October 16, 2003
Alienating Readers at The Times
"The harm done by Jayson Blair in The New York Times newsroom may, in the end, be offset by a bit of good it does elsewhere. The incident is serving as a wake-up call for journalism, prompting many papers ... to redouble efforts at accuracy and accountability," wrote Christine Chinlund, the Boston Globe ombudsman, in a soul-searching column on media accountability.
Unfortunately, that necessary and commendable call has not been sounded at the Los Angeles Times, where editors and the readers' representative have resisted issuing corrections of clear-cut factual errors. Yet similar inaccuracies have been readily corrected at other major national newspapers.
For example, on Sept. 15, in an in-depth feature on a Muslim charity in America shut down because of its suspected ties to Hamas, the Times' Stephen Braun misreported that "Hamas [was] formed by Islamic fundamentalists in 1988 to resist Israeli occupation." The obvious implication here is that Hamas' goal is limited to ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, when in fact it claims all of "Palestine," meaning the West Bank, Gaza and Israel for an Islamic state. Article Six of the Hamas charter says the organization "strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine."
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a national media watch organization that has been monitoring Los Angeles Times coverage for years, pointed out the error to readers representative Jamie Gold. In addition, we suggested more accurate language would state that Hamas was formed "to replace Israel with an Islamic theocratic state called Palestine." Without pulling any punches, James Bennet, The New York Times' Jerusalem bureau chief similarly described Hamas just days before as "dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state in what was once Palestine."
But Gold rejected this language, and did not see the need for a correction. She responded: "The reference to Hamas as an organization 'formed by Islamic fundamentalists in 1988 to resist Israeli occupation' seems consistent with the language you think would have been better."
But, in the Western mind, "resist Israeli occupation" means "resist the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza," whereas Hamas actually resists the right of Israel to exist anywhere, at all in the Muslim Middle East. Clearly these are not "consistent," and to ignore this crucial distinction is to cover up Hamas' extreme agenda.
The Times' habitual refusal to correct factual errors concerning Israel extends to the letters section despite the fact that Gold has clarified that the paper's policy is to run corrections on individual letters. The Times has repeatedly violated this policy, most recently concerning two letters that ran on Sept. 16. In one, letter-writer Irwin Grossman outlandishly claimed that the Oslo process ended with the killing of Prime Minister Rabin: "It seems that [Yossi Klein Halevi] completely forgot who the terrorists were who ended the Oslo process. So, let me remind him: It was an Israeli who assassinated then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin...."
Contrary to Grossman's claim, the process continued well after Rabin's death when his peace partner, Shimon Peres, took office in November 1995 and shortly thereafter handed over to Palestinian Authority control the major cities and towns of the West Bank. Indeed, as The New York Times reported Dec. 11, 1995: "The pace of the withdrawals has accelerated despite the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last month..." ("Israel Leaves Another City as Pullout Speeds Up"). Oslo agreements signed in the post-Rabin era include the Agreement on Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron, Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron and its Note for the Record, the Wye River Memorandum and the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum.
Gold's response this time? "Everyone interprets events differently, especially when it comes to events in the Middle East."
But, how else could one read Grossman's letter other than to conclude wrongly that the Oslo process ended with the killing of Rabin?
The Los Angeles Times' pattern of evasion brings to mind another column by Chinlund, Gold's East Coast counterpart at The Globe, who lamented that "seeking a correction does begin to seem like a fool's errand" (May 26). She noted that "'two-thirds of U.S. readers believe news organizations are unwilling to acknowledge errors,' according to a 2002 poll by a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press."
No doubt the Los Angeles Times will "interpret" these poll findings "differently," too, leaving its readers to grow ever more alienated with each passing uncorrected error.
Tamar Sternthal is senior research analyst of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America).