Ground Truth Project Needs to Come Clean on ICEJ Reporting

The Ground Truth Project, a Boston-based nonprofit, describes itself as an organization “dedicated to training and mentoring the next generation of journalists.” The project, which has deep ties to the public broadcasting behemoth WGBH, states that it “focuses on issues of social justice” including, among other things, “religious affairs.”

The organization’s recent hit piece on Evangelical support for Israel, produced by founder and executive director Charles Sennott, indicates that the project, founded in 2014, is not committed to training young journalists in the ethical demands of credible journalism, but instead serves as a medium through which Sennott indoctrinates young journalists with his long-standing anti-Israel, anti-American and anti-Evangelical biases.

In a three-part “End of Days” podcast series posted on NPR’s website, Sennott uses a number of propaganda techniques to portray Israel’s Evangelical supporters as weirdos who have used their control over American foreign policy in the Middle East to single-handedly kill the peace process by moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The podcast series makes no mention of the terror attacks during the Second Intifada that gave an entire generation of Israelis (many of whom support a two-state solution) good reason to believe that peace with the Palestinians is not in the cards with current Palestinian leaders. Nor does the podcast mention the extremist ideology promoted by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other terror groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In Sennott’s reporting at the Ground Truth Project it is Christian Zionists — not Palestinian terrorists — who are the real spoilers of the peace process.

Sennott also portrays Christian Zionists who support Israel as contributing to a decline in the population of Christians in the Holy Land, failing to mention the role Muslim hostility toward Christians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has played in encouraging young Palestinian Christians to leave these areas. He also fails to report that the number of Christians living in Israel has increased by close to 300 percent since 1949. (This is not an honest mistake on Sennott’s part. He was called out on making the same “dwindling Christians” error when he was reporting on the Middle East in The Boston Globe in the early 2000s.)

Another technique Sennott uses to demonize Israel’s Evangelical supporters is to play weird and anxiety-inducing background music to unnerve listeners when prominent Christian Zionists and their allies are being interviewed or spoken about during the podcast. It happens a number of times when Sennott mentions or speaks with the late Yechiel Eckstein, found and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Sennott uses the ominous sounding music to portray Christian Zionists as the weird, alien “other.” If people knew they were going to be characterized in this way, they might not have allowed themselves to be interviewed for the Ground Truth Project’s series.

David Parsons, Vice President and Senior International Spokesperson for the International Christian Embassy. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

One person who knew enough to limit his interaction with the Ground Truth Project was David Parsons, vice president and senior international spokesperson for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a pro-Israel organization headquartered in the Holy City. When approached by Micah Danney, a recent graduate from CUNY’s graduate school of journalism and a junior fellow with the Ground Truth Project, Parsons was wary.

Danney contacted Parsons by email on Sept. 18, 2018, a couple of weeks before ICEC’s annual Feast of Tabernacles Celebration, asking for access to report on the organization’s Sukkot events “for PRI [Public Radio International] and WGBH, and shooting footage for a possible Frontline documentary on Jerusalem.”

Parsons took a look at Danney’s internet footprint, saw some things that raised some concern and spoke with him twice by phone about his interest in the Feast of Tabernacles. During their conversations, Parsons learned that he was being mentored by Charles Sennott whom Parsons had encountered previously.

In his 22 years of media work for ICEJ, Parsons has done hundreds of interviews with journalists from a wide variety of media outlets. “There are only two journalists I will never work with again and one of them is Charles Sennott,” Parsons recounted in an email, explaining that Sennott’s previous coverage of ICEJ and Christian Zionism in general has been particularly hostile.

Sennott, who has never made a habit of dealing with Muslim antisemitism or apocalyptic beliefs in Islam, has throughout his career regularly portrayed Christian Zionists as militants intent on bringing about Armageddon.

Eventually, Parsons informed Danney that he would not be allowed into any of ICEJ’s ticketed events, including a communion service at the Garden Tomb near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. This is the common practice, as the Feast is primarily a spiritual gathering with most events closed to the media. He did tell Danney, however, that he could go to the assembly area for the ICEJ’s Jerusalem March, where thousands of pilgrims have about two hours to gather before their parade through the streets of Jerusalem.

“They are divided into nations, many in colorful national costumes, so they are easy to identify by country,” Parsons reported. “So I suggested that he show up there for his interview, gave him the time and place, and left it at that.”

As it turns out, this didn’t stop Danney from attending the Communion service at the Garden Tomb, contrary to Parsons’s instructions. While at the worship service, Parsons discovered Danney was interviewing attendees with a digital recorder. In addition to defying Parsons’ instructions by showing up at a closed event, he was intruding on a worship event, the most sacred of all rituals for the Christians at ICEJ. Moreover, the Garden Tomb itself, as a matter of policy, rarely grants permission for reporters to cover worship services at the venue.

“When I asked their staff who gave him permission to interview people, they stated that since this was an ICEJ event and Micah had claimed that I had given permission to be there, they allowed him in, which was an outright falsehood.”

Parsons demanded that he stop recording interviews at the Garden Tomb and go to the Jerusalem March two days later.

“Micah said he would stop recording and leave the premises,” Parsons said. “But a few minutes later, I double checked with the Garden Tomb Staff and they found he was still recording interviews with our Feast Pilgrims. The Garden Tomb staff then escorted him out.”

This is not, however, how things are depicted in the Ground Truth Project’s podcast, which uses the confrontation between Parsons and Micah Danney at the Garden Tomb as a centerpiece of the second episode of the series.

Sennott’s version of events begins with him describing the Garden Tomb, describing ICEJ, and continues with some background sound — a brief portion of the prayer Parsons used to open the event. Then Sennott reports, “Micah had spent months reporting on this movement and he had gained access to the believers but here in the Garden, on the last part of the assignment, Micah was confronted by Parsons.”

Then the podcast provides a dialogue of the confrontation.

Parsons: “Yeah, how did you get in here?”

Danney: “I just came in.”

Parsons: “This is not open to the press and I’m not impressed with this, with you coming in like this. I don’t know how they let you in. You have to have a badge for security.”

Then Sennott states, “To be clear, we did have press badges and we were trying to be respectful. We didn’t sneak into the service, we came through the gate and no one stopped us. There was a four-camera crew covering the event and we were recording audio openly without our mics and head phones. Micah was trying to get an interview with Parsons and had some challenging questions he wanted to ask.”

After the confrontation, Sennott and Danney “debrief” on the streets of Jerusalem. During their colloquy, Sennott asks the junior reporter what it all means. “You spent the whole summer going inside this world and it still feels like there’s a part of it that they don’t want to let people in. Why is that?”

“I think it’s you’re one of them or you’re not,” Danney responds. “And if you’re not there are certain places they don’t want you. I think it’s as simple as that.”

This fits Sennott’s agenda perfectly. He wants to portray Christian Zionists as the weird, secretive other and Danney describes them as that exactly. But it’s not as if Parsons gathered a bunch of his co-religionists and had them throw rocks at Sennott and Danney the way Muslim “activists” have done with Jews in the Old City. They simply told Danney to leave. And yet, Sennott portrays Christian Zionists as a threat to peace and stability in the Holy Land.

The discrepancy between Parsons’s and Sennott’s description of events raises some serious questions about the how Ground Truth’s executive director and his junior fellow Micah Danney, described the events. First off, while Sennott declares that he and Danney were displaying press badges when they entered the venue, podcast listeners were not informed that the two reporters had entered the worship services in direct defiance of Parsons’ declaration that outside press was not allowed into the event.

By failing to mention Parsons’s previous declaration that reporters were not allowed into the event, the Ground Truth Podcast withheld information that listeners would need to understand why Parsons was unhappy with Danney’s presence at the Garden Tomb. Why was this omitted from the podcast? Did Danney tell Sennott about Parsons’s instructions before they tried to get into the Garden Tomb, and if so, did Sennott encourage his underling to go in anyway?

Also, did Micah promise to leave the premises and stop recording after his confrontation with Parsons? Did Micah abide by this promise? Parsons says he didn’t.

It sounds like Danney had a number of interactions with Parsons prior to this confrontation. Did he really expect to be able to interview him (i.e. “ask him challenging questions”) while he’s MC’ing a religious service? Why couldn’t these questions have been put to Parsons in a face-to-face interview at an agreed upon time and location? Other Interviewees in the podcast, including Palestinian Christian Pastors Mitri Raheb and Munther Isaac, weren’t ambushed like this. Why was Parsons? And would they approach a Catholic priest while he was serving the Eucharist to ask some tough questions, much less or imam while he was leading Muslim prayers?

On May 28, 2019, I contacted Micah Danney and Charles Sennott to get their side of the story, but they haven’t responded.

The whole episode raises some serious questions about whether or not The Ground Truth Project is interested in getting at the truth on the ground, or if Charles Sennott is using the non-profit he founded to push a preconceived narrative about Evangelicals and Israel that he has been pushing for close to two decades.

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is the Managing Editor of Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), established by the Middle East Forum in 2022.