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Media Analyses

Photo Falsehood and the Temple Mount Riots (September 2000)

Tuvia Grossman

An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount – or was it?

How do you undo the damage of a powerful – and false – visual image that has communicated a loaded political message? That is just one of the questions surrounding a dramatic media misstep in coverage of the Palestinian riots launched in the wake of Israeli Knesset Member Ariel Sharon’s visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount on September 28, 2000.

On September 30, as rioting continued in Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories, media reporting overwhelmingly cast events as involving frustrated Arabs equipped with mere stones facing heavily-armed Israelis. A vivid image that seemed to capture perfectly this story line ran in newspapers worldwide. In many it was printed in full color.

A grimacing Israeli policeman, baton raised, stood over a young man, brutally bloodied. A caption read: “An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount.”

But the victim here was not Palestinian and the angry Israeli had not beaten him. (Nor were they photographed on the Temple Mount – that too was an error.) The policeman was, in fact, protecting Tuvia Grossman, a Jewish-American student who had just been assaulted along with two friends while driving in Jerusalem in a taxi.

Arabs had stoned the vehicle and its occupants, dragging Tuvia out to beat and stab him. Another of the Americans was also severely attacked and hospitalized. Tuvia broke free from his assailants and, though he had lost his glasses and could not see well, fled toward the Israeli policeman. At that point a photographer snapped the picture.

When the facts emerged, many found the AP blunder and the widespread publication of the false lurid image further evidence of the media tilt against Israel. Many saw in the inversion of events an instance of media unwillingness to present the vulnerability of the Israeli side and brutality of the Palestinians.

The beating of Tuvia did not, obviously, negate Palestinian losses in riots against Israelis, but it illustrated the personal physical attacks Israeli Jews have long encountered and the frequent silence of the media. Here it was all the worse; the beaten Jew had been transformed into an Arab. The Jewish boy’s suffering was used to evoke sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

AP stumbled repeatedly before it got the story right, sending first a correction that identified the young man as a medic, then finally sending a statement that read:

Associated Press captions on two photos sent Sept. 29 from Jerusalem misidentified a young man injured during street battles between Israeli forces and Palestinians. The AP first identified the young man, who was photographed sitting bloodied on the ground, as an unnamed Palestinian. Different captions sent Monday, Oct. 2, identified him as an Israeli ambulance medic. On Tuesday, the original photos were retransmitted with captions correctly identifying him as Tuvia Grossman, an American student from Chicago. The original captions also misidentified the site of the incident as the Temple Mount. In fact, it occurred in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The AP still did not have it quite right. The incident took place outside of the Old City, not in it. Urged by hundreds of callers to do more than resend the photo with a correction, the influential wire service also sent out a story on the beatings of the American boys.

Unfortunately, many papers carried brief corrections, often misleading ones, and not every publication republished the original photograph. The New York Times had carried a small black- and-white version of the photo on an inside page. The paper faced particular pressure to redress the error when Tuvia Grossman’s father sent a letter distributed far and wide on the Internet deploring the photo’s misrepresentation.

The Times first issued a correction (Oct. 4) that offered the identity of the victim as “Tuvia Grossman of Chicago” but said nothing about the assault on him. One week after the falsely-captioned image appeared, the newspaper did a story on the beatings of the American students and reprinted the photograph with an account of how AP had misidentified it.

The Boston Globe had run a large color version of the photo (four-column, front-page, above the fold) and, when apprized of the error, issued a correction that read: “Because of incorrect information supplied by the Associated Press, the caption accompanying a Page 1 picture on Saturday incorrectly identified a man who had been injured in the violence in Jerusalem’s Old City. The victim was not a Palestinian. He is Tuvia Grossman, a Jewish student from Chicago.”

The Globe also published an AP story about the events of the beating and followed that with a story about the controversy by the paper’s media critic that included a reprint of the original photo.

Another newspaper that carried the dramatic image on its front page was the French daily, Liberation. On October 5 the publication reran the photo on an inside page with a correction that read: “Reframing of a picture – We published on the front page of Liberation of September 30 the picture above with the wrong legend on faith of information provided by the Associated Press Agency. The young man on the front is not a Palestinian, contrary to what we wrote, but an American student Tuvia Grossman, injured by Palestinian demonstrators. The policeman in the background shouts to keep the crowd away. The scene indeed took place in Jerusalem but not on the Mosque Esplanade.”

The Baltimore Sun published the inaccurately captioned photo, then reprinted it with an extended correction, then re-ran the correction a second time to make sure readers would not miss it.

The international edition of Newsweek ran the photo and promised a correction.

The Montreal Gazette ran a complete correction and added “The Gazette regrets the error.”

Many other publications carried the photo, some of which were much more offhand about redressing the error. The Houston Chronicle ran a pro-forma correction.

The Commercial Appeal, a Memphis paper, failed to correct the error in its correction, writing that Grossman “was injured in Jerusalem on Friday during violence between Israeli riot police and Palestinians.”

A Kentucky paper, the Courier-Journal ran the AP statement – unfortunately not making clear that Tuvia was the victim of Arab violence.

Australia’s Melbourne Herald Sun carried perhaps the most bizarre caption. It read: “Bashed: An American student is beaten by an Israeli police officer in Jerusalem”!

Why the Associated Press failed to identify Tuvia accurately is not a mystery; they simply assumed any victim would be Arab. The likelihood is that in the wake of this fiasco, photographers and editors will now exercise more care.

Newspapers that rely on the AP cannot be faulted for trusting the wire service description of the image, but their action to redress the damage of the error often came only in the wake of intense public protest. Nevertheless, a number took unusual measures to try to offset the damage done and to respond to strong public concerns.

UPDATE: On April 3, 2002 a Paris District Court awarded Tuvia Grossman 4,500 Euros in damages to be paid by the Associated Press and French daily, Liberation.

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