“This Week in The Holy Land,” ABC Nightline’ week-long series of broadcasts from Jerusalem between April 25 and April 29, 1988, was a major television event. The length of the series (seven hours of air time), its form and content, and its impact across a wide range of opinion in the United States, make it worth a closer look.

Mainstream press response to the program and to the role of Nightline host Ted Koppel was uniformly ecstatic. Howard Rosenberg, media critic of the Los Angeles Times, called it “the best television, the bravest, most important, most needed television…bold, historic, extraordinary…a week of shows that excelled even with the political minefields that Nightline had to navigate.“ [1] From Jerusalem, Washington Post reporter Glenn Frankel wrote that “the best show was moderator Ted Koppel, who managed to insult, outmaneuver and impress almost everyone as he waltzed through a mine field of history and politics.” [2] For the New York Times’ John Corry, “Mr. Koppel…appeared to be a world Secretary of State….[He] and his colleagues had the authority to succeed where diplomats seemed to have failed.” [3]

Equally enthusiastic was the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which pre-empted prime time programming on June 1 to broadcast a two-and-a-half hour compilation of ABC’s material, “Mideast Dialogue: Highlights from Nightline in the Holy Land,” edited at WGBH-Boston. “PBS believes the [Nightline] series deserved a second look, and you a second chance,” reporter Marvin Kalb told the audience at the beginning of the program. It is rare for any programming to cross over from commercial to “public” television; PBS’s readiness to rebroadcast Nightline is all the more notable given its pusillanimous record on the subject of Zionism and the Palestinians. [4]

Even supporters of Palestinian rights welcomed the series as an American media breakthrough. The three-hour “town meeting” on April 26 provided the three Palestinian panelists, as well as several Palestinians in the audience, the opportunity to present forcefully perspectives that are not normally heard at such length on American television. [5] Aspects of Palestinian history and life under occupation that are generally ignored by the media were the focus of several background reports prepared by ABC correspondents. James Walker described the 1947 UN partition plan, under which “the Jews — who occupied only 6.5 percent of Palestine — were given control of 55 percent of the land,” as being “the same as if Americans who lived in Utah and Arizona were suddenly awarded control of more than half the United States.” [6] After 1948, “Israel systematically destroyed 379 of 475 Arab villages,” Walker went on, “bulldozing or dynamiting homes and leveling the land.” In sum, Walker said, “The Israelis deliberately tried to wipe out the Palestinian civilization.”

Bill Blakemore’s report on collective punishment, which also made reference to “the obliteration of 4/5 of all Palestinian villages” after 1948, spoke of how “the demolition has continued” under occupation, citing a figure of 1300 homes dynamited since 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza. Blakemore referred equally directly to the forced expulsion of “many teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, the natural leaders of the Palestinian community,” as well as to “highly visible brutal beatings, at times virtually random,” curfews and sieges on villages, closure of schools and universities, restrictions on travel, and other aspects of collective punishment.

In these and other instances, Nightline ventured beyond the usual limits of mainstream US journalism concerning the Palestine-Israel question, although that had not been its original intent. The decision to spend a week broadcasting from Israel had been made around the middle of 1987, no doubt in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the Israeli state, with all the license for unrestrained paeans to Israel that such a programming “hook” would permit. But by the time Israelis celebrated what Ted Koppel called “the rebirth of their ancient nation” the intifada had altered the priorities of reportage from the Middle East. Instead of an anniversary extravaganza, Israel and its US supporters required a “white paper” to put the Palestinian uprising into acceptable perspective. That was Nightline’s objective. To focus on the few concessions to history that the intifada obliged Nightline to make is to misunderstand the role of the media in the US.

Whose Week?

The week before the Nightline broadcasts, Los Angeles Times reporter Jay Sharbutt asked Ted Koppel about “criticism from many Jews in Israel and the United States that the American TV networks’ coverage of the violence in the occupied territories often tells only one side of a complex story.” Koppel assured Sharbutt that Nightline’s week in Israel “ought to satisfy a lot of that criticism,” which, as Koppel understood it, “suggests not…that there should not be coverage, but that the coverage does not have proper context and perspective.” In other words, footage of Israeli soldiers smashing the bones of Palestinian youths with clubs and rocks, lacking the “proper context and perspective,” might lead even more Americans to conclude that something is drastically wrong — not only with Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but also with their own government’s unconditional support of the Middle East's only democracy. “What we can do,” Koppel said, “is to provide a lot more context and perspective than people would normally get on a television news program." [7]

Providing “proper context and perspective” for four-and-a-half months of often explicit television reports on the uprising and the brutal measures employed to suppress it required the efforts of 30 ABC News personnel. ABC News president Roone Arledge was himself involved in the production, even traveling on location to Israel. [8] The result was a concentration of air time rarely before allocated by any network to the subject of Israel and/or the Palestinians. But then, as Ted Koppel remarked to Defense Minister Rabin in the course of the first night’s program, “Israel has rarely before suffered as black an eye in public opinion overseas as it has as a consequence of these last four and a half months.” [9] Putting the intifada into “proper context and perspective” was ABC’s prescription for Israel’s “black eye.”

One need look no farther than the faces of the persons appearing in Nightline’s five special nights to understand what “proper context and perspective” means to ABC News. Of the 41 interviewees, panelists, analysts and outside commentators whose opinions dominated the seven broadcast hours, only two were women. [10] The seven ABC News reporters who prepared and appeared in special segments during the week were all men. Nightline thus restored a perspective that was familiar and comfortable, a perspective absent from so many news reports showing women and children, anonymous and unarmed, standing up to heavily armed Israeli troops and settlers (also conspicuously absent from the Nightline broadcasts), and taking into their own hands the momentum of the “peace process.”

Restoring control of “context and perspective” to men in television studios went hand in hand, for Nightline, with restoring it to English-speakers, from whom it had been taken by the masses in the streets and the foot soldiers in their uniforms. With the exception of Miriam Matiyah, a former resident of Deir Yassin, whose brief testimony about the murder of her family was made in Arabic with an English voice-over, neither Arabic nor Hebrew were heard in any substantive comment or testimony during Nightline’s five days of programming. [11] In effect, all those who, by virtue of class, education, place of birth, or choice were unable or unwilling to express themselves in English were thus excluded from Nightline’s context and perspective.

Symmetries of Oppression

“Proper context and perspective” also required Nightline to affirm time and again the underlying tenets of acceptable reportage on Israel — namely, that repression there, however brutal it may appear, is uniquely justified because Israel's survival is always at stake. Furthermore, Israeli repression is different from repression anywhere else, since it is carried out by humane, sensitive and cultured individuals.

There is no contradiction between emphasizing these core elements of Israeli propaganda and presenting evidence of Palestinian suffering and grievances. The purpose of Nightline’s exercise was not to deny the existence of Palestinian claims but rather to assert, at the level of ideology, through the use of all the tools that television has at its disposal, the symmetry and often the preponderance of Israeli claims and grievances. Only in that way could the real asymmetry between oppressor and oppressed, reflected most elementally in the daily accounts of deaths and casualties from the camps, villages and towns of the West Bank and Gaza, be transcended and, if possible, neutralized. [12]

Nightline’s zeal in this endeavor exceeded, in many instances, even that of Israeli officials. At the outset of the week’s first program, framing all that was to follow, Israel’s “legitimate sense of vulnerability” and its consequent “obsession” with “national security” were given new meaning by Nightline’s producers. “Even today, with its occupied territories, Israel is only about the size of New Jersey,” Ted Koppel said in voiceover, while a graphic chart illustrated the point, “a mere 125 miles and 12 seconds flying time from Saudi Arabia’s major airfield, 43 miles and six seconds from the Jordanian air force, 40 miles and six seconds from Syria.” If this is true, then the Middle East’s best kept military secret is out and all of the measures taken by Israel to arm and defend itself are more than justified, for Saudi Arabia has aircraft capable of flying at 37,500 miles per hour! Jordan and Syria, with somewhat more sluggish planes, can attack at 24,000 miles per hour.

In similar fashion, ABC commentator John Laurence disclosed that the PLO, for which “the time for living at peace with Israel has not yet come,” is victimizing Israel by recruiting its followers from “refugee camps that have surrounded Israel like a firestorm for 40 years”[emphasis added]. Quite apart from the gratuitous but always useful “holocaust” connotation of the word “firestorm,” what is one to make of Laurence’s implication that Israel is under siege from camps floating in the Mediterranean?

Nightline portrays the suppression of the intifada as a “mission” that is “infinitely more complex and troubling than any [Israeli troops] have faced before.” The uprising, Ted Koppel says, represents “a new kind of war for Israeli troops,” as if for the past 40 years, whether in areas under military or emergency rule in Israel “proper” or in the West Bank, Gaza and south Lebanon, the Israeli Defense Forces has not continuously behaved as an occupying force. ABC correspondent Dean Reynolds chose a more biblically resonant image the following night: “The warrior trained for battle with Arab armies,” he said, “has had to adapt to the uncomfortable role of policeman.” This implies that the IDF, as Alex Cockburn wrote concerning Thomas Friedman’s similar reporting in the New York Times, “is spiritually and physically apt only for engagements as straightforward as Agincourt or tank combat in the Sinai.” [13] Then there is Koppel’s concern for the discomfort of the oppressor, a theme which accompanies the notion that suppressing a civilian population resisting military occupation is a novel role for the IDF: “I sense that there is a deep feeling of trauma that exists not only among the population but also within the military forces themselves. They really are not happy with this kind of duty.” [14]

Solicitude for the angst of the Israeli soldier goes hand in hand with minimizing the murderous consequences of the IDF’s activities, as far as Palestinians are concerned. In this supposed “new kind of war” the IDF’s ”superior firepower and superb training count for little,” an astonishing assertion given that by the time of the Nightline broadcasts over 150 Palestinians had been killed by “superior firepower” alone and thousands more had been wounded. Others had been buried alive or had their bones broken by the soldiers whose “superb training” Koppel so admires.

These and many other examples throughout “This Week in The Holy Land” reflect, at many levels, the capacity of an entire production team to believe in and repeat the “official story,” regardless of its demonstrable incompatability with physical or historical reality.

From Apartheid to Zionism: The ABCs of Context

What constitutes “proper context and perspective” when dealing with a close and favored ally of the United States is different for Nightline than when the state in question is the object of official reprobation. Nightline, even more than most major news and public affairs programming, constitutes a barometer of the state of diplomatic relations at any given moment between the US and whichever foreign power falls under the program’s scrutiny.

Broadcasting on location from South Africa in March 1985, Ted Koppel observed that:

Because 18 people have been killed during the last two months in clashes with South African police, Crossroads [an African community] has become another international codeword for apartheid, along with Soweto and Sharpeville….[T]he policies which produce this sort of violence are not isolated — the policy can be applied wherever the government deems appropriate. [15]

In the same week-long series, ABC correspondent Kenneth Walker noted, “Nearly all the law here is for the white people, and all the order is for the blacks. Naked power is the bulwark of white privilege here, and it’s mobilized against the unarmed black populace without hesitation.” [16] ABC correspondent Jeff Greenfield, discussing South Africa’s future, referred to the shooting of unarmed Africans participating in a funeral march as “the latest outbreak of government violence.” [17]

Even though 56 Palestinians had been killed in the three-and-a-half weeks just prior to the first Nightline broadcast on April 25, one searches in vain through the transcripts of “This Week in the Holy Land” for comparable statements describing the purpose and use of “naked power” and “law and order” by Israel or the existence of “government violence” in occupied Palestine. [18] Nowhere is Jabalya, the refugee camp in Gaza that has been the site of countless shootings, beatings, arrests and curfews, referred to as an “international codeword” for Zionism, along with Deir Yassin and Kafr Qassem. Indeed, it is only “to Palestinians” that Deir Yassin “has become an infamous symbol of Israeli brutality.” [19] The killing by gunfire of 43 Palestinians in little more than three weeks is not described as “the latest outbreak of government violence” against unarmed civilians. It is just another round in what Ted Koppel calls the “new and terribly controversial cycle of violence between Israeli defense forces and frustrated Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.” [20]

One searches the “Holy Land” series equally in vain for the range of interviewees and analysts selected to appear in the South African broadcasts. Although again dominated by men, there were among the “guests” two white anti-apartheid activists, two trade union leaders (one white, one black), and a prominent South African capitalist. The “Holy Land” broadcasts included no anti-Zionist Israeli Jews, and no Israeli Jews engaged in any form of open resistance or opposition to the occupation. Likewise, there were neither representatives of, nor discussion of, capital and labor. All this in the service of the “proper context and perspective,” maintaining the fiction that social and economic forces that everywhere else at least influence, if not determine, the course of politics, do not apply in “the Holy Land.” [21]

Our Town

Nightline made much of what it called its “town meeting” broadcast on April 26, 1988. It was the centerpiece of PBS’s “Mideast Dialogue” compilation, constituting 90 of its 150 minutes. Nightline’s use of the term “town meeting,” which resonates in American ears with overtones of radical egalitarianism, of free citizens of a common polity gathering together in the exercise of their rights of speech and assembly, conveyed a deceptive sense of normalcy. “Everyone is here at our direct invitation,” said Koppel, failing to mention that the “personal intervention” of the defense minister was also needed for the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to attend. [22] A meeting in such circumstances is no more a “town meeting” than one between wardens and prisoners would be. Whatever the apparent equality prevailing in the Jerusalem Theater, at the end of the program the Knesset Members on the panel and the Israeli Jews in the audience returned to their homes, perhaps in cars with license plates identifying them as free citizens, with the right to pass with a wave through military checkpoints. They did not find that their offices had been raided, their communities assaulted, their families teargassed; nor did they find a brother, sister, a child or parent missing — detained, disappeared, wounded, or killed. [23]

The Palestinian intifada has been to the ruling class media’s ideological portfolio on the Middle East what “Black Monday” was to the Dow Jones index. Overnight, literally, the value of the old “blue chip” theories — autonomy, Camp David, Allon, Jordan is Palestine, limited self-government — is threatened by acts over which the ideologists have no control — in this case not by acts of God but acts of children, of women, of men engaged in a resistance which ranks in every respect alongside the heroic civilian resistance to military occupation among the French, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, Czechs, Poles, Jews and others in Europe between 1939 and 1945. [24]

This intrusive reality poses a familiar choice to the anchors and editors, the reporters and pundits, indeed to all those who have invested so much in the creation and marketing of the “official story” and who have been so handsomely rewarded for their services: they can either “unload” the blue chips and deal with the new chips, or they can “buy into” the old ideas more aggressively, to shore them up, at least until they see which way official policy is moving.

“This Week in the Holy Land” was a particularly clear example of the “buy” syndrome. While paying lip service to the reality and implications of the uprising, and admitting the existence of a Palestinian perspective on history, Nightline actively engaged in an exercise in damage control, explicitly on behalf of Israel and its American patrons, implicitly on behalf of “dialogue,” the method of “conflict resolution” so beloved of the powerful and those who serve them. If some concessions to reality were necessary, it was, in Nightline’s terms, a small price to pay to remind Americans that “dialogue…even when you are being occupied,” is better than popular struggle or, worse, revolutionary violence.



[1] Howard Rosenberg, “Nightline’s Historic Jerusalem Telecasts Buried in Late Night,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1988.
[2] Glenn Frankel, “Diplomacy, Koppel Style,” Washington Post, April 28, 1988.
[3] John Corry, “Words Over the Abyss,” New York Times, April 28,1988. Corry’s choice of words calls to mind occasional rumors about Koppel’s interest in a future government position.
[4] See, for example, Joan Mandell, “TV Taboo: Palestinian Documentaries Not Ready for Prime or Any Other Time,” LA Weekly, December 19-25, 1986; and Daniel Brown, “Flashpoint: WETA,” City Paper (Washington, DC), April 11, 1986.
[5] The response in the United States to Dr. Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi, dean of the Faculty of Arts of Bir Zeit University, one of three Palestinian panelists, was immediate. Following the broadcast, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee received “so many calls and comments saying she was the best” that, by July, Dr. Ashrawi was on a month-long speaking tour of the United States, gaining substantial and sympathetic coverage in the mass media. See Kathleen Hendrix, “A Voice for Palestine,” Los Angeles Times, July 28,1988. The subhead for the story was: “Nightline Role Has Propelled Ashrawi Into Front Lines of a PR War.”
[6] This and subsequent quotations from the Nightline broadcasts are based on transcripts prepared by Journal Graphics, Inc., New York. “This Week in The Holy Land” comprised Nightline shows 1806-1810.
[7] Jay Sharbutt, “Still No Contract as Koppel Takes Nightline to Israel,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1988.
[8] Ibid. Arledge’s presence may have been required to obtain special favors for Nightline from senior Israeli government personnel, such as the “personal intervention” of Defense Minister Rabin for Palestinians to travel at night from the West Bank and Gaza, then under curfew, to participate in Nightline’s “town meeting” on April 26,1988, which executive producer Rick Kaplan described as “the show we really came to do.” See Frankel, op. cit., and John Kifner, “Arabs and Israelis Meet At the Command of TV,” New York Times, April 28, 1988. Koppel’s craven interview of Rabin on April 25, 1988, returned the favor.
[9] Transcript, April 25, 1988, p. 10.
[10] The two women were Professor Ann Lesch of Villanova University, who was allowed a single, brief comment in the first program, and Dr. Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi. Not a single Israeli Jewish woman, regardless of political position, was selected to participate as an interviewee, analyst or panelist.
[11] All of the 41 “opinion-contributors” spoke in English; of the approximately 45 persons who spoke as witnesses to or participants in particular events, whether past or present, Miriam Matiyah was the only one who did not speak in English.
[12] Television and press reports on the intifada, as on other wars, invariably report the cumulative tally of deaths, although not of injuries. The disparity between Palestinian and Israeli deaths associated with the intifada, relying on official statistics, is of the order of 100 to 1, a ratio between oppressed and oppressor that has been common for at least the century since the invention of the Maxim gun and its deployment in the service of imperialism.
[13] Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil,” The Nation, January 16, 1988, p. 42.
[14] Compare Nightline’s portrait of the ambivalence of Israel in the role of oppressor with the program’s view of how South Africa conducts itself in the same role: “without hesitation,” and without Nightline’s concern for either its soul or its “body politic.” See below.
[15] Transcript, March 19, 1985, p. 2.
[16] Transcript, March 18, 1985, p. 4.
[17] Transcript, March 22, 1985, p. 2 (emphasis added).
[18] See “Palestinians Killed by Israeli Occupation Forces, Settlers and Civilians During Uprising,” Database Project on Palestinian Human Rights, Update of May 14, 1988.
[19] Transcript, April 27, 1988, p. 5.
[20] Transcript, April 25, 1988, p. 2. The choice of the word “cycle” apportions cause evenly and anonymously.
[21] Not only did Nightline not allude to the existence, past or present, of anti-Zionist movements and tendencies; Koppel went so far as to introduce a series of filmed reports telling first “the Palestinian version of recent history, [then] the Jewish version.” In one of the few substantive changes made by PBS in editing the Nightline material for ebroadcast, this crude equation of “the Jewish version” of history with a Zionist one (and, as is common in the US media, with a Labor Zionist history at that) was changed, although another confusion was introduced. Marvin Kalb described it as a sequence “told from both Israeli and Arab perspectives.” PBS has a historical aversion to the word “Palestinian,” preferring “Arab” wherever possible.
[22] Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, April 28, 1988.
[23] The Nightline series, despite the similarity of its title to projects such as “A Day in the Life of America,” had very little to say about what actually occurred that week in the “Holy Land.” The real context of the broadcasts is documented in sobering detail in the Database Project on Palestinian Human Rights Update of May 14, 1988.
[24] Professor Saeb Erakat was the only person to refer, during the entire week of Nightline, to the contradiction between the Allies’ uncompromising opposition to the military occupation of Europe by German forces between 1939 and 1945, and the neverending debatability, exemplified by “This Week in the Holy Land,” of the Zionist occupation of Palestine. “No one spoke for ‘improvement of life,’ or ‘a just occupation’ for the Dutch, the Belgians, the Greeks, the French,” Professor Erakat reminded Koppel and the audience. “Occupation is subjugation.” Transcript, April 26, 1988, pp. 13-14.

How to cite this article:

Musindo Mwinyipembe, David Koff "Nightline in the Holy Land," Middle East Report 155 (November/December 1988).

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