May 1 1994

How America’s Leading Paper Covered a Massacre

In the wake of an atrocity, news reports usually have a major focus on the victims of the crime. Reporters talk to the families of the dead, sympathizing with their mourning and asking them for details about the lives of those who were lost. Photographs of those who have died and the bereaved put a human face on the tragedy.

This kind of humanizing coverage, which helps readers understand emotionally what loss of life means, was absent from most news accounts of the massacre of 48 Palestinians at the Hebron mosque. To document this absence, FAIR analyzed coverage of the massacre and its immediate aftermath in a news outlet that widely influences the tone of coverage throughout the media: the New York Times.

Instead of featuring interviews with mourning relatives, New York Times coverage focused on those apparently considered to be the more important victims: Israeli Jews, who were “Shamed, Sad and Sacred of What’s Ahead,” according to a front-page Times headline on the second day of coverage (2/27/94). Many Jews obviously felt genuine grief over the killings–but shouldn’t the emphasis have been on the community that actually lost loved ones?

Instead, the Palestinian reaction was typically relegated by the New York Times to the inside pages–generally impersonal coverage that focused on protesters’ “calls for vengeance” (2/27/94). The Times‘ first-day coverage (2/26/94) described Arab protesters as “crowds of sullen young men” who were “taunting police officers” with religious slogans. (Would the Times describe members of a Christian community that had just been subjected to a massacre as “sullen” and “taunting”?)

Reporting or Rationalization?

One front-page New York Times piece, “Final Taunt Seemed to Turn Doctor Into Killer” (2/28/94), seemed to justify the rage of murderer Baruch Goldstein, with subheads like “A Deepening Sense of Betrayal” and ” The Painful Sight of Friends Dying.” “When several friends were killed by Palestinians, something in him snapped,” ran a typical passage, sourced (as most of the article was) to Goldstein’s friends and neighbors.

This bizarre nation–that a murder is somehow mitigated if the victims share an ethnicity with people who have killed members of one’s own ethnic group–was exploded by Newsday‘s Jimmy Breslin in a March 1 column, While the Times repeatedly mentioned that Goldstein had witnessed the deaths of a father and son killed by Palestinians, Breslin went further:

The Palestinian group of thugs. Hamas, proudly announced they had killed the father and son. These people, too, are certain of their right to kill. They said they did this in retaliation for shootings of Arabs on December 5. The Kiryat Arba fanatics formed a committee for the safety of roads. . . [which] shot six people. . . . Talal Rushdie Bakri, 45, was in a taxi going to his vegetable stand. He was shot in the head. He left a widow and 13 children.

Rather that doing this kind of basic reporting, the New York Times continued to amplify the settlers’ rationalization for violence. In another Times news article (3/1/94), headlined “Settlers Say the Arabs Can Now Know Fear Too,” settler after settler was allowed to claim, without contradiction from other sources or from reporter Alan Cowell, that until Goldstein’s attack, all violence was aimed by Arabs at Jews. “Now they understand that terror can come from us too,” one settler said.

This unrebutted view was echoed by New York Times columnists. “Until now, terror was the weapon of Arab organizations,” wrote William Safire (2/28/94).

Violent Reality

Such statements would have seemed absurd if the Times had reported the fact that substantially more Palestinians that Jews have been killed in inter-ethnic violence. In 1993, according to the U.S. State Department, there were 184 Palestinians killed by Israeli military forces. The Washington, D.C.-based Palestine Human Rights Information Center, whose figure excludes Palestinians killed in armed clashes but includes attacks by settlers, reports that 157 Palestinians were killed by Israelis in 1993 in cases that were clearly human rights violations. By contrast, according to the State Department, there were 49 Israeli soldiers and civilians killed by Palestinians in 1993.

In one of its few references to previous violence, the New York Times reported (2/26/94) that “Jewish settlers have formed vigilante groups that have retaliated for Arab violence by vandalizing property and at times shooting at Palestinians.” Note how this phrasing shifts guilt to the Palestinians–and how it obscures the fact that Palestinians frequently die from being “shot at” by settlers.

Historic perspective that would have put the attack at the mosque in the context of similar, earlier incidents was lacking. The New York Times did run a chronology from the Associated Press, headlined “Decades of Violence,” that listed various attacks carried out by both Arabs and Jews.

But some fundamental events were not included in the “Decades of Violence.” For example, no mention was made of the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, in which 800 Palestinians, by conservative estimates, were slaughtered by Lebanese Christian troops allied with Israel, who were allowed into the camps by the Israeli army. The victims in this one incident far outnumber the total in all the other terrorist attacks, Israeli and Palestinian, listed by the Times.

Also unmentioned were Israel’s repeated bomb attacks on Lebanon. The most recent major round of bombing, in July 1993, killed approximately 100 Arab civilians as part of “a campaign to reduce dozens of villages and towns to heaps of rubble, creating an uninhabited area,” as the New York Times reported at the time (7/29/93). This deliberate targeting of civilians was not retained in the Times‘ historical memory.

Minimizing Responsibility

Much coverage prominently featured official Israeli expressions of regret over the killings. New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal (3/1/94) said the such expressions “tell a great deal about the gap between Arab and Israeli societies–and the importance of not allowing shock or sorrow to overwhelm the awareness of the difference.” Calls for concessions by Israel in response to the massacre, Rosenthal wrote, displayed only “cynicism and cowardice.”

But the coverage did little to examine any responsibility on the part of the Israeli government. It did not stress, for example, that Goldstein was armed because he was a member in good standing of the Israeli army reserves; or that the practice of building settlements on occupied territory–supported by both Labor and Likud Party governments–is clearly illegal under international law. The viewpoint that these illegal colonies inevitably lead to violence was omitted or downplayed in New York Times coverage. (The point was not made strongly until 10 days after the massacre, in a March 7 op-ed by Sarif S. Elmusa and Judith E. Tucker.)

While the mosque slayings were condemned as an aberration carried out by a “foreign implants,” the subsequent killings of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers were treated as business as usual. After reviewing 12 cases of Palestinians shot by military forces–one a 65-year-old man standing in his own doorway, another a 10-year-old girl–the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem “found that soldiers were not in life-threatening situations when they fired into shouting and stone-throwing crowds” (New York Newsday, 3/4/94). The New York Times showed no interest in B’Tselem’s report.

Perhaps the only individual killing to get even minimal attention from the New York Times (3/2/94) was that of a Jewish settler who soldiers shot, “apparently believing him to be a Palestinian gunman.” The headline was “In ‘Tragic Error,’ Soldier Kill a Settler.”

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s actions in the days following the massacre also escaped close scrutiny in the New York Times. “Israeli Orders Tough Measures Against Militant Settlers” was the February 28 front-page headline, with “Arafat Dismisses Rabin’s Moves as ‘Hollow'” as a subhead. They’re “hollow” if you believe Arafat, but “tough” if you believe the New York Times‘ “objective” voice.

In fact, the “toughest” punishment was reserved not for the political allies of the murdered, but for the community he attacked. More than a week after the massacre, a total of three Jewish militants had been arrested as part of Rabin’s “crackdown” (ABC World News Tonight, 3/7/94); meanwhile, Palestinians across the Occupied Territories continued to be placed under near-continuous curfew.

This irony was noted in one of the few New York Times articles that genuinely tried to look at the massacre from a Palestinian perspective, a March 6 Week in Review piece by Youssef M. Ibrahim. Ibrahim quoted an Arab day worker who dismissed Israeli soul-searching over the massacre: “It is not our lives or right to live they are concerned about. It is what the violence is doing to them and their image which concerns them.” The same complaint could be made about most of the New York Times‘ own reporting.