AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2004

Caught in the Crossfire   

Perhaps no topic elicits so much bitter criticism as coverage of the Middle East. As hard-line supporters of Israel and the Palestinians wage a proxy war via e-mail, threatening phone calls and demonstrations, correspondents and news organizations find themselves the targets of condemnation, often highly personal.

By Barbara Matusow
Barbara Matusow, a former AJR senior contributing editor and Washingtonian magazine contributor, has written about the news media for more than 20 years.      

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The Zionist Organization of America didn't wait long before declaring war on the Philadelphia Inquirer's new editor. The leaders of the ZOA's local chapter were polite when they called on Amanda Bennett last year, less than three months after she took over, but the message they delivered was blunt. Bennett says the chairman, Michael Goldblatt, told her the organization was going to continue its efforts to hurt the Inquirer economically, while the president, Leonard Getz, laid down the terms for ending the ZOA's boycott. "He said Israel was the victim, and that we should approach all stories from this perspective," Bennett says. "And if we did this, they would call off the boycott, and our circulation would rise."

The delegation also presented Bennett with a scathing report on her brief tenure titled "New Era but the Same Errors: The Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage of the Middle East in the first 60 days of the Amanda Bennett Era."

"We concluded that things have been at least as bad, if not worse, than they were under Walker Lundy, the previous editor," Steve Feldman, executive director of the local chapter, said in an interview. "The Philadelphia Inquirer is poisoning hundreds of thousands of people every day. If the surgeon general had newspapers under his bailiwick, they would come with the same warning, that reading the Inquirer could be dangerous to your health."

Bennett hardly shares that view. "We spend a ton of time making sure we are as fair, balanced and informative as we possibly can be," she says. "And it is my belief, based on my contacts with the larger community, that very few people in the wider community would agree with Mr. Feldman."

Bennett came to the Inquirer from Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader, where she confronted a strong Christian community that cared passionately about the issues of homosexuality and abortion. But that experience didn't quite prepare her for the intensity of the advocates on both sides of the Middle East conflict. "Since becoming editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I've talked to a lot of my fellow editors around the country," she says, "and I have to say that in major cities across the United States, my colleagues agree that is the most vexing issue that faces them in the sense of an issue that's difficult, time-consuming and important to deal with."

As Bennett and others covering the conflict have discovered, they have been plunged into a kind of proxy war for the one raging between Israel and the Palestinians. The American version is fought with e-mails, threatening phone calls, demonstrations and pressure on advertisers, but to the people on the receiving end, the struggle seems as toxic and never-ending as the real thing.

"Most of the e-mails are not interested in balanced coverage," says Margaret Coker, who is based in Jerusalem for Cox Newspapers. "They only want coverage that reflects their own political views. When you get one that says, 'You shouldn't call yourself a concerned human being, you're a supporter of mass murder,' and when it comes to using your first name and accusing you of things like that, it takes a strong person for it not to get under your skin."

"There's no place in the world that causes as much misery for a journalist," says syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, who writes frequently about the Middle East. "The Arabs get extremely angry if you're not on their side. The Israelis get enraged if you're not 1,000 percent on their side. You just can't please anyone."

Pro-Israeli Web sites, which are better staffed and funded, generate about 10 times as much mail as pro-Arab sites, editors say. They note, too, that the volume waxes and wanes depending on the level of violence. (See "Days of Rage," July/August 2002.) After an event like the March assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the founder of Hamas, monitoring sites go into overdrive.

HonestReporting.com, a pro-Israeli pressure group, lambasted news outlets for calling the sheikh a spiritual leader rather than a terrorist, while Palestine Media Watch (pmwatch.com) put out an "action call" headed "Don't let U.S. media whitewash Sheikh's assassination."

Even when violence tapers off, journalists covering the story can expect hostile mail, often couched in the most personal, vituperative terms. The subject is so sensitive, in fact, that a number of those interviewed did not want to be quoted by name, including one columnist who fumed, "Look, there's no placating these people. It's endless and there's no rationality involved. I want to write about the Middle East, and I will never stop writing about the Middle East, but there's a limit to how much shit you're going to take. And I don't need an extra load of shit" from being quoted.

Another journalist, a political cartoonist, said the criticism directed at him is so intense it has started to affect his family. "My kids are teenagers," he says. "Their friends had been to a lecture at a synagogue where they were told I was an anti-Semite. So they came back and told my kids, 'We still like you, but your dad's an anti-Semite.' " A third, a reporter based in Jerusalem, speaks of dreading the nasty e-mails she finds on her computer every day. "I would rather not be quoted for fear of encouraging more complaints, but it really eats at you. We all want to be fair. It's not that I mind hearing from people, but the accusation of unfairness is one I take very seriously. It's definitely one of the more stressful aspects of the job."

Occasionally, the personal nature of the attacks has its comic side. The Los Angeles Times' Laura King, who is based in Jerusalem, found that out when she went to Baghdad at the height of the Iraqi war. "I got e-mails saying, 'Oh, I see you are in Baghdad. I hope nothing bad happens to you,' " she says. "The writers were very friendly and expressing concern for my welfare, which is pretty funny in light of the fact that they're extremely critical when I'm in Jerusalem."

Reporters and editors say that some of the complaints they receive come from thoughtful individu- als who are genuinely concerned about what they see as bias, and that they take such criticism seriously. And sometimes, they admit, even the most intemperate critic can make a valid point or find a mistake. More often, though, news outlets are subjected to organized campaigns based on half-truths or picayune points.

As evidence of National Public Radio's supposed pro-Palestinian sympathies, for example, CAMERA, the Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America, cited one report in which "Palestinians or other Arabs were described by NPR reporters or guest speakers as 'frustrated' 16 times, while Israelis were only said to have such feelings four times."

Frequently, these so-called media monitors, who say they are only interested in fairness and balance, will seize on a word or a phrase and leave out the context. Take the case of a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial that called both PLO leader Yassir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "pigheaded and destructive." In a communiqué urging readers to complain to the Inquirer, HonestReporting.com omitted the reference to Arafat to make the editorial sound like a one-sided attack on Sharon.

Pro-Israeli sites have no monopoly on distortion or twisted logic. In January, Palestine Media Watch, which advocates for Palestinians, blasted the Los Angeles Times for publishing an opinion piece in which Israeli historian Benny Morris defended the decision to expel Arabs from Israel in 1948. ("Los Angeles Times dignifies call for ethnic cleansing with op-ed space!") In the same release, it took note of an op-ed piece the previous day by a Palestinian academic arguing for a one-state solution. "It is clear now why the Los Angeles Times dared publish that op-ed," the Web site said. "It was part of a one-two package deal, where the editors and the Los Angeles Times clearly hoped to play the two sides of the divide against one another."

In other words, you can't win.

News organizations sometimes point to the fact that they are criticized by groups on both sides of the Middle East issue as proof of their fairness. But that hardly satisfies the critics. "I know that some people in journalism think that if you upset both sides, you're doing your job," says the Philadelphia ZOA's Steve Feldman. "Well, journalists are not in the business of upsetting people. They should be enlightening people."

But how do you mollify critics whose views are so far apart that about the only thing they agree on is that the news media are biased against them?

"Reporters in this country have adopted a narrative that is inherently flawed," says Ahmed Bouzid, the founder of Palestine Media Watch. "It stems from the notion that the number one problem is terrorism, that it's Israel that's under threat, and that no progress can be made until the violence stops. We are trying to change that mind-set to make people realize that the basic narrative is that this is an occupation and that it's the Palestinian people who are being humiliated and oppressed."

Michael Weinstein, executive director of HonestReporting.com, has a radically different critique. "Generally speaking, the dominant narrative in the American media has been one of presenting Israel as the aggressor in the conflict and the Palestinians as victims," he says. "There's an occasional change after horrific terror attacks, when there tends to be a lot of sympathy for the Israeli people, but that tends to fade after a week or so."

Lately, though, Weinstein says, he sees more of what he calls "cycle of violence" coverage. "In this view, you have two people locked in a vicious battle in which neither side is justified. There's no right or wrong. Just two people killing each other and two piles of bodies. This leads to the moral equivalence problem, where a terrorist blowing up a bus in Jerusalem and an Israeli Defense Force strike against terrorist leaders are the same thing."

In essence, the two sides are engaged in an effort to shape an overarching narrative in the American media showing that they alone are the victims and that the other side is undeserving of sympathy. When Michael Matza, the Inquirer's Jerusalem correspondent, wrote a story headlined "Palestinians' Remains Fuel a Bitterness," which detailed Israel's practice of not releasing the bodies of suicide bombers, it provoked a hue and cry from readers who felt the piece was too sympathetic to families of the bombers. It didn't matter that Matza had written numerous pieces sympathetic to Israeli victims of suicide attacks. He was denounced as anti-Semitic and labeled a "self-hating Jew," a favorite epithet for Jewish journalists.

"If I get up in the morning, put on my pants and get in my car and instead of driving to Tel Aviv, in Israel, I decide to go to Nablus [in the West Bank] and write about some of the stresses and strains the Palestinians are enduring, for some readers, the moment I make that decision, I've made a mistake, no matter what I write," Matza says. "Some readers only want a certain story line. Especially when the story was very bloody, they pretty much wanted a steady diet of Israeli suffering."

Editors back home face the same kinds of pressure. "The Middle East may not always be the most important story in the paper, but it's probably the most closely read story from day to day," says Timothy J. McNulty, the Chicago Tribune's assistant managing editor for foreign news. "There is no part of what we print that is not sensitive, whether it is the headline, the cutline, the photo, the story, the approach of the story, who is quoted and so on."

Nothing is examined as carefully as language, with both sides fighting for terminology that casts their claim in the best possible light. Pro-Palestinian sites want media outlets to refer to "Israeli colonizers" instead of "Israeli settlers" and to talk about "death squads" instead of "military operations." Meanwhile, Israel's defenders push for the use of "terrorists" instead of "militants," "neighborhoods" instead of "settlements" and "focused interventions" instead of "targeted assassinations." In response, some news organizations go to elaborate lengths to come up with the most neutral-sounding formulations. The Philadelphia Inquirer has even invited in a rabbi and a linguistics professor to help determine what terminology to adopt.

"If I were to attend to all the criticism, I could make a full-time job of it," says Inquirer National/Foreign Editor Ned Warwick. "Frankly, at some point, I have to put aside the critics who are howling for my attention so I can focus on what I as a journalist think the right stories are that need to be covered."

Not all news organizations are confronted with organized protests over their Middle East coverage, and those that are don't react uniformly. An informal survey of eight major news outlets turned up a wide variety of responses, from strenuous efforts by NPR to mollify its critics to a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders at NBC. "We get e-mails and things like that," says Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, "but it's very unusual for an interest group on one side or the other to try in any serious way to affect our work."

NPR, which is under ferocious assault from all sides of the Middle East divide and depends on a combination of private and public funds, does not have the luxury of such nonchalance. "I can assure you that NPR spends lots and lots and lots of time to make sure we're getting the reporting right," says Jay Kernis, senior vice president for programming. "There's an enormous amount of self-examination going on all the time."

One admittedly inexact way to see which outlets get the most grief is to look at CAMERA's Web site and count the number of times it issued "action alerts" urging people to protest on behalf of Israel. Last year, for example, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were each targeted 18 times, the Washington Post 17 times, Newsweek once and Time not at all. Among radio and TV networks, NPR was cited 18 times, ABC seven, CNN five, NBC and CBS twice, Fox zero.

You might conclude that the less frequently an outlet is criticized by CAMERA, the more favorable its treatment of Israel, but except in the case of Fox, you would be wrong. (Fox, which is openly pro-Israel, calls suicide bombers "homicide bombers.") Rather, a variety of other factors come into play.

NBC and CBS are seldom criticized in part because they do so little coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. (The three major networks have cut back sharply on the amount of foreign news they air, except during major events like the war in Iraq, although ABC does more than its rivals.) NPR, on the other hand, provides extensive coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict and explores Palestinian grievances in more depth than other broadcast outlets. In addition, it is more vulnerable to outside pressure than commercial operations because of its dependence on public largesse.

NPR--like its member stations--gets complaints from the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian pressure group, but they are dwarfed by pro-Israeli criticism of the network. "NPR is the single most intractable news organization in terms of ordinary accountability," says Andrea Levin, executive director of the Boston-based CAMERA. "Just the ordinary terms of journalism, such as balance and equal opportunity to present opinions are lacking... Unlike other outlets, NPR seems to consider itself above and beyond criticism."

Yet NPR goes to great lengths to make sure that its Mideast reports are accurate and balanced. When the network's diplomatic correspondent, Mike Shuster, decided in 2002 to take a look at the historical origins of the conflict, he proceeded carefully. "Initially, after the staff generated a framework for the series, we still weren't sure how to do it. I took it to the foreign editor, the national editor and the producers of 'Morning Edition.' It took several months. Everything is done collaboratively around here because of the sensitivity of the topic and the fire we're under."

The result was an award-winning, seven-part series called "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict," examining in unusual depth the conflicting claims surrounding the founding of the state of Israel. Predictably, it ignited a firestorm--one that erupted before the series even aired. On the basis of a press release, CAMERA charged that the lineup of experts was unbalanced in favor of extreme critics of Israel, mirroring "the bias found in NPR's Middle East coverage generally."

"This series is the kind of thing NPR should be doing, giving the context, the history," says NPR's Bruce Drake, vice president for news and information. "But when I told a colleague of mine in the news business about what we were planning to do, he said, 'Why are you asking for that kind of heartache?' That was a milestone for me. It made me wonder what kind of world we want, what kind of media we want, if news organizations become afraid to do a series like this because the ground is so treacherous politically."

As a result of all the scrutiny, NPR executives spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove their coverage is fair. NPR's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, issues regular reports on the issue, and network President and CEO Kevin Klose puts out a lengthy content assessment on its Middle East reporting every three months--an exercise mainly to help the managers of member station fend off attacks from pressure groups.

"I think our reporting is eminently fair," Klose says. "I think both the reporters in the field and the editors here are extremely conscious of the intensity with which people listen, and I think we have set a very high standard for accuracy and balance in reporting on events in the Middle East. Even with the best of intentions, of course, mistakes can happen, and when they do, we re-report and we make a correction."

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a different set of problems. One is the location of Palestine Media Watch. It was founded three years ago by Ahmed Bouzid, an Algerian computer programmer who lives in the Philadelphia area and is the site's main contributor. The fact that he hammers the Inquirer much harder than any other American outlet is no doubt due to the fact that it's the first paper he reads each morning.

At the same time, Philadelphia is home to a large, active conservative Jewish community, including people like former Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Herbert Denenberg and Mort Klein, the fiery head of the national Zionist Organization of America--individuals who have practically made a career out of blasting the Inquirer for its supposed anti-Israel stance. Their views are picked up and amplified by Philadelphia's weekly Jewish Exponent, which has also been heavily critical of the Inquirer. "They are the big dog in town," says Jonathan Tobin, the Exponent's executive editor. "For us, what the Inquirer does on Jewish issues is going to be news. Where they do a really lousy job, we're going to comment on it."

Often, the attacks directed at the Inquirer are aimed at specific individuals, such as the paper's Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist, Tony Auth, who has been the target of criticism for his Mideast coverage for at least 20 years. Last summer, while Palestine Media Watch was castigating Auth for drawing more cartoons critical of Yassir Arafat than of Ariel Sharon, Jewish letter- writers and e-mailers were branding him an anti-Semite and a crypto-Nazi. Things reached a fever pitch after he drew a cartoon about the separation barrier being built by the Israelis showing Palestinians enclosed by a chain-link fence shaped like the Star of David. Critics charged it bore a resemblance to a 1930s Nazi recruiting poster.

A week later, a delegation representing a half-dozen local Jewish groups came to the Inquirer to express their outrage at a meeting attended by Auth, Amanda Bennett, then-Publisher Robert Hall and others. "At the meeting, I realized that there was not going to be any communication with the most outlandish of these critics. They want propaganda, and nothing but propaganda," says Auth. "It's been an amazing experience. I hate to be called an anti-Semite, and for this charge to be thrown around so glibly is frustrating."

While most major American news outlets continue to try to do a straight-down-the-middle job, the intense pressure has left its mark. Last year, CNN staffers were instructed not to "televise or report on statements made by suicide bombers or their families except in extraordinary situations." The directive came amid an outcry over a story on CNN International that included an interview with the mother of a suicide bomber but left out an interview with the parents of the Israeli baby killed in the attack.

One newspaper reporter acknowledged in an interview that she has balanced the number of quotes in her dispatches to ward off criticism. Several editors admitted to keeping a rough "victimization" count so they can't be faulted for being more sympathetic to one side than the other.

But the effort to achieve balance sometimes leads to bleached, uninformative reportage. To understand the peculiar tensions in Gaza, for example, and why Israel is contemplating a pullout, it's necessary to know that this tiny strip of land is home to 1.2 million Palestinians, while 7,500 Israeli settlers occupy 25 percent of the land and control most of the water resources. Yet the full picture is seldom sketched. (I found one mention of it, in an article by James Bennet of the New York Times, during the two-week spate of coverage over Sharon's initial statement that most of the settlements in Gaza would probably be dismantled.)

Sometimes alert readers can see for themselves the results of the ongoing battles over terminology. When Time magazine uses the phrase "targeted eliminations," with the words in quotes, referring to the Israeli practice of picking off Palestinian militants from helicopter gunships, you can tell editors are trying to avoid using the word "assassination," which angers Israeli partisans.

The same effort to avoid giving offense seemed at work in a story in the Washington Post in February about the encirclement of Jerusalem ("Israel hems in a Sacred City"). The lead photograph showed 30-foot slabs going up; the caption referred to a "fence," the term preferred by Israelis.

Ironically Israeli newspapers are far more outspoken in their criticisms of government policy than U.S. papers. It was Yediot Ahronot, a right-leaning newspaper, that first published an interview with the four former top intelligence chiefs who charged that Sharon's get-tough treatment of the Palestinians was backfiring. Meanwhile Ha'aretz, the leading leftist paper, blasts the government's Palestinian policies on a daily basis.

"When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian question, we are much more open and pushing for a compromise in which Israel will have to give up something than the American press," says Zev Schiff, Ha'aretz's longtime military correspondent. "We are extremely opposed to the settlements, for example."

Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the typical American journalist is biased in favor of Israel. Strongly pro-Israel voices, like those of William Safire of the New York Times and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, are prominent on the opinion pages of this country's newspapers, and magazines such as The Weekly Standard and The New Republic embrace similar positions. But the journalists in the trenches--the ones who actually cover the story--agonize over every word, every comma, trying to be fair, knowing they are going to be blasted whatever they write.

"This is just a hugely inflammatory story," says the Washington Post's John Ward Anderson. "And people get very, very angry. So you have to have faith in your own ability to play it straight, to be fair and impartial. You want to be sensitive to criticism. On the other hand, you don't want to let the critics alter the way you do your reporting. So many times what these letter-writers want is not fairness. They want the paper to take sides, and I just flatly refuse to be pulled into that."

One problem reporters and editors face is the long-running, repetitive nature of the conflict. There is a sense among the journalists I talked to that they have already explained the roots of the problem, that the public has tired of the situation, figuring, as one editor said, "If they want to keep on killing each other, let 'em."

"No one wants to keep running the same story again and again," says the Chicago Tribune's McNulty. "The Arab-Israeli story is still a key element and factor in American foreign policy, and it is not something we slight in terms of the number of stories, but we are always looking for fresher stories than 'The Israelis shoot three in Gaza' or 'West Bank settler is killed.' "

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also sees fatigue with the story setting in. "I don't think the American press is biased," he says. "I've had both sides come up to me and say, 'The press never reports what the Palestinians do to us,' or, 'You never report what the Israeli bulldozers have done to us,' and I tell them, 'It's all been there. I can point to it in the paper. What you're really mad about is that nobody cared. I'm sorry about that, but it's out of my control that the public doesn't care, that they're tired and fed up with the whole story.' That's what neither side gets. They think that after each news broadcast, people are going to vote, and if it goes against them, they're finished. Well, people do have a little box next to the TV, and it's a clicker, and they turn it off."

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