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THE MIDDLE EAST

From Jewish Outlook, Media Are Another Enemy

Conflict: Criticism of TV and newspaper coverage is increasingly aggressive and widespread--and some of it is warranted.

April 28, 2002|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Major Jewish organizations and other supporters of Israel in this country have increasingly bombarded newspapers in recent weeks with charges of biased reporting on hostilities in the Mideast.

In Los Angeles, almost 1,000 subscribers to The Times suspended home delivery of the paper for one day to protest what they called inaccurate, pro-Palestinian coverage. In New York, many in the Jewish community are calling for a reader boycott of the New York Times.

In Minneapolis, an organization called Minnesotans Against Terrorism bought a full-page ad in the Star Tribune to accuse that paper of refusing to call Palestinian suicide bombers "terrorists."

Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post, says he's been receiving more than 100 e-mails and calls a day, "the overwhelming majority saying our coverage is pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel."

Ned Warwick, foreign editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says his paper has been subjected to "an intense barrage of criticism" from the local Jewish community--"100, 120 e-mails a day, a very sophisticated, ongoing campaign."

Editors deny charges of bias in their papers, and several have met with members of the Jewish community to discuss the issue. The editors say their staff members realize how sensitive the Mideast situation is and they insist their papers make every effort to be evenhanded.

"We are fallible but we're not biased," says Timothy J. McNulty, associate managing editor for foreign news at the Chicago Tribune. "A newspaper, as a human institution, can make mistakes. . . . But the mistakes are honest mistakes, not a product of bias in any fashion."

Major Jewish Rallies Ignored

Several papers have made mistakes--of either omission or commission--in recent weeks, and that has intensified the perception in the Jewish community that the coverage is biased against Israel.

Both the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, failed to cover major Jewish rallies in their respective cities, and Jewish leaders excoriated them for it. Executives at the Minneapolis Star Tribune say the decision to excise and replace the words "terrorism" and "terrorists" in a New York Times New Service story early this month was made by an editor who "misinterpreted" the paper's policy of taking "extra care" in using those words.

"We were very embarrassed," says Ben Taylor, vice president for communications at the paper. "The wire editor didn't fully understand the policy and he didn't follow it."

McNulty says a similar policy at his paper is born of a desire to "be specific and avoid labels," but Jewish leaders say suicide bombings are acts of terrorism, and members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda are terrorists.

Louis I. Gelfand, reader representative at the Star Tribune, says much of the criticism that newspapers have received for their Mideast coverage in recent weeks reminds him of criticism he has heard over coverage of abortion.

"A lot of it has to do with language," he says. "People on each side got upset if we used 'right to life' or 'pro-choice.' "

Now, supporters of Israel complain that newspapers sometimes refer to Palestinians as "militants" or "freedom fighters" or "guerrillas" instead of calling them "terrorists" and that they describe the West Bank as "occupied territory" rather than "disputed land."

Arab Americans and other supporters of the Palestinians take the opposite view, both on terminology and on Mideast coverage in general, and they have long accused U.S. news organizations of slanting their coverage in favor of Israel.

"It's misleading, sloppy coverage that does not relate the true suffering of the Palestinian people," says Ahmed Bouzid, president of the Philadelphia-based Palestine Media Watch.

Pro-Israel Criticism Picks Up After Offensive

Some Palestinian supporters blame Mideast coverage on "Jewish domination and control" of many major news organizations--and on what they see as a desire of those organizations to align themselves with U.S. foreign policy, which has traditionally backed Israel.

Editors have denied those charges as well.

Supporters of Israel have criticized the media periodically in the past--perhaps most aggressively over coverage of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But editors and readers' representatives at many newspapers say the criticism has been especially vigorous and voluminous since Israel launched its West Bank offensive last month after a series of Palestinian suicide bombings killed dozens of Israelis.

Much of the criticism is directed at television because of the power of its visual images.

"When you have pictures of people throwing rocks at tanks, the side with the tanks gets the worst press," says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

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