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Speaker Giving Speech
"Thou shall not bear false witness"
By Dr. Rodney Brooks

Delivered at Tifereth Israel
Saturday, August 24, 2002

I am here to address the question of bias in the Washington Post. I will not deal with matters of morality or judging which side is right or wrong. I am concerned only with the obligation of a newspaper, especially the paper of record in the nation's capital, to provide fair, honest and accurate reporting, with balanced space given to the views of both sides.

Unfortunately, that's not what I see. I wrote my first letter of protest to the Post in April, at the time of the Jenin operation. I've written 70 so far, and not one has been published. I probably have the worst publication record of anyone in this congregation. I persisted because I believe this problem does real damage every day and helps to feed the fires of anti-Semitism. I figured that if Washington Jews don't try to fix this problem in our own backyard, who will?

I have learned a lot in the past 4 1/2 months. I learned that the bias is much worse than I thought, worse than is found in other papers, including the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and of course the Washington Times. I learned how small nuances of phrasing, word choice, placement of statements, use of quotes, headlines, etc., can add up to a pattern of overwhelming bias. And I think I learned where the bias is coming from.

Now, as they say, let's go to the video tape. I will describe specific examples - not of bias per se - but of violations of journalistic codes of ethics, grouped by category and chosen more or less at random from over a hundred documented examples. I will show how these many errors, some of them quite small, add up to a pattern of biased reporting.

Misleading Terminology

My first category is misleading terminology. I'm sure you all know that the news media in general avoid the word "terrorist", using words like "militant" and "gunman" instead. In fact, I did a count of 113 articles published by the Post between April 1 and May 31. In only 5 of these 113 articles did the Post, on its own, use the word "terrorist" to describe the Palestinian attacks. But for the Post, this practice is just the beginning.

An August 7 article ("Israel Widens Its Range of Reprisals") illustrates how the Post almost always refers to Israeli actions as "reprisals" or "retaliation", rather than attacks on terrorists or perhaps self-defense. I actually wrote to the executive editor about this, and I included the following definitions:

Reprisal: Forcible seizure of an enemy's goods or subjects in retaliation for injuries inflicted.

Retaliation for an injury with the purpose of inflicting comparable or like injury in return.
 
Retaliate: To return like for like, esp. to return evil for evil. To pay back (an injury) in kind.

In his reply, he insisted that, given these definitions, THE WORDS WERE APPROPRIATE. Ladies and gentlemen, if the Post executive editor thinks that Israel is returning like for like, evil for evil, I think we have a problem on our hands, don't we? In fact, given his reply, I could end my talk now and I think my point would have been made.

But let's go on to the next example. On Aug. 3 the Post published an article about an Israeli action in Nablus that included the phrase "Israeli troops blitzed into Nablus." Does the word "blitzed" bother you? Does it evoke images of Nazi storm troopers? The New York Times News Service reported only that "soldiers went house to house"; they did not use the word "blitzed". In addition, where the Post used the tired word "militants" to describe whom Israeli troops were hunting, the NY Times called them "suspected extremists" - a term that comes much closer to the truth. "Militant" implies an action arm that represents the Palestinians, just as the U.S. army is our military arm. Now some of you may think I'm too nitpicky, but WORDS DO MATTER, and when this kind of thing happens over and over, day after day, it adds up to bias.

Another example of misleading terminology occurred on May 26, when the same Associated Press article appeared in the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. In the Sun version we read "Israeli troops fired tank shells and machine guns yesterday, killing a Palestinian woman and her 13-year-old daughter." In the Post version this was apparently altered to "Israeli troops killed a Palestinian woman and her 13-year-old daughter." The word "killed" is harsher, and implies that the action was a deliberate one, which it was not. The difference is subtle, but the effect is to depict Israeli acts in harsher terms. When it happens over and over, day after day, these small nuances of wording have a cumulative effect.

Imbalanced Reporting

Imbalanced Reporting is hard to measure because balance is so much a matter of judgment. One possible measure is the amount of space devoted to each side. To this end, I counted column-inches for the period April 1 to May 31, using description of Palestinian acts and resulting Israeli "damage" (in the broadest sense), and vice versa, as an objective criterion. I found 88 news articles that were predominantly about PaIestinian "damage" and 21 about Israeli "damage" - about a 4 to 1 ratio. The ratio of column-inches was 3.7 to 1.

An extreme example is the Post article of Aug. 7 ("Israel Widens Its Range of Reprisals"), which covers a half-page and is filled with descriptions of the shooting of a terrorist, complete with interviews and photos of grieving relatives and other Israeli "reprisals". On the same day, the Associated Press article ("Rumsfeld says Palestinian Authority aids terror", in Washington Times) was mostly about aid to terrorists by the Palestinian Authority as reported by the U.S. government, the shooting incident being described in the 16th paragraph. PA aid to terrorists was not mentioned by the Post, which was too busy describing Palestinian "suffering." Again if I stopped here, I think this example alone would prove my case. And when it happens over and over, day after day, the effect is overwhelming.

Balance also involves position. An example of this can be seen in the editing of an AP dispatch on June 12. In the Washington Times, a description of the siege of Arafat's headquarters in found in the 14th paragraph of the AP dispatch; in the Post version, it appears in the 3rd paragraph. How did it get there? Magic? Or an editor's decision?

Opinion Disguised as News

The Post sometimes inserts its opinions by finding the right people to quote, in which case you really can't call them for it. Sometimes they attribute the opinion to anonymous sources, in which case it becomes questionable. But sometimes they state the opinion as fact, and then you have a clear violation. Such was the case in an article on June 30 ("On Israel's Entertainment Scene, Regrets Only"). The thesis of the article is that "the world's great musicians" don't appear in Israel "because they fear for their security or disagree with the government's policy." But the only example given of the second reason was a small Belgian dance troupe, who are surely not among the "world's great musicians". In other words, the author's opinion, expressed as bald fact, was not backed by fact.

On July 29, the Post said that an Israeli soldier had been killed in retaliation for the killing of 15 Palestinians in Gaza. This opinion is not backed by any facts that I know of nor by the article. I have seen statements that the killing was part of a series of ongoing attacks or that it was retaliation for the killing of the terrorist leader Shehada, but I never saw a statement that it was what the Post said. However, inserting this "reason" gave the Post another opportunity to remind its readers of the 14 civilians killed in the attack, which it has done at least nine times.

Selective Omission

Selective Omission is one of the Post's biggest weapons. Here are six quick examples that involve comparisons with other papers:

On 5/26/02, an Associated Press dispatch in the Baltimore Sun contained relevant details about the death of two Palestinians in Gaza, as reported by the Israeli army. This paragraph was omitted from the Post's version of the same AP report.

On 6/12/02, the same AP report appeared in the Post and the Washington Times. But only in the Washington Times version do we learn that an explosives lab was found in Arafat's elite Palestinian police unit. This is a blockbuster of an omission, don't you agree?

On 7/7/02, an AP dispatch published in the Baltimore Sun described a preliminary investigation by the Israeli army into the death of two Palestinians at a border checkpoint. The Post, which has access to AP wires, wrote in its own article that the Israeli army had no record of any live fire in the area.
 
On 7/1/02, in describing an attack that killed a Hamas bomb maker, the Post omitted saying that Israeli troops called on the occupants of a house to evacuate the building before opening fire, a fact that was included in the Reuters report.

On 7/29/02, the Post omitted an Israeli statement, again reported by Reuters, about the provocation that started a funeral riot, and also omitted that Israel is conducting an investigation.
 
On 8/4/02, the Post omitted from an AP dispatch an Israeli statement defending the operation in question and also omitted news about the aftermath to the bombing at Hebrew University. This information could be seen in the AP section of the Post's own web site, but not in the Post's published AP article.


While some of the above examples may be arguable or even in some cases excusable, when they happen over and over, day after day, they add up to a pattern of bias.

Use Of Unreliable Sources

The Post frequently quotes unnamed Palestinian witnesses, the reliability of whom is known to be low (as witness the Jenin "non-massacre"), but ignores or questions Israeli sources, despite their high record of reliability (again witness Jenin). I will mention but one example (6/20/02) in which the Post says that "helicopter gunships fired missiles at blacksmith and metal workshops... according to Palestinian witnesses reached by telephone." Later they say, "A statement issued by the Israeli military described the Gaza targets as 'labs used for making weapons'. " (Note the use of quote marks to indicate doubt.) How would these unnamed witnesses know if the workshops were used to make weapons? The Associated Press did not question the Israeli statement in its article, simply stating that there were "attacks on metal workshops in the Gaza strip that are used to manufacture weapons for Palestinian militants." Some people may find this to be a small matter, but when it happens over and over, day in and day out, it produces a picture that is contrary to reality.

Inappropriate Headlines

Headlines are a powerful tool for bias because many people read only the headlines. How does the Post use this tool? For one thing, they almost always pick out the worst news item from the Israeli point of view.

On June 27, a Post continuation headline read "Israeli Army Kills 6-Year-Old Boy in Jenin Camp". On the same day the New York Times headline ("Palestinian Resistance at Hebron Offices Thins Out, but Army Standoff Continues") described only the bigger picture. Also, the wording in the Post headline is quite different from the NY Times report that "a 6-year-old boy was killed after AN ISRAELI SOLDIER opened fire into A GROUP OF YOUTHS throwing stones at tanks enforcing the curfew." Well, at least the Post got the age right.

On June 22, a Post headline read "Israel Shells Market in West Bank; Three Children Among Dead; Tank Fire Called 'Error' ". Note the quotation marks around "Error", implying, "It wasn't really an ERROR; the soldiers WANTED to kill those children." When a similar event occurred in Afghanistan, the Post headline (7/2/02) read, "Errant U.S. Bomb Hits Civilians; Military Admits Error but Doesn't Confirm Afghan Reports of 40 Deaths". Note the lack of quotation marks around "error". (They wouldn't dare!) There's a lot more wrong with the headline; two of the children were 1/2 mile away and the third was inside a car, and the shots appeared to be warning shots, not a shelling of a market.

A headline on Aug. 2 was also troubling ("U.N. Finds No Proof Of Massacre in Jenin Report; Palestinians Were Denied Aid"). But the text of the article stated that the U.N. commission found no EVIDENCE of a massacre at Jenin, and found violations by BOTH sides. The NY Times, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Times all got their headlines right. Only the Post changed "no evidence" to "no proof", so that people reading only the headline would have a lingering doubt. And only the Post singled out Israeli violations for its headline. I find this error particularly offensive, and when this kind of thing happens over and over, day after day, it paints a starkly false picture in readers' minds.

Inappropriate Photos

I have no examples of inappropriate photos to show, but I'd like to tell you about a conversation in my home the morning after the Hebrew University bombing (8/1/02). Karen was reading the Post and she showed me two front-page photos of injured victims being helped by rescue workers, and said, "Why don't they show the dead bodies?" As it happened, I was reading the Washington Times, and I handed her the front page which showed a large photo of seven body bags! The thing is, the photos were all FROM THE SAME WIRE SERVICE; the Post editor could have picked the other one if he had wanted. Then we turned to the inside page. Do you remember the complaint about under-reporting of the Palestinian celebration over this terrorist attack? Well, the Washington Times carried a photo showing the celebration, while the Post, with its usual practice of emphasizing Palestinian suffering, showed a photo of Palestinian suspects detained at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers.

Distortion Of Facts

The final category that I'll mention today is Distortion of Facts. In the 8/7/02 article mentioned earlier, the Post stated "Israel's Supreme Court today upheld the military's right to demolish homes of Palestinians accused of terrorist attacks without giving family members warning." In fact, as stated by the Associated Press, the warning period that was turned down was 48 hours. With its wording, the Post implied that there was NO warning, which would make the actions quite brutal indeed.

Another example occurred on 7/31/02 when the Post, as usual, referred to the "22-month uprising against continued occupation." The problem is that at the time the uprising began, there was virtually NO Israeli occupation ("Occupation: civil control of a nation or territory by a foreign military force"). Many reasons have been cited for the uprising, such as Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, the breakdown of the Camp David talks, or perhaps even the presence of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But to say it was against continued occupation is to distort the facts.

Summary

I have tried to show how the Washington Post, through misleading terminology, use of space and position, insertion of opinion into the news, selective omissions, use of unreliable sources, inappropriate headlines and photos, and occasional distortions of fact, produces a pattern of bias. The examples I showed are not chosen because they show "bias" per se, but because each is a violation of journalistic codes of ethics, and they are taken from over a hundred instances I know of. I chose examples that provide an A-B comparison with other papers, to show that the Post stands alone in the extent of its code violations. The pattern that appears is emphasis on and sympathy for Palestinian suffering, while Israeli actions are presented in the worst possible light. Is the Post entitled to do this? Well, we do have a first amendment, don't we? SHOULD they do that, considering that they are the paper of record in the nation's capital? I don't think so. And I hope you won't either.

People who recognize this pattern often wonder where it comes from. I got a clue when I wrote to the executive editor about the 8/7 article "Israel Widens Its Range of Reprisals". Mr. Downie replied that the article, which was filled with explicit and implicit criticism of Israeli acts, was a full, fair and accurate account of Israeli government actions that SHOULD BE (my emphasis) reported in depth to readers of The Washington Post. To me, this was a "peek behind the curtain." So I don't think the bias is just a matter of bad reporters or a bad copy desk editor. I think the Post senior editors are on a mission to show the world that Palestinians are suffering under Israeli aggression and, thanks to their noble "militants" and suicide bombers, are resisting as best they can.

Now I agree that the lot of most Palestinians is not a happy one, and the Post should be commended for calling attention to this. Also, some would say that Israel deserves some of the blame, and to the extent it's true, the Post is entitled to point that out also. The Post IS a liberal newspaper, and I am reminded of crusading editors of the 30's who had a mission to help downtrodden workers. The problem is that the Post goes much too far - farther than any other paper I have seen - to the extent of repeatedly sacrificing rules of objective reporting and painting a distorted version of reality. In short, they do not provide fair, honest and accurate reporting, with space given to the views of both sides.

I would like to close with an egregious example on 8/18/02. This article ("Suicide Bombers Change Mideast's Military Balance") used the methods described above to paint a one-sided picture that justifies and glorifies suicide bombers, a position that most people find appalling. Some may think that this is right and proper, but to those people I ask, "When was the last time the Washington Post ran an article similarly praising the Israeli soldier who risks and sometimes loses his life defending his country by hunting down terrorists, while trying not to harm Palestinian civilians amongst whom they hide?" Answer: To my knowledge, "never."

I urge you to protest the Post's policy, and to protest it at the highest levels. If we don't do it, who will? And if the Post receives enough protest, they can't help but take notice. I'd like to end with a quote from my favorite opera:

"Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men."



Dr. Rodney Brooks served at the Chairman of the Information Resources Committee for EyeOnThePost.org between June and August 2002. While currently out of the area for a good part of the year, he is still an active participant in EyeOnThePost.Org.

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