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Media Analyses

EYE ON THE MEDIA: Viorst, Times Cavalier with Facts

Anyone who follows media coverage of the Middle East will be aware of the prevalence of extreme anti-Israel commentators on the Op-Ed pages of prestigious newspapers. Indeed, it often seems that a career of partisan attacks against the Jewish state is the surest road to publication. Yet serious papers usually draw a line at blatant factual error or correct any errors that get by the editor.

Milton Viorst's May 24th column in the New York Times put that newspaper to the test. It wasn't Viorst's tortured arguments that warranted correction. However bizarre logically, he is entitled to claim the Oslo Accords are flawed by a "stultifying imbalance in bargaining power between Israel and the Palestinian Authority." He is entitled to characterize the PA as "frail" and its commitments under Oslo as lamentable concessions to an invincible adversary. He is even entitled to omit mention of the striking achievements of the Palestinians, including gaining autonomy for more than 95% of their own people, control of medical, civic and educational institutions, creation of police forces numbering more than 30,000 men, construction of an international airport, and recognition world-wide.

Likewise, he can employ grossly deceptive language in his "opinion" writing, saying of Oslo: "The Palestinians foreswore their right of resistance in return for vague Israeli pledges to turn over the land taken in the 1967 war." His sanitized reference to "resistance," needless to say, omits mention of Palestinian firebombing, stabbings and rioting during the Intifada and blood-drenched suicide bombings of Israel's buses, cafes and shopping plazas after 1993.

But there were also outright errors of fact. Viorst wrote that Palestinian riots this May were the "worst in a decade" and that "for the first time, the Palestinian Authority's police fired on Israeli soldiers." He added, "No Israelis were struck."

These statements are all false. The May riots were not the worst in a decade the worst were in 1996, when Israel opened a new exit to a tourist tunnel in Jerusalem. PA police used live fire against Israel for the first time then and fifteen Israelis were killed, prompting Israeli military reassessments of PA aims and capabilities.

Nor is it true that no Israelis were struck in the recent outbreak. A number were injured, including twenty-one year old Omer Peri of Haifa who was shot in the head and critically wounded in Gaza. The New York Times itself reported Israelis were wounded in a news article entitled "Worst Fighting in West Bank in Four Years" (May 16). A photo was captioned, "An Israeli soldier writhed in pain yesterday after he was hit by live fire from the Palestinian police near the West Bank town of Ramallah."

What did the Times do when alerted to the inaccuracies? Op-Ed staffer Mary Suh told CAMERA after consultations with Viorst that no correction would be printed because the issues were a matter of "interpretation." Suh also said the author could not confirm from his Israeli source, journalist Aaron Lerner, that anyone had been struck by Palestinian gunfire.

Viorst was contemptuous of the truth here too. A trail of e-mail shows Aaron Lerner contacted him the day of his column saying, "Your article has serious errors." He wrote, "Israelis were indeed struck, including an officer who was shot in the face by a sharpshooter. His bloody picture appeared in all the local press..."

Lerner told Viorst as well that he was wrong about the PA police shooting at Israelis "for the first time." He noted, "There are several instances in the past that Palestinian police opened fire. The most dramatic was after the tunnel was opened near the Temple Mount."

The next day Viorst thanked Lerner "for the corrections."

Two weeks later, confronted with proof he'd been alerted immediately to factual errors by the very source he claimed could not "confirm" an Israeli shooting victim, Viorst wrote to Lerner: "Give me a day to think about it. I frankly don't know if the Times will print anything more on this issue, even if I admit error, in view of what I and the Times regard as the triviality of the problem."

Viorst subsequently wrote to Lerner saying: "I want to apologize for getting you involved in my little spat with CAMERA. I don't know why they're pursuing such picky stuff. They don't go after the substance of the piece, to which I would acknowledge a right of dissent. But what difference does it really make if this was the first or the second time the PA ordered firing on the Israelis (it would in fact probably be worse if it was the second), or if it was the worst or second worst disorders in the territories, or if I missed the one Israeli that was wounded. I'm not boasting of inaccuracies, if indeed I was inaccurate, but I'd rather debate bigger stuff."

Lerner urged Viorst to "do the right thing and tell the Times you want to have a correction." He added, "You owe it to your readers to correct this fact. It is not minor."

At this writing, the New York Times has yet to issue any corrections despite the fact that the errors were not trivial. Viorst used them to buttress his distorted assertion that Palestinians are weak and harmless, while Israelis are mighty and untouched by violence. In truth, PA police had previously shot and killed Israelis, and this spring again shot and wounded more. While it is the terrain of Op-Eds to debate the interpretation of facts, the Times, by its inaction, has knowingly allowed falsehoods to underpin Viorst's argument. Lerner pressed Viorst to be a "mensch" and own up to his mistakes; why is the New York Times also refusing to set this all straight?


Appeared in the Jerusalem Post on this date

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