Veteran CBS correspondent Bob Simon's December 21, 2003 60 Minutes segment on the fence Israel is building to thwart terrorists displayed the same defects apparent in so many of his reports. It was manipulative and shaky on key factual assertions.
By conscious editorial choice, emphasis was given to critics of the fence, with three Palestinians and an Israeli detractor counterbalanced by two Israeli proponents of the project. Nowhere did Simon report the overwhelming Israeli public support for the barrier, as indicated in an October poll by the Tami Steinmetz Center that found 82% believe the fence will prevent or significantly reduce terrorism.
Instead, a former Israeli official opposed to the fence is featured both in the program teaser and in the segment itself declaring that giving "hope" to the Palestinians, rather than building a fence, is the key to security. For emphasis, Simon reiterates: "So giving the Palestinians hope is a more effective security measure than building a fence?"
Simon also repeats without caveat the nonsensical claim of the same Israeli that "there's less terrorism when Palestinians have more hope for a state of their own." The CBS luminary has himself reported from Israel since before Oslo, when large-scale terror attacks were rare, and after Oslo's ceding of land and authority and the offer of a state, when the mass killings exploded. But the correspondent known for tough jabs is silent.
Similarly false and deceptive are Simon's repeated references to the fence taking "Palestinian land," and to the problem of the fence deviating from the 1967 lines - as though the land is not, in fact, disputed, with its ultimate disposition to be negotiated in accordance with U.N. Resolution 242. That resolution did not, contrary to Simon's continuous sub-text, mandate ceding all West Bank territory. Indeed, its authors believed Israel could not possibly defend itself along those lines and assumed alterations would be required, and this view has been endorsed explicitly by American civilian and military leaders.
Simon's story does include two officials advocating the barrier as effective protection against terrorist incursions. A Knesset Member and a general who is chief of strategic planning for the Israeli army both argue the necessity of the fence. And the role of terrorism is included with footage of bombing scenes.
But in addition to the Israeli detractor, three Palestinian civilians present the personal face of dislocation and difficulty wrought by the new fence. One farmer says he can't reach his greenhouses, another speaks of being cut off from his olive orchards. (Simon omits mention of Israel's efforts to minimize losses to olive growers by replanting trees affected by the path of the fence, a policy that has led to moving some 60,000 trees.)
Most emotional is a Palestinian woman, an "author and architect," who weeps while describing the anguish she feels when she witnesses "older people" subjected to the "unbearable" humiliation of passing through checkpoints necessitated by the fence. Simon commiserates: "And you never get used to it."
No civilian Israeli victims of terror, whether the bereaved, the wounded or the fearful, are given the chance to tell viewers about not getting "used to" the "unbearable" feeling of vulnerability caused by knowing predators seek entry into Israel to kill and maim them.
Why, for instance, did Simon not interview stunned young Israeli students and parents at the Yokne'am school in northern Israel, which had only two weeks earlier been the would-be target of two Islamic Jihad terrorists. The killers' intention was to explode 22 pounds of explosives among as many students as possible. Captured by the Israeli military, the men said the nearby town of Bardaleh had been chosen to cross into Israel because the security fence did not extend there.
But just as Simon opts for the clichéd setup of characters -- the hard-nosed Israelis and suffering Palestinians -- he takes a pass on reporting the truth about what fuels the bombers. The Palestinian architect insists the "wall will create more young people" without work and school "ready to do nasty things." Here as in other coverage, Simon is entirely mute regarding the Palestinians' venomous incitement against Jews and Israelis, the extolling of suicide killers and calls for Israel's destruction in schools, media, mosques and rallies, in sports tournaments, posters and even via children's "martyr" necklaces and trading cards.
Indeed, while he has previously done entire stories on suicide bombers, he has never deviated from the charted story line, never focused on the role and responsibility of Palestinian society in nurturing genocidal hatred whose stated aim is not the adjustment of West Bank lines one way or another, but the annihilation of Israel.
But to tell the truth about Palestinian incitement and Palestinian goals would require Simon to embrace journalistic standards he has eschewed for decades of reporting from Israel. His unwillingness to break that pattern is a "barrier" likely to remain in place.