On April 1, Los Angeles County children's social worker Jules Weingart sent the Los Angeles Times a letter protesting its predilection for calling Palestinian suicide-bombers "militants." As a courtesy, Weingart attached a list of normative definitions of the terms "militant," "terrorism," "terror" and "extremist."
On April 18, Weingart received a response from Times Readers Representative Jamie Gold. "The word terrorist is not applied to combatants in Israel," Gold informed Weingart on behalf of the newspaper, "because it is considered a politically loaded word."
That this is some perverse form of political correctness, few can doubt. But as Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has asked repeatedly over the last year, "Political correctness for whom -- suicide-bombers?"
Foreign Editor Simon Li, meanwhile, sent an automated e-mail message to Weingart, indicating that he was out of the office until April 22. Li, who has long attracted resentment for what many perceive as his imperious stance toward critics of the Times' coverage of Israel, concluded his e-mail with: "And if it's a complaint about our alleged anti-Israel bias, thank you, but I've received so many, that mere repetition only serves to dilute the impact of your protest."
The Times announced on Tuesday that Li was stepping down as foreign editor to be replaced by former Mideast correspondent Marjorie Miller.
Even so, given such a history of editorial policy, is it any wonder that the local Jewish community sometimes finds itself skating perilously close to hysteria when it comes to the Times?
In recent weeks, the Times has been the target of several distinct readership revolts. In mid-April, the grass-roots group StandWithUs organized a 10-day boycott on home subscriptions. It was an attempt to get the paper's attention without actually abandoning it, said a founding member, who for fear of retribution asked to be called Ruth.
"We loved the Times," Ruth said, "and we want to love it again. But when the only two reporters in the region charged with covering Israel deliver a pro-Palestinian spin day after day after day -- I don't need the Times. I can get Al Jazeera instead."
Concurrently, several local synagogues, including Beth Jacob, Stephen S. Wise and Valley Beth Shalom, urged a more modest one-day delivery stoppage on Israel's Independence Day, April 17.
A cursory review of Internet discussion groups reveals a pervasive belief that there is a direct link between this tame and limited expression of disquiet and the Times' failure to report on the community's celebration of Israeli Independence Day, one of the largest ethnic gatherings of the year.
The Times' editorial department told irate members of the community through a reader's representative that (a) the assignment to cover the festival had gone to the international desk, which decided that since the event was receiving coverage in Israel, there was no reason to do so here; (b) that the one reporter it reserved for such events had attended a memorial for Daniel Pearl (less than a mile away) instead; and (c) the e-mail flagging the Independence Day ceremonies had disappeared.
In a letter to reader Michael Zarrabian, who complained about the dearth of coverage, the Times' Gold wrote: "In any other year, for almost any other country celebrating its independence here in L.A., I could tell you that the answer would be that the paper cannot possibly cover all of these celebratory events that take place on any given weekend in the five counties that the Los Angeles Times serves. However, given the circumstances in the world today, that editorial decision to not cover this seems questionable."
However, the damage was done. Large numbers of Jewish subscribers from across the domestic and Israeli political spectrum have cancelled their subscriptions. On April 18, two days before the conclusion of the StandWithUs boycott, Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" announced that 1,000 people had stopped delivery of the paper. According to StandWithUs, however, an internal document recently spirited out of the Times' headquarters and into the hands of a competing newspaper reported that number of cancellations climbed to more than 6,000 last week alone. The Times would not confirm that number.
Times Senior Editor David Lauter defended his paper's record April 28 at Temple Beth Am. The event, sponsored by the temple's Brotherhood, drew a capacity crowd of about 100 . Several audience members waved clippings of offending articles at Lauter, demanding explanations. (For Lauter's defense, see p. 7. )
Jewish communities in Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston and New York have registered grievances against their papers' coverage of the Middle East. The protests were notable for the fact that the protesters came from across the political spectrum. In Los Angeles, concern for Israel and dislike of the Times has united Jews over the past months as few issues have.
Mention the Los Angeles Times to attorney Eric Menyuk, 42, of Agoura Hills, for example, and he vents his anger: "Their hypocrisy is almost beyond belief," he said, "and I'm a lawyer. If we are supposed to tolerate the killing of innocents in Kabul because we're going after the Taliban -- if the Times has no trouble calling Al Qaeda terrorists -- then why do they make excuses for Palestinians, who dressed as Israeli soldiers go door-to-door shooting 5-year-olds?"
Sandy Beim, a member of Valley Beth Shalom who is active on the Valley congregation's computer discussion board, said she did not cancel her subscription to the Times. However, she does have some sense that the community's unhappiness may have registered with the paper.
"The layout of headlines and photos, especially on the front page, seems so much more even-handed then was the situation as recently as one week ago," she said. "If this is the product of boycotts or a general shift in reporting, I do not know. There is the probability that the boycott and threat of further and enlargement of this boycott movement contributed to this 'new' L.A. Times editing policy."
Mainstream community leaders said they sympathize with public dissatisfaction with the Times, but said a boycott is only one way of expressing dissatisfaction. "There are other ways," said Los Angeles Federation President John Fishel, noting that people should write letters to the editor about errors or misreporting. Over the years, Fishel said they have met with the editorial board to discuss the community's concerns, and they are trying to set up another meeting soon.
Other community members suspect the efficacy of boycotts. "About a year ago, there was an attempt to boycott Radio Station KABC in an attempt to get conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder off the air," said boycott sympathizer Barry Lowenkron. "That didn't work either."