May 2, 2002
David and Goliath and David
You want media bias? I'll give you media bias. Here's one big city newspaper's account of the Israeli incursion into the Jenin refugee camp: "Jenin camp looks like the scene of a crime. Its concrete rubble and tortured metal evokes another horror half a world away in New York, smaller in scale, but every bit as repellent in its particulars."
That's from the London newspaper The Guardian. The Los Angeles Times, in contrast, ran a long, two-page investigation into what happened in Jenin. It reported the evidence of terrorism that led to Israel's decision to go in. It documented the precise and risky manner by which the Israeli army chose to carry out its operation. It recounted the fear of the soldiers and refugees, the killing of innocent Palestinians (that's part of the story) and it investigated the wildly inflated stories of Palestinian propagandists and found them lacking.
It was a good -- but as Dan Gordon reveals on page 10, not perfect -- report, done under difficult wartime circumstances. Along with it, the Times editorialized against Palestinian claims of the camp's innocence. "In tiny rooms," the editors wrote last week, "men packed gunpowder and fertilizer into canisters that some bomber would use to blow apart Israeli men, women and children."
If that's their Guardian, and this is our Times, why are so many Jews so enraged at the folks at First and Spring?
As Sheldon Teitelbaum reports on page 10, Jewish community anger toward the Times has only increased since The Journal's first story on May 25, 2001 investigating the paper's Israel coverage. The outrage peaked nearly a year later on April 22, when the Times, alone among major L.A. media outlets, neglected to report on the Israel Festival, which drew between 30,000-40,000 people to Woodley Park the previous day.
Last Sunday, a week after that festival, Times Senior Editor David Lauter presented his point of view on the controversy at a panel discussion, "The Media and Israel," at Temple Beth Am. I was on the panel, along with Matt Chazinov. Chazinov is foreign editor of the Orange County Register and, like Lauter and me, a member of Beth Am.
But the discussion wasn't about "the media." It was about the Times. Lauter tried deflecting some of the criticisms up front, in an opening statement.
"We simplify," he said. "We condense. In the interest of clarity, we sacrifice nuance." Such is the nature of journalism, and people who know the most, and care the most, about a given subject are most likely to notice what the editors left out. A frequent omission is context and history.
"Journalism is only the first rough draft of history," Chazinov reminded the crowd.
But they were not assuaged.
Lauter cited studies demonstrating that people who are partisan about one side or another almost always feel news coverage is slanted against their side. He said the Times fields numerous complaints of pro-Israel bias from the Arab community. "It is not possible for the coverage to be biased in both directions," he said.
The crowd was not assuaged.
Lauter continued: Foreign correspondents are most often generalists, not regional experts. Operating under demanding conditions, buffeted by the spin from competing points of view, they work hard to balance, to fact check and verify reports. And despite their best intentions, they sometimes make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, said Lauter, but, "when we make a mistake, we publish it and show it to 2 million readers."
The crowd brought up specifics: a subhead that used the word "vicious" to describe an Israeli action. (Lauter said that was a mistake, and the copy editor who wrote it was chastised.) A photo of a Chassidic rabbi that misrepresented the majority of people who showed up for a pro-Israel rally. (A mistake, said Lauter, and the photo editor was chastised.) The failure to cover the April 21 rally. (A big mistake, said Lauter, and the people responsible were chastised.) These mistakes and more "do not necessarily represent bias," Lauter said. (Though I have to say there do seem to be quite a few goofs for a paper that aspires to greatness.)
Rabbi Joel Rembaum raised the question of whether Foreign Editor Simon Li wasn't responsible for some of the least-appreciated headlines, photos and captions. Lauter said that Li, who was singled out in The Journal's reporting on the Times last year, is a superior, dedicated editor who is simply not adept at handling readers' complaints.
That may be true, but the end result, for many readers, is an air of aloofness and unresponsiveness surrounding the Times. People would be even more impressed, I imagine, if Times editors would come out of their compound and talk more often. In Chicago, Tribune editors held two open meetings at which Jews upset with Israel coverage voiced their complaints. Editors at the Trib's subsidiary, the Times, have been less than forthcoming.
(At press time, The Journal learned that Li had stepped down as Times foreign editor. Former Mideast correspondent Marjorie Miller will take his place.)
If anything, said Lauter, American newspapers are biased in favor of Israel. He pointed to a sympathetic profile the Times ran in April of an Israeli woman soldier. "When was the last time you read a story [in the Times] about the bravery of a Palestinian fighter?" he asked. Editors, like the rest of us, see the world through a certain framework. The American press sees Israel as a sometimes flawed, democratic nation facing people who resort to violence and terror in their essentially just fight for nationhood, he said. "If you believe media coverage influences public opinion," Lauter said, "it's hard to square consistent support for Israel with allegations of media bias."
What Lauter did not directly address was the fact that despite their pro-Israel "framework," journalists almost always root for the underdog, and almost all have a bias against Israel's permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza The bias against occupation does influence coverage -- my opinion, not Lauter's.
Nevertheless, audience members were perhaps a bit more mollified at this point. They were impressed that their specific complaints had made an impact on Times editors. Specific complaints get attention. The more general and hot-headed the gripe, Lauter said, the more likely it was to be shelved. He was referring, not too obliquely, to a litany of grievances sent to the Times by StandWithUs.
Toward the end of the discussion, one woman in the audience admitted that she preferred the old days when the press portrayed Israel as David and the Arabs were Goliath. Lauter was nonplussed. "Ninety-nine percent of the time Goliath wins," he said. "So stick with Goliath."