All The News That?s Fit To Print? - Part I

One of the great myths of modern journalism, particularly outside the U.S., is that the <i>New York Times</i> is "pro-Israel." In fact, it would be truer to say that the opposite is the case - to a greater extent than you might think.<br/>

Tom Gross,

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As the world's most important daily newspaper, the New York Times is disproportionately influential in framing the public and diplomatic discourse on many issues, both in the U.S. and beyond. This is particularly true with regard to the Middle East, given how much space it allocates to the subject. One of the great myths of modern journalism, particularly outside the U.S., is that the New York Times is "pro-Israel." In fact, it would be truer to say that the opposite is the case - to a greater extent than you might think.

On March 4, a 59-year-old American Baptist, William P. Hyde, was among 21 people killed by a suicide bomber in Davao in the southern Philippines. That an American died was made clear in the following day's New York Times. The Times titled its news report "Bombing Kills An American And 20 Others In Philippines." The first seven paragraphs concerned Hyde, who had lived and worked in the Philippines since 1978, and another American, Barbara Stevens, who had been "slightly wounded" in the attack. The caption alongside two photos at the top of the front page of that day's Times also made reference to his death, as did a news summary on page 2. In addition, the paper ran an editorial titled "Fighting Terror in the Philippines." And a front-page photo of a wounded boy, and the caption that accompanied it, made clear that at least one child had been among the injured.

On the next day (March 5), another American Baptist, 14-year-old Abigail Litle, was among 16 people killed by a suicide bomber on a bus in Haifa, Israel. The story and photo caption in the March 6 Times, tucked at the bottom corner of page 1, made no mention of Abigail's name. Neither the headline nor the photo caption indicated that an American had died, or that the suicide bomber had deliberately chosen a bus packed with schoolchildren, or that a majority of those killed had been teenagers.

The suicide bombers in both Davao and Haifa were acting on behalf of Muslim fundamentalist groups fighting for separate states. But the Haifa bomber was arguably worse. He deliberately chose children as his target, and his bomb was packed with specially sharpened nails and shrapnel to maximize pain and to make it harder for doctors to save the wounded.

Readers of some newspapers - but not of the Times - were told that Litle's Missouri-born parents had rushed to Haifa's Rambam hospital to look for their "wounded" daughter and instead had found only what remained of her: her legs. They had identified Abigail from an ankle bracelet still attached to one of them. That day's New York Post carried a picture of the pretty, blond-haired New Hampshire-born schoolgirl who had been active in Jewish-Arab school dialogue groups on its front page.

Even the Sun - a British tabloid not known for its foreign news coverage, and which goes to press several hours before the New York Times - gave Abigail's death greater prominence than the Times did. The Sun's report began: "Fury swept Israel last night after a suicide bomber killed 15 people on a crowded school bus. Ten children died and 12 victims were left fighting for life after the bus was blown apart. The youngsters killed were aged 14 and 15 and from local high schools. One was 14-year-old Abigail Leitner, a U.S. citizen." (Initially, Litle's name was transliterated from Hebrew as Leitner by news agencies, hence the discrepancy; the death toll in Haifa has now risen to 17, not including the bomber.)

The lack of prominence given to Litle?s death is one small example of what has become a familiar pattern at the Times. The paper downplays Israeli suffering, and de-emphasizes Yasser Arafat's responsibility for the suffering of Israelis and ordinary Palestinians alike.

While the Times couldn't find room to include a photo of Abigail (or any injured child) last Thursday, it did choose to again run what it terms its "Mideast Death Toll" chart alongside the news report about the Haifa bomb. Strangely, the Times (to my recollection) usually runs this chart - in which it lines up total numbers of Israeli deaths next to the greater number of Palestinian deaths - only on days after Israelis have died. The implication would seem to be that Israel is responsible for more fatalities than the Palestinians.

It also seems odd that the Times doesn't (to the best of my knowledge) run these kind of football-score-type charts for any other conflict (Protestant vs. Catholic deaths in Northern Ireland, for example, or Afghan vs. American deaths since September 11).

The chart itself is fundamentally misleading. It makes no distinction between civilians and armed combatants, lumping together suicide bombers and other gunmen killed on shooting sprees with their innocent victims. It also reports suspected Palestinian "collaborators" killed by their own compatriots as if they had been killed by Israelis.

If the Times wanted its readers to gain a better understanding of what is actually going on in the Middle East, one could think of other statistics it could have given. It could have informed them that 80 percent of Israeli fatalities have been noncombatants, half of whom have been female; or that less than 5 percent of Palestinian fatalities have been female; or that a much higher proportion of Israeli casualties than Palestinian casualties have been older people. All these would be a good indication of which party is targeting the innocent.

When New York Times readers complained in the past about the misleading nature of its "Mideast Death Toll" chart (on a previous occasion it was published following suicide attacks on Israelis in March 2002), the response from the paper was surprisingly brusque and dismissive. Bill Borders (senior editor on the Times's news desk) wrote: "The graphs are correct because everyone that they count as dead is in fact dead. All of them."

But there is a further problem. The Times appears to have inflated the number of Palestinian dead. "At least 2,100 Palestinians have been killed during the months of violence that began Sept. 29, 2000," stated the Times caption accompanying its chart on Thursday March 6. Yet the Reuters news agency - which even Palestinian Authority officials have admitted is sympathetic to their "struggle" - provides a considerably lower figure. In a story on March 7, Reuters' Gaza correspondent Nidal al-Mughrabi writes: "At least 1,906 Palestinians and 720 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising for statehood began in September 2000." Not only is Reuters' estimate of Israeli dead higher than the Times', and the Palestinian figure considerably lower, but the Reuters statistics also included 11 more Palestinian militants and civilians who had been killed in disputed circumstances that morning, March 7.

The New York Times has taken its statistics for its "Death Toll" chart from the Palestinian Red Crescent, which it should know is a highly politicized and sometimes militant organization - Red Crescent ambulances have on more than one occasion been caught smuggling suicide bombers into Israel, and at least one Red Crescent medic became a suicide bomber herself, killing or injuring over 150 Israeli civilians at a west Jerusalem shopping arcade last year.

If the Times wants to rely on Palestinian sources, it might do better to follow the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), whose mission is "to end human rights violations committed against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, regardless of those responsible." The PHRMG, while certainly no friend of Israel (it is often brutal in its criticism) is nonetheless relatively free from the influence of Arafat's security forces. A PHRMG press release dated March 7, 2003, states that "since the start of this bloody Intifada on September 29, 2000, 1973 Palestinian people have lost their lives" - a figure that again includes Palestinian terrorists, but is still significantly lower than that used by the Times.

For the record, according to a report in the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz on March 13, 2003, 365 innocent Palestinians - unconnected to terrorist or armed activity - have died, though some may have been killed as a result of being caught in Palestinian, not Israeli, crossfire.

The New York Times is hardly the most anti-Israel newspaper. And it is much too measured and careful to indulge in the kind of ugly calumnies found, for example, in the London Guardian - which in a lead editorial last year compared Israel to al-Qaeda, concluding that Israel's behavior was "every bit as repellant." Still, in all kinds of small, insidious ways - most of which are not apparent unless you have expert knowledge on the Middle East - the Times' coverage is more slanted than many readers might realize. And since the Times has a reputation as being the great paper of record, the consequences of its distortions are in some ways much more damaging than those found elsewhere.

Less than 5 percent of Palestinian casualties have been female, and even fewer have been pregnant mothers. Yet when one is killed - as happened on March 2, when a wall accidentally fell on her - the Times takes care to let its readers know: in news reports on March 3 (page 6), March 4 (page 1), March 5 (page 3), and March 9. Readers would be forgiven for assuming that Israel killed pregnant mothers every day, but these stories all refer to the same unnamed woman.

The New York Times also neglected to emphasize that the woman's unfortunate death happened in the course of a successful military action to capture Mohammed Taha, cofounder of Hamas, who was hiding in the house next door. The front-page report by James Bennet ("Israeli Raid Snares a Foe, but leaves Family Motherless," March 4) refers to Taha only as "a known militant." Not until the twelfth paragraph, on an inside page, does Bennet mention that Taha is a leader of Hamas (he is in fact the most senior one ever caught). Other papers ran headlines such as "Israel nabs Hamas founder in Gaza" (Daily News, March 4).

This was an accidental death in the course of a legitimate counterterrorist action. But a number of pregnant Israeli mothers were killed deliberately. If their deaths were reported at all, the Times and other media have referred to them merely as "Israelis" or as "settlers." For example, when a pregnant Israeli, her infant child, and other family members were attacked at their family Passover meal at Elon Moreh on March 28, 2002, the only coverage the Times provided was the following sentence buried in an article about Yasser Arafat: "Even as Mr. Arafat made his pledge, a Palestinian gunmen shot and killed four Israelis in a Jewish settlement near the West Bank city of Nablus." No mention of the seven children left orphaned in that attack.

When the Times has sympathetically profiled women who have died in this conflict, it has more often been the suicide bombers than their Israeli victims. Wafa Idris - who killed or wounded 150 innocent civilians on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road on January 27, 2002 - had "chestnut hair curling past her shoulders"; she "raised doves and adored children," James Bennet reported in a front-page article for the Times.

Another young Palestinian woman, Ayat al-Akhras, who blew herself up in a Jerusalem supermarket last March, was profiled no less than three times by Times correspondents. The first two articles (by Serge Schmemann, March 30, 2002, and Joel Greenberg, March 31, 2002) presented details about her name, age, sex, occupation, and family members, and included a large, full-length photo of her and another of her mourning father. The only information given about the victims of the attack was that "a man and woman were killed," and that at least 30 were wounded. No names, no descriptions, no occupations, no ages, no mourning families, and certainly no photographs (all these were given in other papers).

While the schoolgirl victim of al-Akhras's bombing (Rachel Levy, 17) was finally named a week later in a third Times article (which again provided a photo and details of the terrorist - Joel Greenberg writing that al-Akhras wore jeans, had "flowing black hair," and so on), the male victim of the bombing was apparently deemed to not be newsworthy: His name was never mentioned. He was in fact Haim Smadar, who was temporarily working as a security guard at the supermarket during the Passover holidays, and who used himself as a human shield to keep al-Akhras from taking more lives.

New York Times reporters have employed sympathetic language in describing male terrorists too. When 26 Palestinian gunmen, who had seized control of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, were exiled to Gaza last May, Tim Golden's report ("Cast Adrift After Siege, Bethlehem Exiles Grieve," May 21, 2002) was surprisingly sympathetic. These men had just shot their way into one of Christianity's holiest shrines, trashed it, and held its priests hostage; before that they had been involved in shooting at Israeli motorists, preparing bombs, and dispatching suicide bombers. Yet Golden went so far as to describe the difficulties the men might now have finding work: "The echoes, critics of the deal said, could scarcely be crueler: after half a century in which Palestinians have fought for the return of compatriots who fled at Israel's creation, they have been forced from their homes once more."

The Times's distorted presentation of events is especially troubling given the very high respect in which the paper is generally held by its readership, policymakers, and other members of the media. The Times' framing of the conflict has for years contributed to bad diplomacy at the State Department and elsewhere, and has fueled negative images of Israel among the public at large. As I know from personal experience working as a correspondent in the Middle East for both American and European papers, foreign news editors throughout the world often look to the Times for story ideas. Every evening, editors across America check the next day's front-page stories on the New York Times before altering their lineups.

Especially abroad, some mistakenly presume that the New York Times must be pro-Israel since it is Jewish-owned and has several prominent Jewish writers and editors. In fact, it may be precisely for this reason that it bends over backward to avoid being seen as the "Jew York Times," as one European journalist I used to work with in Israel called it. There would be nothing new in this. The Times deliberately downplayed reports on the Holocaust in the 1940s. It hid news of the ongoing genocide of European Jewry "in small print on the back pages? Jewish-owned but anxious not to be seen as Jewish-oriented," as historian David S. Wyman put it.

[Part 2 of this article can be seen here: All The News That?s Fit To Print? - Part II]
Tom Gross is a former Middle East correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and the New York Daily News.

This article first appeared in National Review, March 14, 2003, and is reproduced here with permission from the author.
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