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Media Analyses





Trouble in Philly with Errors, Imbalance and Editorializing


Among the most important principles in professional journalism are: factual accuracy; clear separation between news and opinion; and impartiality.

In each of these categories, the Philadelphia Inquirer has fallen short. The following list of infractions at the large and influential newspaper should set off alarm bells not only for readers who expect fair reporting, but for the newspaper itself, whose ethics code recalls that "The Inquirer is responsible to its readers for the accuracy and fairness of its work" and acknowledges that the paper has an "obligation to pursue the truth, without bias or favor, in all matters of public interest."

Errors

Factual accuracy is a fundamental journalistic requirement. "Test the accuracy of information from all sources," states the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics. If an error is made, reporters and editors must: "Admit mistakes and correct them promptly."

The Inquirer goes even farther. Its newsroom policy states that

A Clearing the Record notice also might be used to clarify published statements that, while technically not in error, might have been confusing or misleading, or require additional information.

Yet an examination of recent Inquirer news reports shows that the newspaper does not adhere to this most basic tenet of journalism—at least when it comes to Mideast coverage.

For example, editors have adamantly refused to correct a grave error in the May 20, 2005 story "Raising a barrier and disputes" by Jerusalem correspondent Michael Matza.

Writing about the planned encirclement of Rachel's Tomb by Israel's security barrier, Matza stated:

Palestinians say encirclement of the tomb, including at least 18 nearby Palestinian houses with about 165 residents and a large expanse of olive groves, is an illegal seizure of Palestinian land. (Emphasis added.)

In fact, according to the most authoritative source on the route of the fence, no Palestinian houses will be encircled. Colonel (Res.) Dany Tirza, head of the IDF Central Command unit responsible for strategic and spatial planning of the security fence—that is, the man responsible for determining the precise route of the fence—told CAMERA that while a previously proposed route would have enclosed Palestinian houses in this area, the route of the barrier has long since been changed to avoid enclosing any homes.

CAMERA informed foreign editor Ned Warwick of the error, and provided contact information for Col. Tirza to ennable the newspaper to verify the facts directly. Editor and Executive Vice President Amanda Bennett was also notified.

Despite this, the Inquirer has not corrected this substantive error.

Nor did the newspaper publish a correction when columnist Trudy Rubin falsely stated in an April 13 column ("Gaza retreat may be setback for peace"):

The Israeli leader arrived just after his government approved plans to build 3,500 housing units on the West Bank to connect the settlement of Maaleh Adumim with Jerusalem. This would cut the West Bank in half and isolate it from Arab areas of East Jerusalem. (Emphasis added.)

Rubin's claims contradict the geographic reality of the area, as a cursory examination of a map of the region makes clear. Ma'aleh Adumim, considered a bedroom community of Jerusalem, lies only a few miles east of Israel's capital. Filling these few square miles with homes in no way "cuts the West Bank in half," as there would remain a large swath of West Bank land, about 10 miles wide at its narrowest, connecting the northern and southern West Bank east of Ma'aleh Adumim. (Also unaffected by the building are the three routes, and an additional route in the planning stages, on which West Bank Palestinians can travel freely north and south. It is likewise untrue that the neighborhood "isolates" the West Bank from Arab areas in eastern Jerusalem. For more information click here.)

CAMERA members and staff who contacted the Inquirer's editorial page editors about the error were directed to Trudy Rubin.

Rubin, in turn, stood by her claim—but not without equivocation and backtracking. "If the E1 extension of Ma'aleh Adumim is built, along with the security fence that the Israeli cabinet approved," Rubin now argued, the "back route [between the north and south West Bank] will probably be severed .... This will effectively block most travel and transport from the south to the north ...." (Emphasis added.)

While this is a far cry from her original accusation—in effect she is now saying that the security barrier (not the neighborhood) might block most traffic—even this toned down charge is not accurate. The barrier, though its footprint is much larger than that of the Ma'aleh Adumim neighborhood which lies within it, still leaves Highway 90 and the Chisma road east of Ma'aleh Adumim open for north–south travel by Palestinians.

Although editors were informed about Rubin's backtracking and evasions, the error was left uncorrected.

Yet another uncorrected error stems from the Inquirer's Nov. 11, 2004 coverage of Yasir Arafat's death. Reporter Carol Rosenberg claimed in a front-page obituary that Arafat "declared himself neutral and tried to mediate between Saddam Hussein and the first President Bush" after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This whitewashing of Arafat's actual conduct was never corrected even though the Inquirer itself has on many occasions correctly noted that Arafat sided with Hussein.

In the Nov. 9 Inquirer, for example, two days before Rosenberg asserted Arafat's neutrality, AP's Karin Laub wrote: "Much of the Arab money dried up after Arafat infuriated his patrons in 1990 by siding with Saddam Hussein during Iraq's invasion of Kuwait."

Even in the very same Nov. 11 edition of the Inquirer, an AP timeline listing "Key dates in Yasir Arafat's life" noted that on Aug. 2, 1990, Arafat "supports Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, resulting in the PLO's isolation."

Since then three separate references to Arafat's support for Hussein appeared in the newspaper:

In Kuwait, responding to a reporter's question, Abbas issued an apology to Kuwaitis for Arafat's support of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Kuwait triggered the 1991 Persian Gulf War. (Dec. 26, 2004, "Palestinian election nears, but focus is on future," Michael Matza)

In Kuwait City yesterday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas apologized for Palestinian support of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the 1990-91 Gulf War, his latest gesture to mend fences with Arab nations offended by the late Yasir Arafat over the years. As PLO leader, Arafat supported Iraq in its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and opposed the subsequent U.S.-led war that liberated it. (AP, Dec. 13, 2004)

Others are still angry over Arafat's backing of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait in 1990. (Nov. 13, 2004, "Chaos, Grief for Arafat," Michael Matza and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson)

Despite all this obvious evidence in the newspaper's own pages, editors still refused to admit or correct Rosenberg's error.

Evenhandedness

Lack of balance within a news story is likewise problematic. A number of provisions in the SPJ Code of Ethics emphasize the need for a newspaper to avoid serving as the mouthpiece of one side in a conflict. These provisions urge journalists to "test the accuracy of information from all sources ... Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrong doing ... [and] support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant."

But when it comes to evenhandedness, journalists and editors at the Inquirer all too often come up short.

Take, for example, the May 20, 2005 Michael Matza story mentioned earlier, "Raising a barrier and disputes." The article is a model of one-sided reporting, promoting the Palestinian viewpoint while virtually ignoring Israeli's position.

Out of the story's 26 paragraphs, 10 exclusively presented viewpoints critical of Israel. Eight of those included direct quotations by critics of Israel, including charges that Israel will "imprison" Palestinians, and that the country "wants to grab land and never give it back." Seemingly no Palestinian accusation was too absurd to repeat, including the charge that the Israeli cabinet exploited the first anniversary of 9/11 to slyly pass the government decision calling for Rachel's tomb, Israel's third holiest site, to remain on Israel's side of the security barrier.

By contrast, only two paragraphs were devoted to Israel's position. Instead of presenting direct quotes from Israelis, Matza provided impersonal, generic comments:

• "Israel insists the placement of the barrier is a security necessity ..."

• "Israel says the barrier can be dismantled ..."

Matza then allowed Palestinians to respond directly to these bland statements, even quoting a PA minister retorting, "That is a lot of blah-blah."

Menachem Klein, an Israeli on the board of B'tselem and Peace Now, was quoted in the article; but Klein is a critic of Israeli policy, and his statement—Sharon's "game" is to disconnect "Arab East Jerusalem" from the West Bank, Klein said—conformed to the critical tone of the article.

The one quote by anyone representing Israel's mainstream position—a month–old comment by Ariel Sharon about Israel's settlement building since 1967—was out of context and out of place, and did nothing to temper the overall anti-Israeli tenor of the story.

Matza's own comments also reiterated the Palestinian perspective.

The reporter stated that the encirclement of Rachel's Tomb would be another step in "Israel's drive to sever Arab East Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland." (Matza never explains why he feels this is the case.) He later repeated that the barrier will "sever" eastern Jerusalem "from its West Bank core." These statements cater to the Palestinian view that eastern Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinians and is part of the West Bank, while disregarding Israel's view that the most holy Jewish city should remain united despite the desire of some Palestinians to "sever" half of the city from the other half.

Matza's use of the phrase "Arab East Jerusalem" is also tendentious. (See above.)

Similar one-sided reporting was typified in a Feb. 29, 2005 story by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Warren Strobel entitled "Blast highlights Mideast obstacles." Written just a few days after a suicide bomber killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv, the story strained to exonerate Mahmoud Abbas and the late Yasir Arafat and to incriminate Ariel Sharon.

"It seemed for a while as if Yasir Arafat had been the only obstacle to peace in the Middle East," the reporters wrote, before proceeding to suggest that it is actually Sharon who is the only obstacle to peace.

Every "obstacle" mentioned in the paragraphs that followed had to do with the Israeli Prime Minister, and each of the analysts quoted criticized only Sharon. On the other hand, the reporters made no attempt to point out concerns about Palestinian motivations or obligations, nor did they quote any critics of Abbas or the Palestinian Authority.

The writers speculated that Sharon's "ultimate goal may be to cede ... ground in order to consolidate other claims." They added that "Sharon has no history of favoring negotiated peace deals," and that Israeli steps could "fatally undercut Abbas’ fragile position." They quoted Henry Siegman, a harsh critic of the Israeli Prime Minister, saying that the "central strategic impulse that motivates Sharon" is "to preserve for Israel the ability to act unilaterally," and to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians. A Palestinian columnist then declared that "Israel simply has to offer more concessions."

No criticisms of Abbas were mentioned. On the contrary, any potential failures by the Palestinian leader were effectively excused earlier in the article: "In the end, [Abbas] may lack the authority for the kind of action Israel is demanding."

This one-sided criticism of Israel was not for lack of critics of the Palestinian side.

The reporters could have sought comment from European Union external relations chief Benita Ferrero–Waldner, who on the same day the one-sided story was published argued that "President Abbas must take effective steps to fight and dismantle terror organizations, stop incitement, and maintain law and order within the Palestinian territories and vis––vis Israel." Similar sentiments have been expressed by many others. The reporters likewise ignored President Bush's calls for the Palestinians to confront and dismantle terrorist groups, even though they explicitly cited his call for Israel to halt settlement activity. (In a Feb. 21 speech in Belgium, a week before the story appeared in the Inquirer, Bush called both for a halt to settlement activity and a dismantling of terrorist groups, according to the Associated Press.)

The reporters also could have looked to Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which a week earlier published a detailed account of continuing anti–Israeli incitement in Palestinian mosques, universities, and local media outlets. Or they could have approached Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch, whose criticisms of Palestinian incitement showed up in newspapers worldwide in the weeks and months before the publication of the one-sided Inquirer story.

Editors at the Inquirer have also been directly responsible for lopsided news reports by selectively editing wire stories to remove Israeli comment and context.

On May 23, 2005, for example, a shortened Associated Press story ran in the Inquirer which excised any Israeli viewpoint.

The original story as dispatched by the AP cited pledges by Israeli cabinet minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan. According to the AP, Dahlan pledged "to halt attacks on Israel after it turns the Gaza Strip over to Palestinian control" and Olmert promised "‘substantial, tangible changes’ in Israel's economic blockade of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip." The story then noted Olmert's skepticism of Dahlan's vow, and also editorialized that Olmert's pledge "appeared shallow" for various reasons. The AP pressed Olmert for specifics regarding his pledge, but did not similarly press Dahlan for specifics on how Dahlan planned to carry out his own promise.

The Inquirer took this already problematic AP story, retained the criticism of the Israeli pledge, but excised entirely Olmert's criticism of the Palestinian pledge.

Similarly, the Inquirer included criticisms of Israel by the World Bank which were cited in the original AP story, but cut comments by Olmert responding to those criticisms, leaving a thoroughly lopsided account.

This was not the only time Inquirer editors cut crucial details from an AP story at the expense of Israel's position. On April 15, 2005, the newspaper published an AP story which reported the killing of a Palestinian Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade member. Editors at the newspaper relayed Mahmoud Abbas' accusation that the killing was a "violation of a cease–fire," but cut from the original AP story Israel's assertion that the Palestinian opened fire on Israeli troops, who were seeking to arrest him for planning a suicide bombing. The troops returned fire only after they were attacked. These details were vital for context, and informed readers that the killing was not necessarily a violation of the cease-fire, as Abbas charged.

While it is understandable that newspapers need to edit wire stories to accommodate space limitations, this obviously must be done in a way that does not erase one side's position in a controversial dispute.

Editorializing

Also fundamental to American journalism is the separation between news and opinion. A journalist's beliefs and speculations are not to infiltrate news reports. This guideline was restated in a 2002 column by Lilian Swanson, the Inquirer's readers' advocate at the time, who explained: "It's the newspaper's job to report all facets of a story and let readers draw their own conclusions."

This key guideline was flagrantly violated in an Oct. 3, 2004 news story by Michael Matza. While writing about Israel's response to repeated Palestinian rocket attacks—the military acted after two Israeli toddlers were killed by a rocket—Matza unabashedly interjected his own opinion:

Israel's massive military invasion of the northern Gaza Stripcode-named "Operation: Days of Reckoning"is a classic Israeli counterpunch following a deadly Palestinian attack.

The Palestinian attackers made Israelis cry; now the Palestinians will cry more, the army's logic goes. Israelis paid dearly; Palestinians must pay a higher price.

This passage suggests that Israeli policy is one of disproportionate and collective punishment. Such speculation about "the army's logic" might be suitable in a newspaper's opinion pages or a clearly labeled "analysis" piece, but it had no place in a news story.

Making matters worse, Matza's opinion did not correspond with the details he reported. He stated in the same piece:

...Israeli forces pursue two objectives: Draw out the fighters who launch the rockets so they can be killed and their weapons destroyed; carve out a security perimeter wide enough to defeat the 5.5-mile range of the primitive, homemade rockets, thereby protecting Israeli towns on the other side of the fence that surrounds Gaza.

In other words, Matza's own reporting reveals that "the army's logic" was not to make "the Palestinians ... cry more." The target of the incursion was not "the Palestinians," but rather specific individuals who, in violation of international law, indiscriminately fire rockets into Israeli towns; and the purpose of the incursion was to "protect Israeli towns," not to make Palestinians pay a higher price.

Yet even as the above statements contradicted the journalist's speculation about allegedly brutal Israeli intentions, a quote fragment elsewhere in the story "Combat troops are under order ‘to exact a price,’ Defense minister Shaul Mofaz said." seemed to bolster it.

While at face value, this quote seems in line with Matza's assertion that the army seeks to make the Palestinians "cry," an examination of how it appeared in other media outlets shows otherwise. The New York Times and the Associated Press both noted on Oct. 1 that Mofaz called on troops to exact a price specifically "from the militants." The Los Angeles Times was more concise, stating: "Israeli media quoted Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz as ordering troops and commanders to `exact a price' from Palestinian militants responsible for the rocket attacks."

The quote, then, apparently had been creatively adapted to conform to Matza's editorializing.

Another example of unacceptable editorializing is reporter Warren P. Strobel's Sept. 9, 2004 assertion about the United States' "unblinking support for Israel."

Strobel wrote that the threat from smaller terrorist groups is "fueled by resentment in the Muslim world of U.S. policies, including the invasion of Iraq and unblinking support for Israel."

Unlike the U.S. "invasion of Iraq," which is an objective reality, America's so-called "unblinking support for Israel" is clearly an opinion, and should be presented as such in the opinion pages. (As with Matza's editorializing, Strobel's opinion is unconvincing in light of the facts. Though shared values and interests bind a strong alliance between the two countries, there are disagreements. Just two months earlier, the Inquirer ran a story discussing a "public rebuke" of Israel by U.S. officials. A month before that, the U.S. State Department published on its Web site a piece entitled, "U.S. Envoy to United Nations Criticizes Israeli Operations in Gaza." The State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices published that year also criticizes Israel on certain issues.)

Repeating the familiar canard of America's supposedly blind support for Israel would be questionable on the editorial pageand certainly should not appear on the news side.

The newspaper notes in its "Policy on `Clearing the Record'": "The Inquirer wants its news report to be fair and correct in every respect and regrets when it is not." If the paper truly strives to be "fair and correct," it can begin by addressing the problems with errors, lack of balance, and editorializing in its coverage of the Arab–Israeli conflict.



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