May 24, 2001
Journalists Behaving Badly
Examining the "mixed bag" that is the Los Angeles Times' coverage of the intifada.
Shortly before or perhaps just after World War II, actor Kirk Douglas asked Dorothy Buffum Chandler why the Los Angeles Times seemed to pander so wantonly to the anti-Semitism then still rampant among many of the city's more refined elites.
"Why, darling?" cooed the doyenne of the Chandler newspaper dynasty. "We do it because it sells papers."
To be sure, that was then and this is now. And certainly within the Jewish community here, there aren't many who could seriously contend that the Times has assumed the mantle of Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent.
Now, however, is also one of those times when the State of Israel and its supporters in this country find themselves mired in yet another interminable and, in media terms, possibly no-win conflict. And like the first intifada and the concurrent Lebanon imbroglio, the so-called Al-Aksa Intifada boils down to yet another media-perceived mismatch between the plucky Palestinian David and a brutal and foolhardy Israeli Goliath.
Thanks to the electronic media, the defining image for this still low-intensity conflict will likely remain (barring further occurrences so patently horrible my own imagination buckles at their prospect) that of the Palestinian father trying to shield his 12-year-old son from a fatal hail of Israeli automatic fire. The sequence is searing; moreover, it is real, and no amount of discussion over television news' inherent failure to provide context can detract from the fact that everyone saw it and no one can forget it.
Newspapers in the digital age now find themselves left with the difficult task of providing the context and meaning of these often disturbing images. Hence the continued furor among those impassioned by events in the Middle East over how well -- and how fairly -- they manage to cover the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently found in a survey that 56 percent of major newspaper editorials took a strong pro-Israel stance, suggesting that the American print media have come out during this latest flare-up with strong statements of support for the Jewish state and considerable criticism of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian people for orchestrating the violence now engulfing the region.
"Contrary to the prevailing assumptions about media coverage of the Middle East conflict," ADL National Chairman Glen A. Tobias and National Director Abe Foxman said, "newspapers in the United States by and large support Israel's position in the conflict. The false depiction of this as a David-and-Goliath battle, with Israel Defense Forces targeting innocent, unarmed civilians, apparently doesn't hold weight with the vast majority of American newspapers."
Local Jewish, Israeli and media-watch organizations assessing the Times' performance speak more of a mixed bag. Coverage by the paper's two on-the-ground correspondents, they suggest, has in large part been balanced and extensive, although lapses are hardly rare.
Often, however, their work appears to be undermined by a foreign desk that has not evinced quite the same care and consideration in its choice of headlines, photos and captions, which are frequently the first and sometimes the only items a reader will peruse. That same desk, readers have attested, has not responded openly, if at all, to their concerns and has been slow to set in place a systematic and timely corrections procedure.
Significant swaths of the community who read this newspaper and the Los Angeles Times, though, are even less thrilled by the Times' coverage so far, and some people are nearly up in arms. And it does no good at all to argue that compared with The New York Times, CNN and National Public Radio, the Times sits squarely in what Pat Buchanan would have called the rah-rah bleachers cheering for the Israeli home team.
As Dr. Larry Eisenberg, president of the West Coast Orthodox Union (OU), explained, "We don't necessarily read the other papers. But if there are, say, 8 million people in the city proper, and say, 1 million of them read &'9;&'9;the Times, we are probably overrepresented in that group &'9;of readers. And we don't always like what we see."
Probably the most pugnacious of the present gaggle of media watch-hounds with a pro-Israel agenda is the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA). For the most part, newspaper editors in this country greet news of CAMERA's attentions with the aplomb of torture victims about to have their thumbnails snatched out. Surprisingly, CAMERA's assessment of the Los Angeles Times, conveyed to us by its executive director, Andrea Levin, is measured.
In the macro sense, Levin says, the Times has missed some key stories, notably those addressing ongoing Palestinian incitement against Israel and Jews, the premeditated nature of the uprising and efforts by the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem to destroy ancient Jewish artifacts uncovered on or near the Temple Mount.
Some of the paper's "skewed" choices of photographs, headlines and captions, moreover, have caused heartburn. But Levin awards high marks to Jerusalem correspondent Tracy Wilkinson, whose work she characterizes (in contrast to that of her predecessor, Marjorie Miller) as largely accurate and balanced. Typical of Wilkinson's opus, she says, was her March 30, 2001, report on events during a particularly grim week of bombings and riots.
Among the paper's misses, Levin cites a story by Rebecca Trounson attesting that the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo was built on Arab land captured in 1967, although the land had originally been owned by Jews who lost it to Jordan in 1948. A piece on the Bush-Sharon meeting last March, meanwhile, focused on the diverging views of the two leaders, when, in fact, most other reportage of the summit spoke almost exclusively on the confluence of opinion they witnessed in Washington.
Particularly irksome, both to Levin and to many individual readers, has been the Times' resort to "pejorative labeling and editorializing language," or, as Eisenberg more aptly puts it, "name-calling," much of it directed against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Such disparagement has become so pervasive within American print media that once-staunch peaceniks, for whom the name Sharon had long been anathema, now find themselves impelled to rush to the beleaguered premier's defense.
In many articles, Sharon's name is inevitably preceded by the terms "right-wing," "hard-line" or "arch-hawk." Mention is invariably made of his past military confrontations (both with Arabs and with his own commanders); of the extent to which he is loathed by his Arab counterparts; and of his removal from the Defense portfolio after an Israeli commission of inquiry found him indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres perpetrated by Lebanese Christians. "Sharon the Butcher" has become a commonplace epithet.
All this would be well and good, critics say, if the other principals in the story were afforded equivalent treatment. Alas, who can recall comparable references in the Times to "the anti-Semitic dictator Assad," "the arch-terrorist and agreement-breaching Nobel laureate peace-maker Arafat," "the murderous Palestinian 'statesman' Marwan Barghouti," "the invariably mendacious Hanan Ashrawi," or the "incendiary and perennially disloyal Arab Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi?"
Levin contrasts the paper's foreign desk, and editor Simon Li, whom she faults for not addressing substantive issues and complaints and for being loath to systematically acknowledge and correct errors in fact, with the paper's op-ed desk and its editor, Bob Berger, who does correct errors in statement by featured writers. One example of such rectitude, she says, was a piece by James Ron that Berger determined was indeed defamatory of Sharon.
Several sources told The Jewish Journal that Li -- who did not respond to requests for an interview -- does not regard those errors brought to his attention as particularly egregious and does not always regard the complainants as legitimate spokespeople for Israel or the Jewish community.
Meirav Eilon Shahar, the current Israeli consul for communications and public affairs, said that though Li has always been approachable and congenial, "he may not always share our concerns or perspectives."
Possibly because they realize that they and the Times are probably all here for the long haul, local Jewish organizations, and even the normally ultra-vigilant Simon Wiesenthal Center and the ADL, speak of the Times' coverage in similarly careful, measured terms.
The ADL's David Lehrer, for instance, characterizes some of the paper's coverage as problematic.
"Almost by the nature of the events," he told The Jewish Journal, "what is occurring is happening to the Palestinians, so the headline and guts of the story is about the actions taken by the Israelis in response to the provocation, which is more newsworthy."
"What gets hidden or buried is what provoked the response, whether it's the Molotov cocktail or the stone-throwing or the shelling in Gilo. And the response tends to be stronger because Israel is a government and has to protect its citizens. The very construct of the story therefore gives people pause. It's not a pleasant story to report, and I think the Times too often falls into that trap, although it may be unavoidable."
Although cognizant of the paper's lapses, the Wiesenthal Center's deputy director, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, is quick to point out that the Times' coverage "is far from the worst in the United States."
He says that he does not believe the Times or its reporters and editors have an ax to grind. And he urges readers to recall, quoting Israeli television Arab-affairs correspondent Ehud Ya'ari, that "virtually every foreign correspondent is at the mercy and guidance of Palestinians when they cross into their territory. That certainly impacts on all coverage by foreign media...."
Some of the most insistent cries of foul have come from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, whose top brass, including Board Chairman Todd Morgan, President John R. Fishel, Jewish Community Relations Committee Chairman Ozzie Goren and several others, met three weeks ago with top Times representatives for a gloves-off exchange of views.
On the agenda, Morgan told The Journal, were two issues: the Times' failure, or at least reticence, either to cover Federation activities and programs or to use its resources for background information; and what Morgan describes as the paper's "unbalanced" coverage of Israeli affairs, which he and many others within the organization believe has been strongly weighted toward the Palestinian viewpoint.
"We were particularly concerned with some of the headlines, which in our assessment have often been inflammatory," he said. "We were told, of course, that the people who write the headlines are not the same people who write the articles. All in all, though, I think we had a good meeting. The Times people with whom we met listened to our criticisms and I think took them to heart. They said they were trying to be balanced and that they would be somewhat more sensitive in their word choice."
In Israel as in the United States, of course, writers may write, with few exceptions, quite as they please. But in the West Bank and Gaza, they may only write about what the Palestinian Authority lets them cover. And even then, as evidenced by the sordid episode involving the Italian television team that apologized for releasing footage of the bloody lynching of two Israeli reservists who stumbled into Palestinian territory, some kinds of coverage can result in a news agency's blacklisting -- or worse.
For some local readers, however, such considerations serve as no consolation, nor would they likely be moved by the fact that Palestinian media watchdog groups have excoriated the Times and other publications for their ostensibly pro-Israel stance. The OU's Larry Eisenberg would like, for instance, to run a word-frequency program that might cough up statistics on how often the term "Israeli" is accompanied by the word "intransigence."
Perhaps more to the point, though, Eisenberg would like the Times to find some way to convey that this was one fight Israel never wanted. Or that the Palestinians chose it over a deal that would have given them far more territory and political recognition than anyone on either side ever imagined might be in the offing.
"There is a sense of equivalency in [Los Angeles Times reports of] the deaths of Palestinians and Jews," he said. "The Times speaks of Palestinian victims of the latest violence. Rarely do they bring out the idea that Palestinians are often killed when they go out of their way to send their kids to the Israeli checkpoint to attack the soldiers there, as was the case until two or three weeks ago. No one came to their houses and shot into them.
"The Israelis, in contrast, are being killed in cold blood by people lying in ambush," Eisenberg continued. "Instead, the [media] seem to be keeping a body count. There are more Palestinian bodies than Israeli bodies, so the fight is inherently mismatched, and something is fundamentally amiss."
Times deputy readers' representative Davilynn Furlow knows people are unhappy, although she says the paper takes some refuge in the old chestnut excuse that if readers at both ends of the conflict are unhappy, it must be doing something right.
"We all react to things based on our own experiences," she told The Journal, "and some things we totally look over if they're not what we want to see."
"A number of readers we hear from have ties to Israel and have visited or heard from friends and family, and they get that perspective, whereas our reporters are there, but they can't be everywhere at once," she said.
"I can honestly say I believe there is no bias in the reporting," Furlow added. "And if you look at the coverage over time, that becomes clear. That is not to say that on one day if you focus on the fact that Israelis have driven tanks into a Palestinian encampment it might look as if we're being sympathetic to the Palestinians. But when the Palestinians are lobbing mortars into Israel, we may look like we're being sympathetic to the Israelis, when we are just trying to report."
Ultimately, the Wiesenthal Center's Cooper said, this is probably not the time to burn bridges -- or newspapers. "But it is a time," he says, "to deal directly and fairly with the facts."
"Everyone knows that there are ongoing significant changes at the Times," he said. "One long-overdue step is to professionalize the correction policy like at The New York Times, so when there is a factual error, it can be acknowledged in a timely manner, without the need for major emotional outbursts from the community. More professionalism in this one area could help to lower the temperature all the way around.
"I hope that the new team running the paper will be a bit more cognizant that this is the second-largest Jewish community in the world, and that Intifada II is an ugly, personal war that impacts directly on the loved ones and friends of the Times' readers. This doesn't mean they should alter their coverage. But more sensitivity to our community wouldn't hurt."
Sheldon Teitelbaum may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org