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

The Times does not seem to be living up to its self-proclaimed reputation for thoroughness. "All the news that's fit to print," trumpets the paper in a famous box on the top left corner every day. In practice, however, the editors only correct a very small proportion of the paper's many Middle East errors and slurs against Israel.

Tom Gross,

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The slants and omissions in the Times can be found well beyond basic reporting. For example, in last year's "Year in Review" calendar (December 29, 2002), the Times highlighted the most important events of the year. The entry for March 28 read: "Arab world agrees to relations with Israel if land is returned" (this is hardly news; it is a claim some Arabs have made for decades) - followed directly by, on March 29, "Israel invades Yasser Arafat's headquarters, 5 Palestinians, 1 Israeli die." The reader is left with the impression that Israel's only response to the supposed Arab peace offer was violence.

In fact, on March 27 (on which only the death of comedian Milton Berle was marked by the Times), 29 Israelis - including an 89-year-old Auschwitz survivor, Sarah Levy-Hoffman - were blown up while celebrating a Passover seder at a Netanya hotel, something the Times did not list in its calendar (the Times does mention the Passover bomb in a footnote to its calendar, but says only that "more than a dozen people died," which is an odd way to characterize a group of 29 people; and incidentally, six Israelis - not one - were killed by Palestinians on March 29, 2002).

As Bret Stephens, the editor of the Jerusalem Post, pointed out last August, when one carefully examines the New York Times's corrections column, one can see that in all cases the mistakes were made against Israel. "In a more normal world," wrote Stephens, "a newspaper's mistakes, particularly in its political and diplomatic reporting, would more-or-less be randomly distributed... Yet while a search of NYT corrections over the past two years discloses the usual measure of forgivable bloopers, not once has the paper erred on the side of Israel. A pattern of bias, maybe?"

The Times does not seem to be living up to its self-proclaimed reputation for thoroughness. "All the news that's fit to print," trumpets the paper in a famous box on the top left corner every day. In practice, however, the editors only correct a very small proportion of the paper's many Middle East errors and slurs against Israel. The celebrated political commentator Walter Lippmann once observed that "The study of error serves as a stimulating introduction to the study of truth." This seems to be the case here.

The Times's misreporting may well have continuing repercussions. Take a mistake made on the very first day of the Intifada. A Jewish student, Tuvia Grossman, was brutally beaten and stabbed by a Palestinian mob near the Western Wall. Yet the New York Times picture caption (September 30, 2000) identified him as a Palestinian victim of Israeli violence. Even though the Times did publish a correction in this case (following intense pressure from the Grossman family), today an official Egyptian government website continues to use the Grossman photo - perhaps lifted at the time from the Times website - as part of its propaganda campaign, in a "photo gallery" of Palestinian victims. And until last year, the website of the Palestinian Information Center incorporated the mis-captioned photo of Grossman onto its homepage banner, too. Last year, Arab groups calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola used the photo of Grossman's bleeding face on its "Boycott Israel" poster with the accompanying slogan: "By supporting American products, you're supporting Israeli terror."

The imbalance extends to the op-ed pages as well. For example, on a visit to Saudi Arabia, Times columnist Maureen Dowd allowed the anti-Semitic slanders of the Saudi deputy education minister to be repeated unchallenged and uncriticized, as if they were fact: "Why don't you go to Israeli math textbooks and see what they're saying - If you kill 10 Arabs one day and 12 the next day, what would be the total?" he said ("Under the Ramadan Moon," November 6, 2002). When a reader asked why the Times allowed such slanderous and utterly untrue statements to go unquestioned, Gail Collins, a member of the New York Times editorial board, replied: "Maureen was using the textbook comment as an example of the extreme misinformation that floats around in the Mideast. It's obvious that she didn't expect anyone to take it literally. However I'm very sorry you were disturbed by it."

But, given the Times' track record of Middle East coverage - and the inflammatory accusations and conspiracy theories against Jews and Israel presently popping up elsewhere in the media - does anyone really believe that this will be so "obvious" to the Times' millions of readers?

The Times does have a pro-Israel columnist, William Safire. But this hardly makes up for the slant of other columnists (it would take a whole book to explain how Tom Friedman gets it wrong on Israel), let alone those of its outside contributors - such as Allegra Pacheco, a Jewish lawyer-activist who represents Palestinians in the West Bank and condemns Israel as an "apartheid" state; or Henry Siegman, another Jewish activist whose writings are presently proudly displayed on the website of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Indeed, the New York Times' idea of balance almost seems to be to run alternating pieces - first by Palestinians and others condemning Israel, then by far-left Jews condemning Israel. When an outside op-ed writer, the noted international human-rights expert Prof. Anne Bayefsky, included a sentence sympathetic to Israel in her article (May 22, 2002), the Times tried to muzzle her. Only through dogged persistence, Bayefsky says, did she manage to persuade the Times to restore a sentence criticizing the U.N. Human Rights Commission for directing a full 30 percent of its resolutions against Israel. Bayefsky was so exasperated by her experience with the Times op-ed desk that she wrote an entire article about it in the June 2002 edition of the legal magazine Justice.

The Times also likes to devote ample publicity to anti-Zionist Jews. Last March and April, for example - in a period when it ran almost no stories on the hundreds of Israeli victims and survivors of suicide bombs (which were then occurring at a record rate) - the Times carried at least four stories quoting Adam Shapiro, an American Jew who entered Ramallah to protect and assist Yasser Arafat when Israel responded.

The Times repeatedly referred to Shapiro as a "humanitarian worker." This was curious, since Shapiro himself admits to support for "armed resistance" and a Palestinian "violent movement." Nowhere in its extensive and largely sympathetic coverage of Shapiro did the Times quote from his article in Palestine Chronicle a month earlier, in which he explains that when he said he told Western journalists he supported non-violence this was merely a tactical maneuver to "manipulate? a story". In the same article, Shapiro also referred to a "suicide operation" as "noble."

The Times's largely sympathetic portrayal of Shapiro fits into a familiar pattern of photo captions, headlines, and articles about Western supporters of Yasser Arafat, in which they are described as "pacifists," "peace advocates," or "peace activists."

But perhaps, when future historians examine the Times' record in this period, they will conclude that their biggest mistake of all was to have spent years sanitizing the image of Yasser Arafat, in effect helping to persuade Western governments to continue propping up his regime even as both Palestinians and Israelis died and the formation of a democratic Palestinian state was continually delayed.

The Times has consistently underplayed Arafat's role in orchestrating the ongoing terror against Israel. It has failed to report how the al-Aqsa Brigades, the militia Arafat set up after launching the Intifada, has been responsible for as many Israeli civilian deaths as Hamas. Even when the al-Aqsa Brigades proudly claims responsibility for killing a mother, her 5- and 4-year-old sons, and two other Israelis at a Kibbutz (as it did on November 10 of last year, posting a photo of the perpetrator on it website), a front-page Times report on December 17, 2002 which referred to the killings, described the gunman merely as "mysterious" - as though it wasn't known who had pulled the trigger.

Over the last year, the New York Times has devoted hundreds of thousands of words to both Arafat and Saddam Hussein. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find any reference to Arafat's continuing support for Saddam. When Arafat sent "holiday greetings" to the Iraqi dictator, as he did last month in a telegram (reported in other Arab and Western media on February 22, 2003), calling him "Your Excellency, Brother-President Saddam" and writing that "Together, hand in hand [we will march] to Al-Quds Al-Sharif [Jerusalem] with the help of Allah" - you won't find mention of it in the Times.

The Times will publish an editorial which it says was written by Yasser Arafat ("The Palestinian Vision of Peace," February 3, 2002) allowing him to make statements such as "I condemn the attacks carried out by terrorist groups against Israeli civilians." But it will barely report that in that same week, at a rally in Ramallah (February 7, 2002), Arafat repeated his call for "millions of martyrs" to attack Jerusalem; nor will it emphasize that it was the Arafat-affiliated al-Aqsa Brigades that claimed credit for an attack on Israeli civilians in Moshav Hamra, a farming community, on February 6, 2002.

The Times even took the unusual step, in its February 3 daily e-mail update sent to subscribers ("Today's Headlines from"), of listing Arafat's op-ed as the lead article in the International news section, even though it has a specific Op-Ed section in the daily digest. The Times' e-mail update did not identify the story as an opinion, nor did it identify the author. It just read: "Palestinians want to live as equals alongside Israel in an independent and viable state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967" - a very different message than that being broadcast at the same time in the Arafat-controlled Palestinian media.

That the Times has on occasion run editorials calling on Arafat's followers to cease "attacks on Israeli soldiers, settlers, and civilians" hardly makes up for its overall record of obscuring the truth about Arafat's views. For example, when the paper published a long interview and profile of Arafat on July 8, 2001, detailing the Palestinian leader's insistence that he had lived up to a recent U.S.-brokered cease-fire agreement calling on him to stop incitement against Israelis, they failed to mention that, only days before, he had praised the suicide bomber who had recently killed 21 Israelis (mainly teenage girls) at a Tel Aviv seaside disco as a "noble soul" and "the model of manhood and sacrifice for the sake of Allah and the homeland."

Even though Arafat's standing internationally is now greatly diminished (though no thanks to New York Times reporting), the Times continues its pattern of omitting information that might cast him in a bad light. Two weeks ago, for example, on February 27, Forbes magazine released its annual list of the world's wealthiest people. In a new category for "kings, queens, and despots," it ranked Arafat sixth, just behind Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

Forbes outlined how Arafat has "feasted on all sorts of funds flowing into the Palestinian Authority, including aid money? Much of the money appears to have gone to pay off others... [including] payments to alleged terrorists... Take the money out of his hands, reform a corrupt financial system and you could reduce the violence."

Yet, while the Times did run a story on the corruption of the Palestinian Authority - "Palestinian Assets 'a Mess' Official Says," March 1, 2003 - correspondent James Bennet not only refrained from mentioning the Forbes findings, he barely even mentioned Arafat's name. The man who has maintained an iron grip on Palestinian finances and funds for the past four decades apparently has nothing to do with the corruption.

The Times works against Israel in other, subtle ways, too. Sometimes it is the small words that creep into news pieces in an attempt to tarnish Israel: "After 26 months of Palestinian suicide bombings and pitiless Israeli retaliation," reports Michael Wines - December 8, 2002 (apparently it is not the suicide bombers that are "pitiless"). Or sometimes, in the course of the same article, armed Arab rioters trying to kill Jews are referred to as "demonstrators"; meanwhile, Jewish rioters "rampage" when they respond (as in a report by Deborah Sontag, October 10, 2000, or in a report in the Times on the same day by Chris Hedges, titled "Crowds of Jews Rampage in Nazareth").

On other occasions, information that might cast the Palestinians in a bad light is omitted. For example, even though its news reports are much longer than those in most papers, no mention was made in the Times of the mass celebrations in Gaza following last summer's Hebrew University bombing (five American students and teachers died in that attack).

The New York Times has also subtly altered its definitions and terminology. Take the Temple Mount, for instance, which historians, archeologists, Christians, Muslims, and others have for centuries acknowledged as Judaism's holiest place, the site of two holy Jewish temples. In apparent deference to Yasser Arafat - who has recently begun claiming that no Jewish temple ever existed there - the Times began, two years ago, to add the phrase "which the Arabs call the Haram al Sharif" in mentions of the Temple Mount. Then, a few weeks later, the Times referred to "the Temple Mount, which Israel claims to have been the site of the First and Second Temple." And then, in a subsequent article, the Times described Israeli troops as having "stormed the Haram, holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem" - without even mentioning the status of the "Temple Mount" as Judaism's holiest site. Would they do that to Mecca?


When it comes to altering history, Times reporters are taken in not only by Arafat's propaganda but by that of other Arab dictators too. For example, when it covered Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Syria in May 2001, the Times, swallowing Syrian claims, charged that Israel had been responsible for the destruction of the border town of Quneitra. "Pope Prays for Peace at City Destroyed by Israel," read its headline (May 6, 2001); readers were informed that Israel had destroyed Quneitra in 1974 (when, in fact, Syria did so in 1973). A few days later, the Times printed a correction - albeit an only partially accurate one. They may only have done so, however, because alert readers wrote in pointing out that the Times itself had over a period of several years reported on the Syrian destruction of Quneitra:

Syria shelled Israeli positions in the Golan for three hours, hitting "El Quneitra, Nahal Gesher and Ein Zivan," reported the New York Times ("Fighting Flares in Golan Heights as Syrian Tanks Attack Israelis," June 25, 1970).

Damascus radio announces that Syrian artillery had shelled "Kafr Naffakh and El Quneitra," reported the New York Times ("Syria Shells Israeli Bases in Occupied Golan Heights," November 26, 1972).

A Moroccan brigade aligned with Syria is "taking part in an attack on El Quneitra," reported the New York Times (October 11, 1973).

Quneitra is now "a bombed-out military town," following the Syrian and Moroccan bombardment, reported the New York Times (October 21, 1973).

So what has happened to the integrity and professionalism of Times reporting to make its correspondents, in 2001, accept Syrian propaganda as fact?

Of course, the Times is hardly alone in swallowing the propaganda of Arab dictators. During the Pope's visit, CNN's Brent Sadler referred to Israel's "systematic destruction of Quneitra"; Time magazine's Tony Karon wrote that Quneitra "was destroyed by Israeli forces in 1974 and has been maintained as a ghost town ever since"; and so on. But shouldn't we expect more of the "paper of record"?

Sometimes, New York Times correspondents only admit how they really feel after stepping down. When Deborah Sontag ended her stint as Jerusalem bureau chief, she wrote a 6,200-word article starting on the Times' front page (July 26, 2001) in which she essentially blamed Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister, and not Yasser Arafat, for the Intifada - even though Palestinian cabinet ministers have themselves admitted at rallies in Gaza and Lebanon to having carefully planned the Intifada months before it started, following Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon; unsurprisingly, these rallies were virtually ignored by the Times. Sontag's piece has been dubbed "the mother of all Arafat-rehab articles."

Another former Times correspondent, Chris Hedges (he was the Mideast bureau chief for the Times from 1991-95), is also continuing to make wild accusations against Israel. For instance, he wrote (Harper's magazine, October 2001) that he has seen children shot in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Sarajevo, and mothers with infants lined up and massacred in Algeria, but that until going to Gaza he had "never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport."

We have only Hedges's word for this claim, which was furiously rejected by the Israeli army (although Hedges doesn't mention this in his piece). No other journalist in Gaza - and there are plenty of them - claims to have seen what Hedges does. Of course, the Times can't be held accountable for an article that appeared elsewhere, but one nevertheless has to wonder how balanced the reporters it assigns to the Middle East are.

Today the New York Times is held in as high regard as ever (last year it won a record seven Pulitzer Prizes). But it isn't doing a very good job when it comes to the Middle East. The distortions of the media are depressing not only because they are untrue, but because they set back the day when there might be peace and coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian.

Liberals like myself want to see two democratic states coexisting in peace. But we have also followed the conflict closely enough to know that the Western media's misreporting has contributed to the failed policies of both American and European diplomats.

For ten years now, ever since Arafat returned to Gaza, moderate Palestinians - outside the earshot of the dozen different security forces Arafat has set up to safeguard his rule - have long whispered to those Western reporters who would listen that they should help to expose the corrupt, dictatorial, and duplicitous ways of Arafat and his clique. Few reporters have done so.

Various groups of Times readers in New York, exasperated with the paper's bias against Israel, have repeatedly sought to discuss the matter with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Howell Raines. Yet Sulzberger and Raines have refused to meet them. Instead, last November, they agreed to answer questions on their Mideast coverage (for the first time, according to an AP report) from a group of mostly anti-Israel radicals at the University of California at Berkeley. When one student there did ask Raines why the Times' reporting wasn't more accurate, he replied: "In this business, there's only one thing to do when you get it wrong, and that's get it right as soon as you can."

Fine words - and it's about time the New York Times lived up to them.

[Part 1 of this article can ge seen here: All The News That?s Fit To Print? - Part I]
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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