Accuracy in Media

By Cliff Kincaid and Roger Aronoff

Steven Spielberg is a gifted and influential filmmaker. His latest creation, Munich, about the aftermath of the bloody attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, is superbly crafted, as one would expect. But that craftsmanship is combined with a confused and morally ambiguous story, one that reflects an unfortunate degree of moral relativism when the U.S. and the free world need a clear understanding of the stakes involved in the war on terrorism.

The “war for the free world,” as Frank Gaffney accurately calls it, has intensified in scope as the fanatical Iranian regime continues its program to develop and possibly use nuclear weapons. Judging from the message of the Munich movie, Spielberg would have the world accommodate rather than confront the Iranian regime.

In real life, in the years that followed the slaughter of the Israelis, a large number of Palestinian terrorist operatives were eliminated by Israeli Mossad agents. As noted by Neil C. Livingstone and David Halevy in their book, Inside the PLO, the Israeli operation followed the recognition that “new methods of fighting back” against terrorists were needed and that Israel needed to “carry the war to the terrorists.” Only by making “the hunters the hunted,” Israeli officials reasoned, could Israel defend itself.

Yet Time magazine and many in the mainstream media have seized on Spielberg’s Munich as being a parable for the current U.S.-led war on terror, and a rebuke to those who believe that violent acts of terrorism must be met with force. Time, which made this a cover-story event, calls Munich Spielberg’s “boldest feat yet,” and a “masterpiece.”

For his part, Spielberg calls the film a “prayer for peace” and tells Time that the film is about the human cost of a quagmire. He says that the biggest enemy isn’t the Israelis or the Palestinians, but rather “intransigence,” whatever that means.

Writing in the liberal New Republic, Leon Wieseltier says the message of the film is that “terrorists and counterterrorists are alike.” He adds, “This is an opinion that only people who are not responsible for the safety of other people can hold.”

In other words, it is typical liberal Hollywood propaganda, designed to convince the public that the real threat to America comes from the Bush Administration, not the terrorists that it seeks to capture or kill. Viewed in this context, the film has to be seen as a direct assault on the Bush Administration for using every option available in safeguarding the American people from global Islamic terrorism.

No Other Option

One of the key lines of the film is when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir says that “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” It is true that Meir agonized over the decision to send out teams to eliminate the terrorists. As Livingstone and Halevy note, she “worried that the decision to target individual terrorists might be morally corrosive or somehow antithetical to Israel’s liberal traditions.” But faced with a threat to its very existence, Israel had no other serious option than striking back.  

It is apparent that the movie is not only supposed to be historical but meant to send a message to Israel, the U.S. and the Bush Administration. The film’s website even says that “the film takes audiences into a hidden moment in history that resonates with many of the same emotions in our lives today.” Spielberg intends to convince us that responding to terrorism with military force is hopeless.

The story is said to be “inspired by” the events at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when Black September, one of the most ruthless and violent Palestinian terrorist organizations, took 11 Israeli Olympic athletes hostage, before killing all of them. Two were murdered by the terrorists at the Olympic village and the others were killed by the terrorists at a German airport, where the terrorists were expecting to be taken by plane to an Arab country. On the tarmac, under fire from German policy, terrorists threw a hand grenade into one helicopter with Israeli hostages and opened fire on a helicopter with the others.      

The bodies of five dead terrorists, killed by German police, were sent to Libya, where they were given a hero’s funeral. Three surviving terrorists were sent to jail in Germany but never stood trial. When a German Lufthansa jet was hijacked seven weeks later and the hijackers demanded freedom for the three terrorists, the German government let them go.  

The 1999 Academy Award-winning documentary, One Day in September, examines these events in graphic detail. The film even says the German government, which refused to permit any Israeli involvement in a hostage rescue mission, colluded in the plane hijacking and freedom for the three captured terrorists.

This is the kind of appeasement policy that Spielberg seems to be advocating in his film. 

Film Is Criticized

There has been some excellent reporting on other problems with this film. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz says that “the movie is based on a book in which there is no truth.” It is based on a book called Vengeance, by George Jonas, who relied on the word of Yuval Aviv, said to be the inspiration for Avner, the leader of an Israeli assassination squad. Aviv claimed to have been a Mossad agent who parted ways with Israel over their tactics used to seek justice. By most accounts, however, this is not true. In fact Aviv’s only security experience was working as a guard, or screener, for El Al, the Israeli airline.

There are other problems with the film. Contrary to its implication, Israel didn’t send one team to track down everyone. Rather, it had its agents looking out for the people on their hit list. When one was located, a team was dispatched.

Time includes a shameless plug for an upcoming book called Striking Back, by Time reporter Aaron Klein, who claims that the Israeli counterattack was ineffective. He insists that the Israelis “had to settle for smaller targets, killing activists who for the most part had nothing to do with the Munich massacre and leaving alive, to this day, some who were involved.” It’s true that Israel didn’t get all of the top terrorists. But this is really an argument for a more effective counter-terrorist strategy.

According to the best information, Israel killed some-where between 18 and 20 terrorists over a 20- year period, ending the pursuit at the time the so-called Oslo peace process began in the early 1990’s. In one case, an Israeli squad killed an innocent man, an Arab mistaken for a terrorist operative.

Tony Kushner, the award-winning playwright chosen by Spielberg to write the film, has a long record of hostility towards Israel, though both are Jewish. According to the Wall Street Journal, Kushner has called the creation of the state of Israel “a historical, moral, political calamity” for the Jewish people. He said that Israel has engaged in “a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.” And he has called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, recently incapacitated by a stroke, an “unindicted war criminal.”

Blaming Israel

In the Time magazine story, Spielberg is quoted as saying, “I’m always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it’s threatened. At the same time, a response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine…There’s been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end? How can it end?”

Spielberg chooses to ignore the fact that Israel, because of its aggressive policy against terrorism, has reduced the number of terrorist attacks by up to 90 percent, through targeted assassinations, heightened intelligence, and a security fence designed to keep the terrorists out.

The real problem with the film is the moral equivalence, as Spielberg talks about “intransigence” and complains about “response to a response,” as if Israel is at fault for trying to defend itself. What he seems to forget is that Israel is fighting for its very existence against an Arab/Muslim bloc of nations that still preaches hatred and destruction of Jews and Israelis.

Roger Ebert, who gave the film a big thumbs up, says about Spielberg’s approach: “By not taking sides, he has taken both sides.” But how can that be morally correct or defensible?

It is certainly true that Israel has made mistakes. And Israeli policy across the board cannot be defended. But the country is still a democracy, while the Arab/Muslim countries that surround it are not.

Enemy Has No Regrets

The nature of the enemy can be seen in the report by The Times of London that Mohammad Daoud, who led Black September, says he still doesn’t regret the athletes’ deaths. They were soldiers, as he viewed it. The article referred to his 1999 book, Palestine: From Jerusalem to Munich in which Daoud, who now lives in Syria, “claimed that [PLO chief Yasir] Arafat, who professed no prior knowledge of the Munich operation, had been fully briefed beforehand and had given the mission his blessing.”

The word “Munich” has long been synonymous with the appeasement that pushed Hitler into more aggressive actions leading up to World War II. Now Steven Spielberg is giving it a new meaning: that if we reason with the terrorists or give them what they want, they won’t blow up innocent women and children.

Should the U.S. have gone after al Qaeda after 9/11? In Spielberg’s mind, retaliation is inherently more counterproductive than it is necessary. His “solution” apparently is appeasement?the same policy that encouraged Hitler’s global aggression. He seems to be opposed not only to invading Iraq but Afghanistan, where al Qaeda was based, as well.

As for Israel and the Palestinians, the real answer is for the other Arab states to help the Palestinian people achieve a better life and not blame Israel for all of the problems in the region. Israel has eagerly embraced peace when given the chance to do so by Egypt and Jordan. The reason Israel still controls the areas where some of the Palestinians live is for security reasons, certainly not a desire to control these people. Israel does not want to occupy the Palestinian territories. It is clear that, if the Palestinians would only lay down their arms, and end their culture of hatred for the Jews, Israel would reward them with aid, technology, and a state of their own.

Spielberg has created a film that the Left is trying to use to make the argument that our current war on terrorism is a “quagmire,” that Bush has been “intransigent” and abusing his power, and that we are “compromising our values” by pursuing the enemy with every available option. When Spielberg made Schindler’s List, about saving Jews from Hitler’s regime, there was no moral equivalence between good and evil. There shouldn’t have been in this film either.


USA Today’s headline called it a “media misstep.” Many papers reported that the West Virginia miners were alive when all but one was dead. But the January 5 story by Mark Memmott under the headline was more accurate, calling it a “collective failure” by the media. Quite simply, many in the media were caught reporting something that just wasn’t true.

It harkens back to the case of  Mitch Albom, the popular sportswriter and author of Tuesdays with Morrie, who wrote about a couple of basketball players who had told him that they were planning to attend the NCAA Final Four semifinal game last year, wearing their Michigan State green colors. Albom submitted the story on Friday, writing as if the game on Saturday had already occurred. In the meantime, however, the two players changed their plans and didn’t attend the game, thus exposing Albom’s story and a dirty little secret of journalism.

As USA Today’s Peter Johnson put it at the time, “Researching and putting together stories before an event takes place is not unusual in daily journalism. Predicting what’s going to happen saves time on deadline, although editors and reporters are expected to confirm the facts.”

Making Up “Facts”

Where USA Today crossed a line in the mine tragedy story was in writing that “The men were taken by ambulances to a nearby hospital for examination. There was no word on the miners’ condition.” And the writer of that story, Tom Vanden Brook, also had a feature story on page three, which said, “The survivors were taken by ambulance to a local hospital for examination.” The problem is that none of this ever happened. Vanden Brook anticipated that it would have happened by the time people had read it. That was bad journalism.  But this story isn’t the only recent example of where the media have failed the public.

Remember the false News-week Koran-in-the-toilet story? Now the magazine has been forced to eat crow again?in another story involving a toilet, or what was thought to be a toilet.

The magazine’s January 9, 2006, issue published a correction about referring to Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham accepting a “chamber pot” or toilet. It turns out that the “19th-century Louis Philippe commode” that Cunningham accepted among his illegal gifts was not a “commode” in the sense of a toilet. The Louis Philippe Commode was actually a chest of drawers.

In another embarrassment, the Sacramento Bee on December 27 reported that a University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, student doing a research paper for a history class had been visited by agents of the Department of Homeland Security. The student had reportedly requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s “Little Red Book” through interlibrary loan for a paper on communism. The agents told him that because the book was on a “watch list” and because the student had spent time abroad, they wanted to talk to him. Was this the result of the Bush-authorized NSA spying program? No, it was a complete hoax?and it was exposed as a hoax before the Bee wrote it up.

In fact, Boston Globe reporter Jonathan Salzman said that the story, first reported by the New Bedford Standard-Times, “was picked up by other news organizations, prompted diatribes on left-wing and right-wing blogs, and even turned up in an op-ed piece written by Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the Globe.” Kennedy had “cited it as the latest example of the Bush administration’s intrusion on civil liberties,” the Globe said.

One problem, the paper noted, is that the Department of Homeland Security does not have its own “agents.” Brian Glyn Williams, an associate professor of Islamic history, had provided the story from the student to the New Bedford Standard-Times.

Ehrlich Has Last Laugh

In Maryland, a prominent critic of Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich has been forced to resign after pleading guilty, in effect, to plagiarism. Columnist Michael Olesker, who was a darling of the liberals for his vicious attacks on Ehrlich, had been using material for his columns from stories in the Washington Post and New York Times and even his own paper, the Baltimore Sun, without attribution or credit being given. “I made mistakes” is what he told his own paper in a story about his resignation.

Ehrlich had been so disgusted by Olesker’s journalistic antics that he had banned state officials from talking to him and another journalist from the Sun. The paper had sued over the ban. 

It turned out to be a case involving far more than a few “mistakes.” And Olesker’s editors at the Baltimore Sun have egg all over their faces for having stood behind him when the first evidence of his plagiarism surfaced.

On December 24, the Sun had run a correction about one of Olesker’s columns, saying similarity in wording between his column and a story from the Washington Post had resulted from Olesker simply being confused about what was written in his notes. Sun City Editor Howard Libit gave Olesker the benefit of the doubt, insisting that “these kinds of things” had not come up before when reviewing his work. It turned out that Libit and other Sun editors had not been looking hard enough.

The first case of “borrowing” material, in what the Washington Post labeled an “attribution issue” rather than plagiarism, was uncovered by Kevin Dayhoff in an article for, a website serving Frederick County, Maryland. When additional cases were uncovered by Gail Dechter of the Baltimore City Paper, Olesker was forced to quit the paper.

Illegal Leak

In a more serious matter, the Justice Department has launched an investigation into how the New York Times illegally obtained classified information about the NSA spying program on al-Qaeda operations on U.S. soil. Questions still persist about the timing of the publication of the story. The paper held it for a year. Was it timed to boost sales of a book by the Times reporter, James Risen, who co-authored the story? New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame calls the paper’s explanations of its delay in publishing the NSA story “woefully inadequate” and admits that he has had “unusual difficulty” getting answers. Risen has made numerous media appearances to promote sales of his book but won’t talk about why his story was delayed.

NPR Gaffe

Over at National Public Radio (NPR), ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin wrote a year-end column about examples of “questioned and questionable journalism.” Ironically, he then proceeded to commit a journalistic gaffe of his own, casting his own credibility in doubt.

Discussing the George Clooney movie, Good Night and Good Luck, about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, Dvorkin said that Murrow “fought for high standards and fearless reporting even in the face of political and economic pressures that worked to tame and intimidate journalists and their news organizations.”

In fact, as Wes Vernon noted in our last AIM Report, Murrow had a vendetta against anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy because one of Murrow’s close friends had been questioned about his communist ties and committed suicide. That friend, Laurence Duggan, turned out to be a Soviet spy in the State Department.

Dvorkin’s column on Murrow demonstrates how a myth about a journalistic icon can be accepted without examining the facts of the case. This is not a good trait in an ombudsman?or a journalist.

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to James Risen of the New York Times, Oprah Winfrey, and Steven Spielberg.

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