media watchdog, has been working on that question for four months now, ever since it caught ABC News in a serious reporting error. What is noteworthy about this tale is not that ABC mistakenly broadcast something untrue. In the news business, where each day is a quick-march through breaking stories and unremitting deadlines, mistakes are inevitable.
But rather than retract the mistake once CAMERA pointed it out, ABC embarked on a frantic mission to retroactively sanitize it. In the end it made the blunder worse, issuing a "correction" that compounded the original falsehood with a new one. What began as a negligent goof turned into a deliberate deception -- and that should worry anyone who cares about the integrity and the standards of TV journalism.
The story: Last Oct. 2, in a report on American Jewish activists opposed to the policies of Israel's Labor Party, ABC newsman David Ensor said: "The party out of power in Israel is Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who calls Prime Minister Rabin 'a traitor' because of his deals with Arafat."
Shocking if true, but in fact Netanyahu had never called Rabin anything of the sort. Indeed, he'd often publicly denounced Likud supporters who did use such language. CAMERA noted as much in a letter to ABC and asked for a "swift public apology and correction."
The "correction" came on Oct. 6. News anchor Peter Jennings read it on the air:
"Earlier this week . . . our reporter said the opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had called the Israeli prime minister 'a traitor.' Though there are numerous references to him doing so in press reports from the region, and though he has spoken at anti-government rallies where Prime Minister Rabin has been loudly condemned as a traitor, Mr. Netanyahu informs us he has never used those words himself." Translation: Everyone knows he said it, but the liar denies it.
Yet when CAMERA's researchers scoured the news databases of "press reports from the region," it couldn't find a single one backing up Jennings' assertion. So, asked CAMERA reasonably, would ABC mind identifying the "numerous references" Jennings had mentioned?
Two and a half weeks later, ABC's senior vice president, Richard Wald, sent back a terse note. "When Mr. Ensor wrote his correction, he was making reference to the Des Moines Register and to the Edmonton Journal, both of whose stories I have read."
Hello? These are "press reports from the region"? The boundaries of the Middle East may be a bit imprecise, but this has to be the first time they've ever encompassed Des Moines, Iowa, and Edmonton, Alberta. As for the pretense that ABC studies Israeli politics by perusing papers from the American and Canadian West: Right, and Bill Clinton didn't inhale.
Equally dubious were the stories themselves.
The Canadian article was a 19-month-old unsigned editorial dubbing Netanyahu "the Likud leader who has called Rabin a traitor." The Edmonton editors told CAMERA that their source for the charge was The Guardian, a British newspaper. But The Guardian is on line, and a database check showed it never reported any such thing. The Edmonton editors now agree that they erred. Which ABC knew, because its researchers had called the Edmonton editors and had been told the same thing CAMERA was told. The network presumably searched The Guardian and found exactly what CAMERA had found: nothing. In other words, Wald cited the Edmonton editorial in his letter, even though he had to have known that it was wrong.
The Des Moines Register story, meanwhile, was merely a composite of wire service reports, mostly from the Associated Press. CAMERA easily tracked down each of the reports the Register had cut and pasted; not one contained the "traitor" charge. The Des Moines editors tell CAMERA they have no idea where that line of the story came from; it must have been spliced in by mistake. Of course, ABC knew that, too. The nation's wealthiest TV news operation does not lack for access to AP or any other wire service.
Once CAMERA blew the whistle on ABC's incendiary Oct. 2 charge -- all the more chilling in the wake of Rabin's bloody murder a month later -- would it have been so awful for Peter Jennings simply to say: "We messed up and we apologize"? Instead, the network implicitly slandered Netanyahu a second time in its Oct. 6 "correction," and then plunged into a mad scramble to dredge up something, anything, to support a claim it knew was false.
This time the falsehood was exposed, because one watchdog had the interest, the diligence, the research staff -- and, yes, the computer -- to expose it. Is that what it takes to keep a network honest? ABC boasts that its news shows draw more viewers than those of any other network. But when its top executives spend more energy to cover up a mistake than to correct it, just what sort of news are those viewers getting?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)