Correspondence with WDR on Failure to Adhere to Journalistic Standards
On June 8, 2017, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), a public broadcaster in Germany, announced that it would not air a documentary on antisemitism in Europe, alleging that it did not meet journalistic standards. A central theme of the film is antisemitism from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that claim a human rights mandate and the European government funding that enables them.
Following intense public pressure, WDR relented and broadcast the film on June 21 and 22. However, in a widely criticized move, WDR created, without consulting the producers, a series of fact-checks (“Faktencheck”) to accompany the film, pointing to what it called “errors and inaccuracies.” In this context, WDR posted defamatory claims about NGO Monitor. Below is correspondence between NGO Monitor and WDR regarding these claims. (For more about WDR’s claims, read NGO Monitor’s report, Fact Checking WDR’s “Faktencheck.”)
June 22, 2017
Dear Ms. Schmitz,
In WDR’s press release on the antisemitism documentary, dated 8 June 2017, WDR repeatedly emphasizes the notion of journalistic standards. Specifically, WDR alleges that the film makes inaccurate claims and presents speculation as fact, and that the filmmakers failed to contact the individuals and groups in question.
We note the irony that WDR has violated precisely these standards in its “faktencheck” relating to “33:43 Min. – Prof. Steinberg and NGO Monitor,” available online at http://www1.wdr.de/unternehmen/der-wdr/unternehmen/doku-faktencheck/doku-faktencheck-130.html.
- WDR defames NGO Monitor by falsely claiming that it “is not an independent organization.” In fact, NGO Monitor is completely independent of any government or private group. As a non-profit organization, it is unremarkable that we receive donations from private individuals and foundations, nor does it compromise in any way our independence.
- The claim that NGO Monitor is “closely linked” to the Institute for Zionist Strategies is based on seven words from an article in the Haaretz newspaper, relating to a board member and not an employee of NGO Monitor. It appears that this was added and greatly exaggerated in the “WDR Faktencheck” in order to create a prejudicial impression about NGO Monitor research.
- WDR’s notes include an ambiguous sentence that appears to connect NGO Monitor with a political agenda of settling the West Bank – the syntax is unclear as to whether the agenda is said to belong to the Institute for Zionist Strategies alone, or to NGO Monitor as well. If the former, then this is guilt by association. If the latter, then this is false, as NGO Monitor is a non-partisan research organization that does not take a political position on settlements.
- Most importantly, WDR failed to contact NGO Monitor to clarify any of these claims. Point of fact, you and I exchanged emails on 14-15 of June, and you had ample opportunity to verify the information before making it public.
In light of this, we demand an immediate retraction of the defamatory and inaccurate information regarding NGO Monitor published on the WDR website and included alongside the documentary. We will pursue further legal action as necessary.
Chief of Staff
P.S. There are numerous other inaccurate claims in WDR’s Faktencheck. We will deliver a separate memo detailing these problems.
June 27, 2016
Dear Mr Balanson,
thank you very much for your e-mail dated 22 June 2017, which reached us at 6:39:18 p.m. (Central European Summer Time).
Please let me stress one point very clearly before I specifically respond to the issues you addressed:
We do not make any allegations against NGO Monitor. From our point of view, it is of course legitimate to use data provided by your organization as the basis for a research.
However, we do criticize in our “Fact Check” that the authors of the film took over figures from NGO Monitor without verifying them and did not indicate the source of the data at several positions in the film either. This particularly applies if a specific accusation is made based on the line of argument; it is then a journalistic principle and duty to double check the data. This is required regardless of the subject matter.
This leads me to points 1 and 2 in your e-mail:
You criticize that we do not consider NGO Monitor to be independent. This assessment is initially based quite unbiased on the fact that NGO Monitor is funded by private individuals and foundations. Regardless of the financial assistance, from our perspective your connection to the “Institute for Zionist Strategies” is part of this assessment as well. “Independence” from a journalistic point of view does not just mean being independent of governments.
We do not consider this as a fundamental problem, because each organization pursues particular interests or ideals. However, it is necessary from a journalistic point of view to indicate the source of figures and that these are being checked too. For us it is essential to confirm data by a second source.
You further criticize in point 3 that we are insinuating that you have an agenda to settle the West Bank. This is not correct; we are not insinuating that you have any kind of agenda. The statement on this in the “Fact Check” solely refers to the “Institute for Zionist Strategies”.
You also mention in point 4 that we should have given you the opportunity to issue a statement about our “accusations”. Actually we are not raising any accusations against NGO Monitor. You are therefore not an afflicted party in a legal sense.
To sum up I would like to point out the following:
NGO Monitor is not being discredited or accused by WDR, but categorized. The authors of the film failed to do this and did not check the data supplied by NGO Monitor – these are the only matters that we are criticizing, as it infringes journalistic standards. As mentioned above the “two-source” principle is quite relevant at this point.
We therefore reach the conclusion in our “Fact Check” that the data supplied by your organization is not adequate as a “sole source” from a journalistic perspective.
However, we do not claim that your data should not be used. From our point of view, it is legitimate to use your data for research work.
Dear Mr. Balanson, I hope I have been able to overcome your concerns.
I also thank you for your second e-mail, which we received on June 26th and will reply on that, too.
June 29, 2017
Dear Mr. Kremin,
Thank you for your response. Unfortunately, there is a wide chasm between what you wrote and what appears in WDR’s “Faktencheck”.
You write that WDR does “not make any allegations against NGO Monitor” and that we “are not an afflicted party in a legal sense” entitled to be approached before you published various claims about us.
Yet, as detailed in my prior correspondence, the fact remains: WDR smeared NGO Monitor by posting inaccurate and misleading allegations relating to the organization – without first contacting us for clarification. I will reiterate the examples here in light of what you wrote:
1) You describe NGO Monitor’s “connection to the ‘Institute for Zionist Strategies,’” as if WDR’s “Faktencheck” considered this an uncontroversial matter. However, the “Faktencheck” states that the Institute “ist eng mit NGO Monitor verbunden” (translating to, “is closely linked to NGO Monitor”), and then details the Institute’s political agenda.
First, NGO Monitor, not the Institute for Zionist Strategies, appears in the film and was consulted for it; the Institute’s politics are irrelevant to the film and for our research. Second, WDR greatly overstates the connection between the two groups. Third, it does so in the context of a political agenda that is considered highly controversial, if not illegitimate, in Germany.
The effect of posting irrelevant and exaggerated information is to stain NGO Monitor with a “pro-settlement agenda” and delegitimize our research. This is defamatory, and journalistic standards require that the facts are checked with us before publication. WDR failed to do so.
2) Our research, in particular as pertains to NGO funding, is misrepresented. In preparing our reports, we compile this information from funders (private and governmental) and NGO grantees. All this data originate in hundreds of pages of primary sources, which we cite to and keep on file.
These data are not based on claims to be confirmed by a second source, such as a political rumor. Rather, through meticulous research by dedicated staff, we establish a factual account of NGO funding, despite a marked lack of transparency by government funders. Falsely characterizing this data otherwise represents yet another attempt by WDR to malign our organization and impugn our reputation.
Moreover, we make the information and the sources behind our funding research available to anyone who asks, so that it can be confirmed. Which we did when approached by the filmmakers. In contrast, WDR did not make such inquiries (as reflected in the Faktencheck on this issue). For a news platform in particular, this constitutes a fundamental professional failure.
3) Your letter defines “‘Independence’ from a journalistic point of view” in a manner that makes the term entirely meaningless. You claim that it is “unbiased’ to negate NGO Monitor’s independence because of our private funders and the previously-discussed “connection” to the Institute for Zionist Strategies.
From the WDR’s perspective, how can any organization or individual ever be “independent”? Every group has financial backing and/or business interests. Every journalist, including at WDR, has personal, political, economic, etc. interests and connections.
The core questions are whether the material is accurate and whether the provider, in this case, NGO Monitor, is credible.
As you note, “it is legitimate to use your data for research work.” However, that obvious conclusion is entirely missing from the Faktencheck, in particular the one focusing on NGO Monitor and Prof. Steinberg, as noted above.
All of this demonstrates that the Faktencheck are misleading, defamatory, and contradicted by what you have written in your response. As we wrote previously, we demand that WDR immediately retract the misleading and false statements in the Faktencheck and issue a public apology.
Chief of Staff
July 6, 2017
Dear Mr Balanson,
Thank you for your reply to my letter dated 27 June 2017.
As I also promised you a response to the analysis attached to your letter dated 26 June 2017, I would like to combine both answers here.
First of all, I believe that there is still a misunderstanding to be clarified. You are obviously still assuming that we had raised fundamental questions about NGO Monitor in our fact check or had even attacked it. I would like to again expressly underline that this is not the case.
In our fact check, we merely criticise those parts of the film where we see fundamental journalistic shortcomings.
We particularly regret at this juncture that our criticism had to focus on the way that they handled data from your organisation.
You raise the question in your reply about which organisation or person can ever be regarded as independent – in relation to the fact that we cannot view NGO Monitor as independent from a journalistic point of view. The answer is simple: if the organisation has a close affinity with the statements and accusations raised within a film, it can no longer be viewed as independent and neutral. This not only applies to NGO Monitor, as I have already mentioned.
Unfortunately, you are not considering at this point that we have to insist on the 2-source principle which we have already outlined, precisely because of the circumstances mentioned above. This is the only way of ensuring that the relevant data is validated. In the end, this issue also answers the remaining questions that you raise and it corresponds to the statement made in the fact check: that the data from NGO Monitor is not adequate as a single source, in our view.
Regarding this I have to categorically reject the criticism that you continue to express in this connection against WDR and the fact check.
We nevertheless take your comments on our fact check very seriously and have carefully checked your analysis. From our point of view we stand by what we have stated: the fact check examines the film in terms of the validity of statements and evidence, the coherence of historical interconnections, the infringement of personal rights etc. There is no purpose of doing the complete research in a fact check which should have been done by the authors.
The comment in the fact check section is therefore not directed against NGO Monitor and your data; we are criticising the way that the data is used by the authors without any valid counterchecks (which might indeed confirm your data) AND the fact that the authors couldn’t provide any convincing evidence of their research or statements raised in the film when we asked for such clarification. This is what we lined out in the fact check.
We were also unfortunately unable to recognise that the data that you kindly made available in your analysis contradicted any statements made by us in our fact check.
One example here would be your statements about EAPPI. At first glance, they do indeed arouse the impression that it would be necessary to look more closely at EAPPI’s involvement in anti-Israel boycotts.
However, our detailed checks on the documents you provided brought to light the fact that EAPPI, for example, does not adopt a generally anti-Israel position, but criticises the state in the context of military attacks on Palestine. In this context, EAPPI demanded a suspension (but not the end) of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, like many others “…to encourage regional cooperation with a view to the consolidation of peaceful coexistence and economic and political stability”.
As regards the other sources listed by you, we are unable to find any evidence that would justify calling EAPPI “the main supporter of boycott campaigns”. The evidence submitted by you leads to articles by authors or expressions of views by individual persons which, however, do not enable us to infer that one of the persons involved is speaking, acting or arguing in the name of or on behalf of the organisation EAPPI itself.
From our point of view, all these aspects certainly provide a basis for asking critical questions about EAPPI (for which, in turn, there is no written evidence for such letters from the authors) but not in a way as it is framed in the film saying EAPPI is the “main supporter of boycott campaigns.”
In the case of the other data that you handed over to us we reach similar conclusions which are not able to disprove the statements made in the fact check according to our verification process.
I would therefore like to conclude by summarising the following points:
- NGO Monitor is not being criticized or impugned by WDR.
- WDR refers to journalistic shortcomings in the film – including the fact that the data supplied by NGO Monitor should have been verified by a second source and this needed to be indicated.
This also applies to the categorisation of Professor Steinberg. He is not being criticised by us as a person – we criticise the fact that viewers should have understood the context in which NGO Monitor acts in order to categorise what he said.
We cannot assume that viewers have this knowledge.
I would like to explicitly thank you for your feedback and believe that the position of WDR has been adequately explained here.
Head of Culture and Science
July 10, 2017
Dear Mr. Kremin,
We received your second response of July 6, but unfortunately, it is impossible to respond in a substantive manner. This text consists of opinions that lack coherence and philosophical arguments that largely evade the central factual issues regarding the attack on NGO Monitor.
It is very clear that one of the objectives of the Faktencheck is to discredit NGO Monitor and our research, and on this, your response to the detailed specific points in our letters of June 22 and June 29 is entirely inadequate.
Given WDR’s repeated failure to correct its website and apologize for smearing NGO Monitor, we agree that further correspondence with you is futile.