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American Journalism Review
Letters  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   July/August 1992

Letters   


WJR Off Target
To the editor:
It's not unusual to see sloppy reporting when a story is more intent on championing a cause than presenting facts and balanced analysis. But it's unusual, and disheartening, to see it in a serious journalism review such as WJR. Yet that's the only way to describe Steven Emerson's piece "Off Target" (May) in which he labored mightily to prove that the press has been unfair to Israel.
One of his examples was a Wall Street Journal story disclosing that the consensus of top American intelligence experts was that Israel had illicitly transferred weapons with U.S. technology to a number of other countries.
Here are the facts: The Journal's story, based on a State Department inspector general report, cites well-respected experts such as Henry S. Rowen, a former assistant secretary of defense, and clearly establishes this finding was a "consensus" of top U.S. intelligence experts. Emerson, by contrast, relies totally on sources anonymous in name and even agency.
Emerson also complains the media "generally disregarded" Israeli military analysts unless they are criticizing Israeli policies. But when it comes to the Journal story, he begrudgingly admits that our reporter, Edward Pound, not only tried to get an Israeli response but even offered to go over the story specific weapon system by specific weapon system. The Israelis refused.
Emerson is an independent journalist well known for his championing of Israeli positions. I have no problems with his forceful advocacy. It's puzzling, however, that a journalism review would have him write a supposedly detached analytical piece about a subject to which he is so decidedly attached.
The Wall Street Journal story was 2,400 words, and Emerson could not find a single error. No, we did not, as your article said, get "it wrong." But WJR certainly got it wrong by having someone with Emerson's background write about this topic.

Al Hunt
Washington Bureau Chief
Wall Street Journal


To the editor:
WJR's criticism of those who reported illegal Israeli transfers of American high-tech weaponry to China and other countries is really not suitable for the excellent journalism magazine you strive to be.
Steven Emerson is a good investigative reporter but one who has a strong pro-Israel tilt. Assigning him the role of journalistic critic on the matter of illegal Israeli sales of U.S. technology is akin to asking Samuel Skinner to write a critique of an op-ed piece that raised tough questions about George Bush.
Emerson's superficial criticism was born, lived and died on unnamed sources: "Israeli officials," anonymous "congressional officials," a "former government official who had access to..raw intelligence" and so on.
Conversely, his treatment of official U.S. documentation of egregious Israeli cheating is one slur after another against its authors. Pentagon official Henry Sokolsky, the author of a chilling memo documenting the extent of Israeli cheating, is handled as follows by Emerson: "Defense Department and congressional sources have uniformly ridiculed it as..inaccurate. One senior official called it 'flat-wrong'..." Who, how, why, when?
The fastidious report by State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk on illegal technology transfers is dismissed by your reporter this way: "A senior Defense Department official..said firmly that the 'IG abjectly misrepresents the intent and bottom line of the documents upon which his report was based.' " Who, how, why, when?
Ze'ev Schiff, the respected defense reporter for Ha'aretz and one of Emerson's few named sources, labeled Funk's report "inaccurate and false." We respect Schiff, but we cannot match the credibility of an Israeli, no matter how reputable, with Sokolsky and Funk.
As for sourcing, we frequently use "administration officials," "White House insiders" or other forms of concealed sourcing in our columns. We could not function otherwise. But that does not suffice for a first-rate publication dedicated to advancing the cause of journalism. Emerson's use of one string of anonymous quotes after another did not serve your magazine well. It left him short of proving his case.

Rowland Evans Jr.
Robert Novak
Chicago Sun-Times
Washington, D.C.

To the editor:
Your May article about Israel and the Patriot missile prompts an immediate question.
Why would a magazine dedicated to uncovering press failings stoop to publishing such an unbalanced and poorly sourced article — one WJR surely would have criticized had it appeared, say, in the Washington Times?
For the record, Bill Gertz and I broke the Israel-Patriot story. We wrote that the Bush administration had a "credible" intelligence report that Israel had transferred a Patriot missile or its technology to China. We further reported that the administration would send an inspection team to Israel to audit the Patriot program there.
All this proved to be true. But to Steven Emerson this was not a story at all. Emerson writes that the Patriot flap was part of an administration conspiracy to harm Israel. In an attempt to support this theory, he relies on a gaggle of unnamed sources while ignoring on-the-record comments that told a different story.
Emerson's most serious allegation is that Bill and I "exaggerated" the intelligence report by writing that Israel may have transferred an actual missile. Bill and I conducted more than a dozen interviews for the story. We had confirmation from knowledgeable officials that, in fact, the intelligence report did include that possibility.
Emerson also makes the laughable assertion that the administration took the extraordinary step of sending an inspection team to Israel only at the insistence of the Israeli government. In fact, the decision to send a team was contained in an internal administration action memorandum. We reported this in our first story before Israel publicly said it would welcome an inspection.
Emerson also chose to ignore statements from senior administration officials who believe a diversion may well have occurred. For example, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told reporters at one point that clearly a "dispute" exists between the United States and Israel over the re-export of U.S. weapons technology. To me, a "dispute" means just that — the United States believes Israel is violating arms agreements and Israel believes it is not.
Cheney later told CNN the administration had "good reason" to believe the Patriot technology diversion occurred. That's a telling comment from a very senior official. WJR editors should ask why Emerson excluded it.

Rowan Scarborough
Washington Times


To the editor:
Several years ago I wrote an article on U.S. counterterrorism activities in Lebanon based on a report published in a military-oriented trade magazine. A short time later I received a strange telephone call from Steven Emerson, who threatened to have WJR publish an attack on me because I did not cite a book he had written on the same subject. Since the article I wrote had nothing to do with Emerson, I dismissed him as a crank.
So I wasn't surprised that Emerson appears to be seeking some sort of revenge in his grossly inaccurate critique of the report in the Washington Times about Israel's possible transfer of Patriot missile technology to China.
Emerson ignores many elements of the issue to suit his own bias. For example, he makes no mention of how Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams declined to give Israel the same kind of "clean bill of health" as the State Department. Williams said "we still have some concerns" after the inspection team returned from Israel.
Emerson also makes the false claim that our reporting was based on "unverified allegations" — Emerson's explanation for intelligence reports he disagrees with.
It is also a fact that the State Department did not offer a public apology to Israel. Any reporter who has worked in Washington should have been able to interpret this. The intelligence may not have been proven in the courtroom sense, but neither has it been disproven, as is often the case.
Emerson does not mention subsequent reporting (based on classified Defense Intelligence Agency reports which stated that two Chinese diplomats privately confirmed that Israel did in fact divert the Patriot technology to China) that appeared in Newsday and later in the Washington Times under my byline. The report was not mentioned by Emerson, apparently because it did not fit with his bias.

Bill Gertz
Washington Times

Emerson Responds
It has apparently become politically correct to report anything negative about Israel, no matter how false. Conversely, if a journalist points out factual errors or omissions, or challenges the credibility of allegations about Israel, that journalist is a "champion" of Israel. This is the perfect defense for Hunt, Evans and Novak, none of whom attempt to address the specific points I made in my article. When you can't dismiss the message, you dismiss the messenger.
As for Scarborough's charge that I believe the "Patriot missile flap was part of an administration conspiracy to harm Israel," there is no reference to any such conspiracy in the article, nor do I believe one existed.
Hunt, Evans and Novak contend that the State Department I.G.'s report backs them up. In fact, Hunt's claim that a "consensus" existed among "top U.S. intelligence experts" is contradicted by the report itself. In Appendix C of the report, the Office of the Legal Advisor to the State Department explicitly noted three instances where senior intelligence officials expressed doubts about the allegations.
Hunt, Evans and Novak also complain that I relied on unnamed sources. The Wall Street Journal article featured more than 10 unnamed sources; Evans and Novak cited more than a dozen in their three columns on the subject. The real issue is not the use of unnamed sources, but whether the information elicited from such sources is accurate.
Hunt also cites former Assistant Secretary of Defense Henry Rowen as supporting the charge that Israel illegally transferred weapons containing U.S. technology. In fact, the Journal article says only that Rowen attempted to check claims that the Reagan administration had given Israel "tacit approval" to re-export U.S. equipment.
Further, Hunt says that I only "begrudgingly" noted that Israeli officials refused to talk to Pound. In fact, I explicitly pointed out, quoting Pound extensively, that Israeli goverment officials would not respond to Pound's offer to review each allegation.
Gertz and Scarborough still seem to believe that Israel did transfer Patriot technology to China. To buttress their claims, they cite the absence of a U.S. apology to Israel, the alleged "confirmation" of technology transfers by Chinese diplomats, and statements by Defense Department officials.
In fact, the administration explicitly exonerated Israel. The diplomats from China — a country which has been trying to deflect U.S. criticism of its own missile proliferation — offered no specific evidence nor identified what type of technology Israel allegedly diverted to their country.
Gertz and Scarborough cite Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and spokesman Pete Williams to support their claims. I should have included these statements by Cheney and Williams in my article. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the U.S. inspection team found that Israel did not tamper with the Patriot missiles.
Ironically, the Washington Times was the only news organization to get the story right in the aftermath of the Patriot flap. In its lead editorial on April 13, the paper criticized the Bush administration for allowing the "leak of an unsubstantiated U.S. intelligence report [about the Patriot]."
Finally, the charge that I once threatened to have WJR investigate Gertz, and that my article — four years later — was a product of revenge, is a product of Gertz's overactive imagination.
As for any other charges unaddressed in this response: I stand by my story.

WJR On Target
To the editor:
I commend Steven Emerson for his investigation of the media's role in the accusations against Israel regarding the sale of U.S. weapons systems to China and other countries.
His article is both eye-opening and disturbing. Careful analysis of the timing and development of the story, leading to what Emerson described as the "invisible critical mass — the journalistic threshold that results in pack reporting," reveals twin dangers: cynical manipulation of the press through leaks from unidentified sources and the deplorable lowering of journalistic standards that traditionally call for corroboration, verification, objectivity and confirmation of facts.
Emerson gives us keen insight into the role of administration officials in giving "legs" to a story based largely on false or unverified itelligence reports. He also reveals the manner in which various reporters allowed themselves to be used as a pipeline for misinformation.
Here in the Midwest, as elsewhere, we rely on "inside-the-Beltway" journalists for balanced information. While I am sad that there is need for investigative reporting of the media itself, I am impressed and happy to see Emerson setting the record straight.
One wonders why the Washington Times, Evans and Novak, and other journalists have failed to devote as much attention to the real story of actual transfers of U.S. arms to such countries as Iraq and Syria.
In these days of "pack journalism" we need more watchdogs like Emerson.

Thurman Mitchell
Reporter, KCTV-TV
Kansas City, Missouri


To the editor:
Congratulations on Steven Emerson's "Off Target." Emerson's account adds an element of balance to a story which has been handled irresponsibly by most of the media.
It is clear from this episode that any story about Israeli malfeasance with respect to arms exports — no matter how flimsy — is likely to receive prominent play in the media. One can only hope that the corrective provided by Emerson, A.M. Rosenthal, Leslie Gelb and a few others will lead to a bit more journalistic caution in reporting.

Marvin Feuerwerger
Senior Strategic Fellow
The Institute for Near East Policy
Washington, D.C.

Longest Růsumů?
To the editor:
On any level, Jim Bellows is one of the truly great editors of the century. I had the honor of working with him three times — The New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star and MediaNews newspapers.
In fact, many times he has told me I am his No. 1 protůgů. What success I've had in the newspaper business is largely thanks to him. From Bellows I have learned three hugely valuable lessons: the name of the game is ideas; never be threatened by talent, including your own; and understand backwards, but live forwards.
Alas, I must take issue with the title of your June cover story on Bellows ("The editor with the longest růsumů in journalism"), and in so doing offer further proof that I am a hard-core Bellows disciple.
Bellows doesn't have the longest růsumů of any editor in journalism. That distinction is mine — by a mile.
Therefore, I also would enjoy a really upbeat cover story about me in WJR. Ready when you are.

David Burgin
Editor in Chief
Alameda Newspaper Group
Hayward, California

Miami Heat
To the editor:
I wish to congratulate Reese Cleghorn on his comments on the "Battle in Miami: Too Easy to Ignore" (May). Whether one agrees or not with the Miami Herald in its coverage of Cuba and Fidel Castro, to try to
intimidate a paper into giving coverage of an issue to the liking of any particular group is unacceptable.
I wish to commend you for your fairness in disassociating the Cuban-American community from the antics of these right-wing fanatics. Neither the Cuban American National
Foundation nor its director, Jorge Mas Canosa, represent the majority of the Cubans in this country. All ideological positions are represented within the Cuban-American community. Unfortunately, the general perception lumps all of us under the same banner.
I, for one, was embarrassed by the unfounded accusations and threats made against the Herald and went on record to express my views. Many others who live in Miami shared my position but were afraid to express themselves openly for fear of reprisals against their businesses or professional practices. It is a sad day when American citizens are forced into self-censorship by individuals who claim to be champions of freedom. What can we expect if these people come to power in Cuba?

Ernesto F. Betancourt
Washington, D.C.

Job Prospects
To the editor:
I read with great interest "(For)Get a Job" (May). While there is no question the job market is very tight, there was a dimension missing in this sad tale of student frustration.
Both the main story by Kelly Richmond and sidebar by job-hunter Jeffrey Staggs focused heavily on the situation at large metros, where all concede the chances of a new grad being hired range from slim to none.
Since becoming a newsroom manager, I've worked at three excellent newsrooms of between 40 and 60 people in Racine and Madison, Wisconsin, and York, Pennsylvania. One would think that every spring, good newspapers this size would be flooded with applications from graduating seniors. These papers reach out to area universities, run active internship programs and recruit and hire at job fairs.
But the "flood" one would expect is, in fact, a trickle. My experience is that people like Stacy Torman, cited in the article as someone who sent out 274 růsumůs, are exceptions. Many college seniors send out a few růsumůs to their metro papers of choice — usually in areas where they want to live — and expect that to bear fruit. In York this spring, the managing editor and I could count on two hands the number of applications we received from college seniors, and have fingers left over.
One must wonder what college advisers are doing if they're not reminding seniors of two realities: Your first job will most likely not be a metro and you may have to move across the country to get started. Staggs need not look at this as a sentence to terminal boredom. Some of the best, most creative journalism in America is happening at smaller papers. And young journalists certainly get more of a chance to do it faster there. If many of the metros are as pompous as Staggs suggests, then I'd urge him to seek a job at one of those good outlying dailies.
Industry and academic groups could work far more effectively together to give our frustrated young people better direction and keep more of the best and brightest in print journalism.

Dennis Hetzel
Editor and Publisher
York Daily Record
York, Pennsylvania


To the editor:
In his diatribe, "He'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again," Jeffrey Staggs seems to assume the world of journalism owes him not just a job, but a career on a major metropolitan daily. We apparently were obligated to display his self-proclaimed brilliance on the front pages of our newspapers approximately yesterday.
He presumes experience is unnecessary when one is as talented as he declares himself to be and proceeds to spin a page full of clever phrasing and sly insults just to prove what a wordsmith he is. (I'm so impressed I'll save the article just so I can remember to refuse to hire him some day.)
Jeffrey, perhaps all those major metro editors were simply too polite — or too busy responding to hundreds of other unsolicited applications — to tell you what you need to hear. Trust me, you'd prefer the vague but well-mannered form letters.
But someone needs to be brutally blunt with you. On behalf of all my unemployed and under-employed journalist friends, I'll explain just a few reasons why you're having so much trouble getting a job.
A year as an editorial intern is certainly experience, but it doesn't for a minute compare to five years covering a beat — like the reporters we laid off in Massachusetts two years ago who now beg for freelance jobs.
And not in a million years would your shiny new degree, 40 clips and inflated opinion of yourself stand up against the 20-some years as a reporter, editor and owner of newspapers and a few more years in radio humbly listed by my former boss on a růsumů that brings him no more job offers than does yours.
Those are the people you're competing against, you blustering pipsqueak. How dare you presume journalism owes you anything — an interview, a detailed rejection letter, much less a job at a metro daily — when good, seasoned reporters are waiting on tables.
I doubt your fellow recent graduates who landed jobs did so by declaring from their lofty perches that they single-handedly could save an entire industry by virtue of youth alone. Experienced or not, most of your competitors for jobs had the good sense sometime back in high school to outgrow your pompous arrogance.
You concede you've got "some rough edges" and in the next breath imply editors exist purely to turn your unhewn work into presentable copy. What do you suppose those editors did to win the privilege of fixing some smart-aleck's rough edges? It certainly took more than flinging a bunch of růsumůs around the National Press Building and whining about how unfair the entire business is.
Somehow I doubt your University of Maryland professors or your co-workers at the Washington Times led you to believe you could walk off campus and onto the city desk at a big daily. Surely this fantasy is of your own creation. Even 12 years ago when I was first job hunting, I knew my application to the Washington Post had maybe a one-in-a-million chance, despite student credentials at least as good as yours. Sure, I sent it anyway, but I was realistic enough to also apply to papers that normally hire new graduates.
The Post sent a form letter that sounded remarkably like yours, but the Yuma Daily Sun, a 20,000-circulation P.M. in a miserably hot, isolated corner of nowhere, hired me. In two years there I covered school boards, fender-benders, zoning, small-town politics, cotton and peanut prices, county elections, the date harvest and tribal feuds. I loved it and hated it. And I got a more well-rounded start to my career than I could ever have wangled while writing obits at the Post for two years.
Small dailies and weeklies are hard work and the best place you could ever find to learn this business. But until you grow up and swallow some of that bombastic, self-righteous gall, I doubt even the most hard-pressed editor in the real world of journalism would offer you a job keeping the clip files.
They've got the least time of all to potty-train obnoxious protozoa who think they're Joseph Pulitzer's gifts to journalism.

Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
Washington, D.C.

To the editor:
Certainly, I was not the only reader last month who wanted to call up Jeffrey Staggs and give him Kelly Richmond's telephone number. These two have much to say to one another. And since, clearly, they stand looking in opposite directions, it was a stroke of editing genius for WJR to publish their perspectives back-to-back.
Staggs' lament of a frustrated job seeker echoed with a timely and poignant resonance off the hard surface of Richmond's bleak professional landscape. And Staggs' plaintive "What is so dad-burned important about experience?" was succinctly answered in Richmond's sad description of the current reality.
Today's emphasis on experience is not, as Staggs decries, a conspiracy against youth. Rather, it is a communion for survival. If there is collusion afoot, it is among local innovators in each news organization who are trying to do more and better with less and fewer: less money and fewer people.
Our priority has always been to put truly capable people in every position. But, in the past, "capable" was a value with some built-in slack; we were rich and fat, and we could afford to rate "potential" right up there with "productivity" in many positions. Now, we've cut the high-fat potential, and kept the high-energy productivity. That means experience.
But Staggs is absolutely correct; the e-word certainly does not increase one's talent. It is, however, a catalyst to talent. Experience heightens versatility, sharpens reflexes, promotes contacts, develops shortcuts and breeds street smarts. And it is the factor which will one day cause employers to find Staggs a more attractive prospect than some future crop of graduates who are, alas, only "talented."

Paul Reece
E.W. Scripps School of Journalism
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio

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