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Mideast Coverage in Canada a Personal Crusade for Ex-envoy

March 10, 2003
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Norman Spector has had it with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Mideast coverage.

And it’s safe to say the CBC must be quite tired of Spector by now.

Spector, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is embroiled in an ongoing battle with the national network over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly the work of its Israel- based correspondent, Neil MacDonald.

Spector has made the issue into a crusade, writing Op-Ed pieces in newspapers across the country, giving speeches and sending letters to CBC executives.

“Many Canadians are still struggling to comprehend how David Ahenakew could have spoken approvingly of Hitler and the Holocaust,” Spector wrote in one letter, referring to a recent scandal over anti-Semitic comments from a Canadian Indian chief. “Their understanding has not been helped by the media, who’ve largely failed to explain the context a speech in which” Ahenakew “had just blamed Jews for the Second World War and, by ‘killing Arabs,’an eventual third one.

“I believe your Mideast coverage encourages demented views such as these,” Spector wrote to Tony Burman, editor in chief of the CBC News, Current Affairs and Newsworld segments,

Spector says these “demented views” are aided by what he sees as biased reporting by MacDonald. Such reporting, Spector claims, is partly responsible for an increase in anti-Semitism in Canada.

Burman refutes Spector’s allegations.

“CBC prides itself on the excellence of its journalism and we are committed to providing information that is factual, accurate and comprehensive,” Burman said. “We take very seriously any assertion that our journalism is inaccurate, biased or unfair, or in any way fails to meet our journalistic standards. Where criticisms are justified, we take immediate corrective action.”

Burman pointed to a January 2003 public opinion survey on the CBC’s Mideast coverage. The survey found that the organization was seen as “significantly less biased” than the rest of the national media and that “those who did perceive bias in the CBC’s coverage found it tended to be pro-Israel, not pro-Arab.”

The questions and results of the survey, conducted by Ekos Research Associates, can be viewed at

Spector, a former publisher of the Jerusalem Post, regularly criticizes MacDonald’s refusal to use the term “terrorist” when referring to Palestinian suicide bombers. He also accuses MacDonald of consistently presenting events from an Arab viewpoint, and says MacDonald reports with “a toxicity of this double standard on democracy and human rights” that is “compounded by the frequent omission of context from his reports.”

Burman also refutes these points.

” ‘Terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ are used in CBC news and programming to describe particular acts or people, including in Israel and the rest of the Middle East, but only when attributed,” he said. “In other words, if presidents, prime ministers, political leaders, police chiefs and the like, use them, they are freely included in our reporting.”

But CBC doesn’t use these words as a form of description without attribution, Burman added. Reuters also has banned the use of the word terrorist, Burman stressed, deeming it an “emotional term.”

“Our preference is to describe the act or individual to refer to them as ‘gunman,’ ‘bomber,’ or ‘militant,’ for instance and let the viewer or listener make his own judgement,” Burman said. “I think we all understand the definition of the word, but in the Middle East particularly it has taken on political overtones. It is used so commonly in Israel that, for many, ‘terrorist’ has come to equal ‘Arab.’ “

“Because the word has been adopted by one side in the conflict and used so frequently, journalists are right to be careful using it,” he continued. “We do not describe suicide bombers as ‘martyrs’ and we do not call them ‘terrorists.’ “

Speaking recently at Montreal’s Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, located in the suburb where he grew up, Spector attacked both the CBC and what many see as the Canadian government’s increasingly anti-American stance.

“You can feel it in your kishkes that there’s something very wrong,” Spector said of CBC’s Middle East coverage. MacDonald’s reporting, Spector added, is designed “to do the greatest possible damage one could possibly do to Israel and to Jews.”

Spector also had a warning for Canadian Jews.

Biased reporting “does fuel hatred of Jews,” he said, adding that he thought the Canadian Jewish community was in a “more precarious position” than in the past.

Afterward, Spector spoke with JTA.

“When you’re reporting on the Middle East, most Canadians have no understanding of either the Israelis or the Palestinians, so there’s no self-defense mechanism” to help people evaluate skewed reporting, he said.

“Look, I’ve been in the Prime Minister’s Office and I know the relationship between the PMO and the CBC,” he said. “There is no way that any Prime Minister’s Office in Canadian history would have allowed the CBC to cover Parliament Hill the way they’ve covered the Mideast conflict. It’s as simple as that.”

The Canadian Jewish Congress seconds Spector’s views.

Jack Silverstone, the congress’ executive vice president and general counsel, said the group hasn’t had official meetings on the issue with the CBC, but have had “lengthy and frustrating correspondence” with them — particularly after CBC aired a documentary on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that many felt distorted his role in the 1982 massacre by Lebanese Christians of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Silverstone also said the congress had written to the CBC about MacDonald’s coverage, which he felt provided “a skewed view of the conflict, an anti-Israel view.”

“Generally, the CBC refers complaints to its ombudsman, but one simply can’t deal with this issue on a story-by- story basis,” Silverstone said. “Their biases become rapidly evident when you watch their coverage.”

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