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From AJR,   December 2000  issue

Mideast Bias?   


By Nora Koch
Nora Koch is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

When rockets rained out of the Ramallah sky on October 12, Sausan Ghosheh, a producer in CNN's Jerusalem bureau, was there covering another story. Drawing upon her reporter instincts, she phoned in an eyewitness account of the Israeli attack on the Palestinian-controlled city as she dodged fire outside the bombed-out police headquarters.

That report, and others by Ghosheh and CNN producer/correspondent Rula Amin, have been criticized by Israeli officials, who claim the network's coverage is biased. Ghosheh and Amin are Palestinians.

The reporters used the word "we," "as if CNN had become an agent of the Palestinians," Gideon Meir, Israel's deputy-director general for public affairs in the Foreign Ministry, told Jerusalem Post Radio October 15. The Wall Street Journal repeated that charge in an October 17 editorial, doubting CNN made the "right choice" by using Palestinian journalists who "use the word 'we' when reporting about their kinsmen."

"If you're somewhere where news happens, you report," says Eason Jordan, chief news executive and newsgathering president for CNN. "We don't make any apologies for having Israelis or Palestinians or anyone else in the world when news happens, as long as they meet CNN journalistic standards."

As the Mideast conflict continues, the U.S. media are getting barraged with bias charges from all sides: A coalition of pro-Palestinian groups protested outside the New York Times' headquarters October 27, saying the paper's coverage had been pro-Israeli. Arab American groups in Chicago rallied against the Sun-Times, alleging the Jerusalem Post's sister paper ignored and misrepresented their community by blaming Yasser Arafat for Mideast violence in editorials. And a Washington-based Islamic group unsuccessfully pressed the Los Angeles Times Syndicate to drop columnist Cal Thomas, saying a Thomas piece was offensive to Islam.

In a conflict that dates back to biblical times, do the media have to make special concessions to ensure fair coverage?

"In a highly charged situation, it's almost impossible to satisfy everybody as to the impartiality of reporting, because emotions are high and divisions are deep," says Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum. "The bottom line is, was the coverage fair, was it accurate and was it unbiased? If the answer to all three is yes, then the ethnicity, the color and the religion of the correspondent must be set aside." Even if a story is fair, however, a reporter's ethnicity can affect the viewers' perception of the coverage, he adds. "That makes a decision tough, especially if you are on deadline and that is who you have in the area."

As for CNN, Jordan says: "We're not going to please everybody, and we're especially not going to please people who want you to present one side of the story. We don't tailor our coverage to please one side of the conflict."