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We'll Just Have To Agree To Disagree

As correspondent Richard Roth noted earlier, covering tensions in the Middle East is a very delicate business, fraught with "loaded" assumptions, terms and language. It's not hard to offend one side or another even when trying hard not to. And when you mix in any opinion at all, you're certain to come under fire from some quarters. When CBS anchor Bob Schieffer dedicated his weekly "commentary" on "Face the Nation" to the fighting in the region, he was sure to face plenty of scrutiny.

The liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has sent out an "action alert," criticizing Schieffer for failing to provide more context in his commentary. FAIR urged readers to contact the show and Public Eye to register their displeasure. Since the alert was issued yesterday, we've received at least 100 e-mails that do just that. First, the basics. Here is the transcript of Schieffer's Sunday commentary (click the picture to the left to watch):

Finally today, when the war broke out in the Middle East, the first thing I thought about the old story of the frog and the scorpion who were trying to cross a river there. The scorpion couldn't swim, the frog was lost. So the scorpion proposed a deal, "give me a ride on your back, and I'll show you the way." The frog agreed, and the trip went fine until they got to the middle of the river, and then suddenly scorpion just stung the frog. As they were sinking, the frog asked, in his dying breath, "Why would you that?" To which the scorpion replied, "because this is the Middle East."

It is worth noting that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip did not kidnap that Israeli soldier and provoke all this because the Israelis were invading Gaza. No, all this happened in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal, which was what the Palestinians supposedly wanted. But this is the Middle East. Why would fundamentalists in Gaza and Lebanon choose to provoke this war at this time? There is no real answer except this is the Middle East.

Israel had every right to respond, and it did. But again, this is the Middle East, so perhaps a response may have made it all worse by giving moderate Arabs in the region an excuse distance themselves from Israel. There was a time when American spent a lot of its diplomatic effort on the Middle East, and sometimes actually worked. Jimmy Carter's Camp David Accords, after all, removed Egypt as the main threat to Israel. But in recent years, we have stepped back. Why? That's hard to say. Except this is the Middle East.

FAIR's criticism accuses Schieffer of "echoing the media's conventional wisdom in portraying the Palestinian raid that captured the Israeli soldier as an inexplicable provocation." More:
The media assumption is that in withdrawing from Gaza in September 2005, Israel ended its conflict with at least that portion of Palestine and gave up, as Schieffer put it, "what the Palestinians supposedly wanted." In reality, however, since the pullout and before the recent escalation of violence, at least 144 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed by Israeli forces, often by helicopter gunships, according to a list compiled by the Israeli human rights group B'tselem. Only 31 percent of the people killed were engaged in hostile actions at the time of their deaths, and 25 percent of all those killed were minors.
None of this is to say that Hamas, which has regularly ignored the distinction between military and civilian targets, does not share part of the blame for the current crisis. But to act as though Israel had been behaving as a peace-loving neighbor to Gaza until the soldier's capture is a willful rewriting of very recent history.
You can read the entire alert, but it ends with this: "Why is Bob Schieffer allowed to get away with such shallow, dismissive coverage of complicated and tragic events? Because it's the Middle East." Almost every e-mail we've received on the topic echoes the complaints made in the alert. Here's one from Jim L.:
Bob Schieffer fails to accurately report on the Middle-East situation, on CBS Face the Nation, leading the audience to believe that Palestinians attacked Israel without provocation. This sort of propaganda by selecting the facts and weighing them inappropriately, is journalistic bias which further weakens CBS's credibility as a news source.
Virginia K. says:
You have consistently portrayed Israel as the innocent party in the latest warfare in the Middle East; this is not true. The Israelis have consistently attacked Palestinians and they certainly had no right to start a major war over the kidnapping of one Israeli soldier. The constant warfare in the Middle East is disrupting our economy and the quality of life in our country. Our people have a right to know the truth.
Marjorie R. agrees:
Please quit trying to slant the news in favor of a so-called state that has done nothing but bring war, misery and suffering, not only to the Palestinians, but now to the Lebanese, since its inception in 1948. We had no Arab enemies until then, and now we have unsolvable problems Your double standard in reporting is offensive.
And Nancy J. asks:
Please require that Bob Schieffer is more fair in future coverage of the Middle East than he was on Face the Nation last Sunday. In particular, it behooves all reporters/anchors to dispassionately assess the causes of the ongoing conflicts, not to give one side a whitewash and lay most of the blame on the other side.
That's the general sentiment in our in-box today. Certainly the Middle East is a complicated region, difficult to put into full context in a lengthy broadcast, let alone a short commentary. Two quick points: First, "Face the Nation" is one of the "public affairs" shows on which newsmakers appear to discuss the pressing news of the week and, well, make news. These shows are produced for an educated audience and seek to understand where events are heading, not where they've been. The selection of guests, topics and types of questions will always be fodder for critics on any issue. These Sunday shows are a forum for making news, not providing in-depth, historical analysis to explain current events. The venue matters for those interested in criticism.

Secondly, Schieffer delivers a commentary each week, and it is clearly labeled "commentary." You can legitimately question the wisdom of the network's "Evening News" anchor delivering his commentary at all. It may well be that viewers will associate the opinions with a particular show or the news division as a whole. But commentary has appeared on news programs throughout television's history (Schieffer has discussed the possibility of delivering commentaries on the "Evening News" after Katie Couric takes the anchor chair). As long as the audience is informed that they are hearing opinion or commentary, not straight news, different journalistic rules apply. You may not agree, but it's represented as opinion, not fact.

Even opinion writers aren't allowed to make up their own facts, of course, but they are free to make their own assumptions and provide their own analysis of events. They may use evidence supporting their case and exclude or ignore facts that may undermine it. That's called making an argument, the goal of which is to persuade. Watching and reading Schieffer's commentary, it seems to me there was less an effort to persuade the audience to any particular point of view than to express the tangled nature of the region. But, then again, that's my opinion and you're free to disagree.