Mideast Miasma  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   July/August 2002

Mideast Miasma   

Is there a tilt in the coverage?

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

We were trying to give David Taylor a big promotion, but he didn't want to hear about it.

This was back at the old Philadelphia Bulletin. David was an excellent reporter, and my boss Peter Binzen and I wanted to bring him onto the metro desk. But David was too outraged to listen.

I forget the details, but basically what had happened was this. He had written a story. Circumstances changed before it was published, so he rewrote it. When the paper came out, it somehow included the earlier, outdated version.

So while Peter and I were trying to make David a star, he was--quite understandably--more focused on this vexing issue: How the hell could this have happened?

Finally, Peter, with the understated wisdom that was his trademark, said softly: "David, newspapering is a very inexact science."

Over the years I've encountered many situations that reminded me all too vividly how dead-on Peter's observation is. I thought of it again as I read Sharyn Vane's excellent piece on the barrage of criticism directed at news organizations over their coverage of the conflict in the Middle East (see "Days of Rage," page 32).

Many supporters of Israel are convinced that there's a powerful tilt toward the Palestinians. Others are equally incensed over what they see as a pro-Israel slant.

Permeating the outcry is the sense that the perceived flaws and omissions are not due to individual mistakes but rather reflect the policy of particular news outlets if not the news industry as a whole.

It's easy to understand why people are sometimes enraged.

Take the Israeli Independence Day festival in Van Nuys, California, on Sunday, April 21. A crowd of 40,000, Gov. Gray Davis among them, showed up to rally behind the Israeli cause.

Not that you'd know that from the Los Angeles Times--it didn't staff the thing. More than 1,000 irate readers suspended their subscriptions for a day to demonstrate their displeasure.

A big-time mistake? Sure. A horrendous oversight? No doubt. But a conscious decision to dis the American Jewish community? I don't think so. I'm sorry, but I know newspapers and I know Times Editor John Carroll, and I'm having trouble picturing the meeting where the pro-Israel blackout strategy was promulgated as a great way to bolster the paper's future.

Or take the New York Times' photo snafu. Seems the Times ran two big pictures of pro-Palestinian demonstrators as well as a photo of supporters of Israel. This at an event that attracted 100,000 Israeli enthusiasts and 200 Palestinian supporters.

Again, I doubt that the editors, in New York no less, exclaimed in unison, "Wow, let's run these really big! That'll show 'em where we stand."

Of course, I wasn't at any of these news meetings. I don't know precisely how these choices were made. But let's face it: In the real world of newspapers, decisions have a lot more to do with what pictures are available, which pictures are "good," how many staffers are "up" in that lonely Sunday newsroom. Ideology tends to be a nonstarter.

That the coverage elicits powerful responses is hardly a shocker. American Jews are fiercely loyal to Israel. The plight of the stateless Palestinians is a rallying cry for Muslims here and throughout the world.

And that's the other part of the equation. When people are so fervent, they're not necessarily looking for objective, straight-down-the-middle reportage. As Jane Christo, general manager of Boston's NPR affiliate, says, "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."

So spare me the conspiracy theories. But there are important lessons to be learned from the Mideast mishegas.

The main one is this: This is serious stuff that triggers serious responses. Scrutiny will be intense. The answer isn't pulling punches--a terrorist is a terrorist, no matter whose feelings are hurt by the designation. But it means being very careful about saying no more than you know--it's not a "massacre" in Jenin without firsthand confirmation.

And it means thinking through consequences, hard: What's the fallout of not staffing that rally? What are the implications of running that particular picture? Are we so caught up in the pathos of the great yarn that we're blind to the political ramifications?

Business as usual is never good enough. But it's particularly not good enough when so much is at stake.



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