Mar
01
2001

Those Aren't Stones, They're Rocks

The pro-Israel critique of Mideast coverage

American journalists probably feel more pressure about their coverage of Israel and Palestine than any other subject. That is true even of Extra!; despite having a readership that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to our progressive critique of the media, our Middle East coverage invariably elicits angry letters and complaints, sometimes resulting in canceled subscriptions.

According to Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, his publication has felt "tremendous pressure" to alter its editorial position that Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is the "fundamental source of the problem." Hundreds of subscribers have canceled their subscriptions, and donors have announced publicly that they will stop giving money to the magazine (Democracy Now!, 11/15/00).

To a notable degree, anti-Palestinian media criticism consists of elliptical reasoning and baffling non-sequiturs, not to mention clumsiness with facts. The tone of much of the criticism is illustrated by a Jerusalem Post letter to the editor (12/19/00) that complained that CNN correspondents "constantly refer to innocuous 'stone-throwing' by Palestinian kids, instead of calling them what they really are: rocks."

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), which takes out expensive full-page advertisements in papers like the New York Times, issued a November 18 press release headlined "Blatant Anti-Semitism on CNN." The smoking gun for this serious charge was that "a Palestinian-American now living in Ramallah was paraphrased by CNN reporter Fionnuala Sweeney as saying 'she would have voted for George W. Bush because the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, is Jewish.'"

The release did not allege that CNN's reporter agreed with the anti-Semitic comment, only that the comment was reported--in CAMERA's words--"as if this were a perfectly normal sentiment." One could argue just as easily that CNN's report showed a subtle bias against the Palestinians by choosing an anti-Semite to represent the Palestinian viewpoint. But subtlety is not a hallmark of such arguments, and "blatant anti-Semitism" is what CNN was accused of.

Even when such criticism contains a kernel of truth, it typically misses the larger picture. CAMERA condemned a New York Times article (10/24/00) about Palestinian television for "covering up" the Palestinian media's incitement of violence against Israel. The article had quoted from a fiery sermon by a Palestinian cleric broadcast on local television, without citing the sermon's most incendiary passage, which urged the audience to "kill those Jews." Journalistically speaking, the criticism is fair enough, but CAMERA neglected to point out an equally crucial omission in the Times article: The cleric who gave the sermon was arrested by the Palestinian Authority within hours of his speech (London Guardian, 10/17/00; Knight Ridder, 10/19/00).

"Real pressure"

The government of Israel itself has entered the spin-control fray. In November, the Israeli dailies Ma'ariv (11/8/00) and Ha'aretz (11/13/00) reported that Israel's foreign ministry was establishing a special public relations headquarters in New York to reinforce Israel's PR strategy. The office would reportedly be headed by a former director general of the Israel Broadcasting Association, who would coordinate with the foreign ministry's PR department, a steering committee formed of senior officials of U.S. Jewish organizations, and six public relations firms--including "some of the most well known in America"--that had been hired at a cost of $1 million.

In a mid-October conference call (a transcript of which was obtained by researcher Phyllis Bennis), Israeli government spokesperson Nachman Shai explained Israel's media strategy to a group of 30 to 60 U.S. Jewish leaders and other leading Israel supporters. He singled out CNN for criticism, adding that his office was pressuring the network to shift its coverage in a more pro-Israel direction.

He drew particular attention to CNN's Occupied Territories correspondent Rula Amin, who is herself Palestinian. Shai told the group: "We are putting real pressure on the heads of CNN to have [Amin and other reporters] replaced with more objective pro-Israel reporters that are willing to tell our side of the story."

Amin has been subject of almost obsessive loathing by many of Israel's supporters in the media. The feeling is probably motivated more by her Palestinian background than the content of her reporting, which, while putting a somewhat more human face on the Palestinians than most American fare, is not much different than what typically appears on, say, the BBC.

For example, Amin was attacked by Amos Perlmutter, the hawkish Washington Times foreign affairs columnist, who called her a "purveyor of Palestinian propaganda" (10/30/00). His only example was to claim that "with no evidence, she reported the false Palestinian argument that the two Israelis who were lynched in Ramallah were Mossad agents." That is false. In fact, in her live report on the lynching (10/12/00), Amin had merely reported, accurately, that the mob that attacked the Israeli reservists had "assumed that these were undercover units."

So far, the effect of all this pressure against Amin has been unclear. After broadcasting Amin's reports in October on an almost daily basis, in early November CNN moved its London bureau chief, Tom Mintier, into the Jerusalem bureau, where his reports from the occupied territories have largely replaced Amin's, at least on the network's U.S. service. From early November until late December, CNN's U.S. programming did not include any stories by Amin, a fact CNN executives attributed to the heavy coverage of the disputed U.S. presidential election, which left little airtime for Middle East stories. Amin reappeared briefly on the network with several reports between Christmas and New Year's Eve. But as of this writing, in early February, she has not been seen in the United States in 2001. CNN firmly insists it has not bowed to pressure from critics to downplay Amin's reporting.

Pals vs. Issies

While the American press is perceived abroad as being unambiguously sympathetic to Israel, the most visible form of media criticism in the United States takes the opposite view--that the U.S. press is constantly propagandizing for the Palestinian cause. This belief is repeated so often, and by so many prominent organizations and individuals, that it has been largely absorbed into conventional wisdom.

When CNN's weekend program on the news media (Reliable Sources, 10/14/00) took up the question of Middle East coverage, the host, Howard Kurtz--an influential media reporter for the Washington Post who is generally seen as a liberal--grilled a panel of journalists on whether the press was being unfair to Israel. One prominent journalist, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, was asked if he thought the Washington Post's October 13 front page had "made it seem too much like Israel was committing an act of aggression" when it launched retaliatory strikes on Palestinians following the Ramallah lynchings.

The Post had printed a huge two-column color photograph of the killings on its cover, showing a Palestinian triumphantly displaying his blood-stained hands to the crowd. But Kurtz pointed out that the banner headline over the story was "Israel Strikes Palestinian Sites," and that the lynching itself was announced only in the sub-headline over the main story below. McManus agreed that "yes, it was probably a bad call," though he did not think it was necessarily motivated by anti-Israel ideology.

"The whole question of who is depicted as the aggressor," Kurtz mused to Newsweek managing editor Ann McDaniel on the same program, "is part of the public relations war.... It seems to me you have a number of Palestinian kids as young as 12 who were killed in this violence. But the Palestinians also put children out there on the front lines, and therefore reap a lot of sympathy when these horrible casualties take place." McDaniel replied apologetically that American journalists "probably make a mistake in not thinking" enough about whether the public "perceive us as balanced."

Kurtz finally got the answer he seemed to be looking for when he asked Joe Klein of The New Yorker, a prominent Washington pundit, whether the media have a tilt on Israel. Klein replied:

From my own experience covering wars over there and covering the situation there, the press corps--especially the foreign press corps--tend to lean a little bit toward the Palestinians because their situation is a bit more desperate. I think that that's a natural tendency in any situation of combat. Even the nicknames that reporters have for the two combatants kind of tilts things. The Palestinians are called the Pals. And the Israelis are called the Issies.

U.S. News & World Report owner and editor Mortimer Zuckerman also argued that there was an anti-Israel slant in an October 23 editorial. Charging that the media had "reinforced the impression that the powerful Israelis were using excessive force," Zuckerman assured us that "this impression was false," with no further evidence provided. Unfortunately for Zuckerman, he happened to choose exactly the phrase--"excessive force"--used almost verbatim by Amnesty International (10/19/00), Human Rights Watch (10/17/00), Physicians for Human Rights (11/3/00), the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem (12/6/00), the U.N. Human Rights Commission (11/27/00) and the U.N. Security Council (10/7/00) to characterize Israel's actions.

SIDEBAR: The Smoking Caption

Of all the baleful slanders directed against Israel by the allegedly pro-Palestinian U.S. media, the case of Tuvia Grossman stood out in critics' eyes as the most outrageous. On September 29, the first day of the al-Aqsa uprising, the Associated Press sent out a photograph of an injured man in Jerusalem, crouching near an Israeli soldier holding a nightstick. AP's caption identified the wounded man as a Palestinian, but he turned out to be an American Jew named Tuvia Grossman, who was studying at a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem.

An AP editor in the Jerusalem office had received garbled information from the Israeli photographer who took the picture, and hastily assumed the wounded man was a Palestinian hurt in the day's demonstrations. In fact, Grossman had been beaten by a crowd of angry Palestinians as he tried to make his way to the Western Wall to pray. The AP photo and the erroneous caption were picked up by seven or eight U.S. newspapers, including the New York Times (9/30/00), which printed it alongside several photos on page 6. When relatives of Grossman saw the photograph and recognized him, they called the AP to ask for a correction. The AP corrected the mistake, and almost all of the newspapers promptly printed corrections as well.

To the untrained eye, the Grossman affair might seem like the sort of routine journalistic error that occurs every day in the news business. Corrections to erroneous stories appear all the time. No one alleged any deliberate falsification in the Grossman case; the vast majority of injuries in Jerusalem the day the Grossman photograph was taken were sustained by Palestinians, so the assumption that the wounded man was Palestinian was plausible, though careless.

But the pro-Israel media critics cried bias. Newspapers across the country carried angry commentaries and letters by supporters of Israel brandishing the mislabeled photograph as palpable proof of their long-held suspicions. The New York Post (10/5/00) and Wall Street Journal (10/6/00) each ran op-eds on the photo. In commentaries, the mislabeled photo was proof that pro-Palestinian "misreporting by the media has been rampant" (Albany Times-Union, 10/25/00), and that "Anti-Israel Bias Warps American Minds" (Providence Journal-Bulletin, 10/13/00). Daily Oklahoman columnist Edie Roodman (10/13/00) accused the media of "indirectly stimulating riots" by Palestinians.

When Ted Koppel arrived at the East Jerusalem YMCA to produce a television special, he was "assailed by indignant American expatriates who complained to him about the mislabeled AP photograph" (Jerusalem Post, 10/13/00). "We've gotten a flood of emails and a number of phone calls about the photograph," the editor of a Jewish newspaper in Boston told the Boston Globe (10/7/00).

The New York Times went to unusual lengths to remedy the error. After printing an initial correction setting out the facts (10/4/00), the Times published a second correction a few days later (10/7/00) to further explain that the officer in the photo was "not beating Mr. Grossman," but rather telling angry Palestinians to move away from the man--even though the original caption had not accused the officer of doing anything to Grossman. (The caption had simply said "an Israeli policeman and a wounded Palestinian.") The correction apologized for having "omitted an explanation of the scene" of the photograph.

Apparently even these two corrections were not sufficient. The Times also ran a 670-word news article about the incident (10/7/00), tracing the caption error from its genesis in the AP's Jerusalem newsroom to the New York Times and the other newspapers. The Times reprinted the original photo beside the article, this time with an accurate caption.

This article is the second of two parts. The first part is Uprising Without Explanation: "Occupation" a taboo word in intifada coverage, Extra!, January/February 2001