Pro-Israel groups take aim at U.S. news media

By Tim Jones

Tribune staff reporter

May 26, 2002

The contentious issues of the Middle East have spilled over into the U.S. media as pro-Israel organizations are pressuring news outlets, through boycotts and other measures, to change the way they report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The campaigns are motivated by the desire in Jewish communities that the United States maintain its traditional support of Israel and by a concern that media coverage of the Mideast, especially articles deemed sympathetic to Palestinians, could weaken public backing for Israel and ultimately alter U.S. policy.

News executives accused of having a pro-Palestinian bias respond that the critics are not seeking evenhanded reporting but advocacy on behalf of Israel.

The ad hoc campaigns among Jewish organizations stretch from coast to coast. They are directed at both large and small news operations, some with their own correspondents in the Mideast and some that rely solely on The Associated Press or other international news services. Organizers employ word of mouth and the Internet to expand their campaigns. The result is a cascade of e-mails, letters and phone calls to editors and ombudsmen at newspapers, broadcast outlets and cable news channels.

"We've taken a big hit," said Jane Christo, general manager of National Public Radio affiliate WBUR-FM, a highly rated station in Boston. WBUR, which like NPR as a whole relies on individual donations, corporate sponsorship and some government funding, has lost $1 million so far in canceled funding, Christo said. "Things are still escalating in terms of underwriters not renewing and in the amount of mail we get."

Subscription boycotts have been launched against The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. A Tribune official said that since last October, 47 readers have canceled subscriptions citing the newspaper's Middle East coverage. About 1,000 subscribers to the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Co. newspaper, suspended delivery for a day. Officials with The New York Times and the Chronicle did not provide numbers on lost subscriptions.

Aiming to bolster their arguments of bias in reporting and editing, Jewish groups have either commissioned or conducted their own studies of news coverage by at least two newspapers, the Tribune and the Chronicle.

In Minneapolis, a local organization recently bought a full-page ad in the Star Tribune questioning why its news pages would not call Palestinian suicide bombers "terrorists."

"No one has ever seen pressure like this before," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, the ombudsman for Washington-based NPR. "In the last three months I've received 14,000 e-mails and 9,000 of them deal with the Middle East. E-mail traffic in the last month has overwhelmingly accused us of having a pro-Palestinian bias."

Rejecting bias accusations

Editors, station managers and ombudsmen concede that errors occasionally are made, but they adamantly reject accusations of systematic bias. Some characterize the pressure campaigns as an effort to intimidate the media and draw attention away from Israeli government policies.

Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski said she and other editors often meet with critics of the paper's reporting.

"I take them seriously," Lipinski said of the criticisms. But she rejected suggestions that the Tribune's news reporting is slanted against Israel.

"It's hard to imagine it's possible that there would be such a complete failure on the part of experienced reporters to fairly and accurately report the story," Lipinski said. "Are we fallible? Yes. Do we practice institutional bias? Unequivocally no."

A boycott of The Washington Post is planned for mid-June, sponsored by a group charging that the newspaper "favorably reports the position of terrorists."

"The scope of this barrage raises an interesting question," Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote earlier this month. "Is it possible that so many major American news organizations are getting this story wrong; that some sort of national media conspiracy is at work here?

"That, of course, is not the case, and news organizations will persevere in reporting this story in an unflinching, unintimidated fashion that reports the news in the most accurate way possible for their entire readership."

The current Palestinian uprising, soon to enter its 21st month, receives far more media coverage than the last intifada, which began in 1987. In the age of the Internet, satellite television and expanding cable news operations, powerful images from the conflict are distributed quickly into most every home in America.

Intense efforts on both sides

Jewish organizations and a much smaller number of Palestinian advocacy groups are mobilizing to influence the reporting of words and images that come from the Middle East. The efforts at times resemble the work of campaign consultants putting their spin on the day's political events. That pro-Palestinian groups have now expanded their lobbying and public-relations efforts is an added concern for pro-Israel groups.

"People who are pro-Palestinian have gained a fair amount of sophistication in the communications efforts," said Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. "The Israelis have always been quite effective and the balance has shifted, and I suspect that has been worrisome to those who see their opponents being more effective."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said many of the "problems" with reporting from the Middle East are the result of "ignorance, a lack of perspective, people [reporters] being parachuted in without any background, history and perspective."

"And it shows in their reporting," Foxman said.

Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said no media organization would ever admit bias but that there "is a basis for legitimate criticism and finger-pointing."

"If they're not biased, that doesn't mean they're doing their job," Kotzin said.

"Justice and truth is on Israel's side," he said. "Newspapers and other media outlets don't help when [they create] sympathies for those who would destroy Israel."

The absolute support for Israel and its actions expressed by Kotzin and other passionate advocates, and their ensuing criticism of the media, lies at the heart of the debate.

Newspapers, in their reporting as opposed to their opinion pages, see their mission as presenting all sides of an issue or conflict fairly and not as adopting the position of any one side.

"If you look at the body of the work, I defy anyone to say we're biased. It's not true," said James O'Shea, the Tribune's managing editor. "They want us to be on their side. People are unfairly criticizing them [the media] because they are not taking a side."

Often the specific complaints do not refer to articles or the news reporting but to headlines, photographs and photo captions and to how and where the various elements are displayed. A separate category of complaints has centered on newspaper editorials and the op-ed commentary.

Some coverage in particular has angered Tribune readers. A front-page article last August about an imprisoned Palestinian who had failed in a suicide bombing attempt aimed to describe attitudes in the West Bank community of Jenin, calling it "a hotbed of anti-Israeli sentiments and Islamic fundamentalism." Critics said the story's headline and photograph betrayed sympathy toward Palestinians who would kill Israeli civilians. Shortly after that story was published, protesters picketed in front of the Tribune.

Defenders of the media coverage say the critics want advocacy and not objectivity from the American media.

"Critics do not seem to understand evenhandedness. It's a little bit like `you're with us or against us,'" said James Naughton, former executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and now president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

"What I found was that the more insightful and human the stories were, if they portrayed Arabs positively or Israelis negatively, then there was hell to pay from that audience," Naughton said. "The argument that you are being evenhanded is just not persuasive" to critics.

Words, history at issue

Many of the objections stem from the use or non-use of certain words, such as terrorist, retaliation or occupied territories. Varying interpretations of Middle East history are another source of dispute.

Mark Rotenberg, general counsel at the University of Minnesota, who describes himself as a newcomer to activism, recently founded Minnesotans Against Terrorism, the group that bought the Star Tribune ad demanding that the paper label suicide bombers as terrorists.

"It is not evenhanded to deliberately refrain from using the only appropriate term to describe a news event," Rotenberg said. "Calling someone who deliberately targets civilian populations for death as an activist or a gunman is a distortion of reality."

The Jewish community does not speak with a single voice.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the San Francisco-based Tikkun magazine, said the pressure campaigns are a form of "McCarthyism that is attempting to prevent the American media from telling any part of the story from the perspective of what is happening to Palestinians."

"In the long run this will produce more anti-Semitism and less security for Jews," Lerner said. "This is counterproductive."

Others object to boycotts by a people with their own history of suffering under anti-Semitic boycotts. "This is something we don't support, don't engage in and don't encourage," Foxman said.

Some campaigns seek to document their contention that the media are slanted.

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago commissioned a study comparing the Tribune's Middle East coverage with that of The New York Times and The Washington Post. The report has been completed, but Kotzin has declined to release it.

"This was just meant to be a starting point for a conversation," Kotzin said. "We're not going to make it public."

The reaction among pro-Israel readers has been fueled by the continuing bloodshed, concern about recent anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and fear that the United States may waver in its support of Israel as it seeks Arab support for a broadening fight against terrorism.

`Media war from the start'

"Israel's survival is at stake," Kotzin said, echoing the concern of many Jewish leaders. "This has been a media war from the start. . . . It is important that the American media not become a propaganda tool."

News executives agree on that much, that the media should not be a tool--for either side.

"A lot of what people are saying displays a lack of real knowledge about what we do," said WBUR's Christo, arguing that when coverage is examined over a period of time, it comes out balanced.

"I do not have a problem with being held up to scrutiny," said Christo, whose station has lost 7 percent of its annual financial support because of the campaign. "But with pressure groups it is different because their motives are different. There are people who don't want us to be fair. . . . If they feel in general that there are good guys and bad guys, if you're not on the side of the good guys you are letting the bad guys win."

Andrea Levin, executive director of the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), the group leading the effort against WBUR, asserts that the issue is about objectivity and balance.

"We've been trying to get a balanced presentation of this conflict over a long period of time, and the network [NPR] has been unresponsive to our concerns, which has driven us into other efforts," she said.

Early this month, NPR began posting on its Web site transcripts of all of its reports from the Middle East so listeners could judge for themselves what was reported. 

Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune