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STUDY: New York Times Skews Israeli-Palestinian Crisis

In a key period in late March and early April, as Israel suffered a wave of unprecedented Palestinian terrorism prompting the Israel Defense Forces to respond with incursions into areas under Palestinian Authority control, the New York Times presented a decidedly skewed picture of events. Reporting focused heavily on Palestinian suffering while continually minimizing the personal toll on Israelis. The number and prominence (judged by placement and size) of news stories and photographs regularly cast Palestinians as blameless victims of Israeli aggression. Israeli victims were rarely even named, much less profiled. Guest Op-Ed’s were overwhelmingly tilted toward condemnation of Israel.

The Times’ distorted presentation of events is especially troubling given the paper’s influence on its readership, policy makers and other members of the media. The analysis below covers the period from March 28-April 11.

1. Prominence of Articles, Photographs, and Headlines

Only 3 of 10 terrorist attacks that targeted Israelis—the Passover Massacre of March 27, the Tel Aviv café bombing of March 30, and the Haifa restaurant suicide bombing of March 31—received headlined, front-page coverage.

News stories of other terrorist attacks were either absent ( the stabbing deaths of two elderly men on their way to synagogue in Netzarim on March 29; a suicide bombing that killed a border policeman who stopped a terrorist on March 30), summarized in one paragraph or less within other articles (the infiltration into and killing of a family in Eilon Moreh on March 29; the suicide bombing outside an emergency medical center in Efrat on March 31; the killing of guard in Har Homa on April 1; the suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed the policeman who stopped the car carrying the terrorists on April 1), or relegated to the middle of the International section (the supermarket suicide bombing that killed 2 and wounded over 30 in Jerusalem on March 29, p.A6; the Haifa bus bombing that killed 8 and wounded 22 on April 10, p.A12).

By contrast, 14 news stories about Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield (not including American or Arab reaction or news analysis) were carried on the front page.

Only 2 photographs of Palestinian terrorist attacks (Passover Massacre, on March 28 and Haifa restaurant suicide bombing, on April 2) made it to the front page, compared to 11 front page photographs of the Israeli Operation Defensive Shield.

Example: A specific example of the de-emphasis of Palestinian attacks against Israelis is the coverage of the Haifa bus bombing of April 10, the first major suicide attack after Israeli forces started to pull back from some of the areas entered during Operation Defensive Shield. The Haifa bombing was briefly mentioned within an article about Israel’s military actions and was covered in a headlined article on one eighth of page A12 with no accompanying photographs (April 11: Joel Greenberg, “New Suicide Raid Casts Doubt on Israeli Strategy”). The front page of that issue carried three two-page articles focused primarily on Israel’s actions or Palestinian victimhood:

  • James Bennet, In New Rebuff to U.S., Sharon Pushes Military Sweep
  • Serge Schmemann, Attacks Turn Palestinian Plans Into Bent Metal and Piles of Dust
  • Todd S. Purdum, Europeans Press Demands on Israel, accompanied by a large color photograph of Palestinian children looking at rubble in Nablus.

2. Human Interest Stories

During the period of our study, Palestinian terrorist attacks were responsible for scores of deaths and hundreds of wounded Israeli non-combatants, but aside from initial news stories which may have quoted eyewitnesses, there were only 2 stories about victims of Palestinian terrorist attacks and no stories about relatives of the victims or survivors of the terrorist attacks.

For example, there was no mention of the Gavish family in Eilon Moreh who had gathered to celebrate the Passover holiday and were shot to death by a Palestinian terrorist who broke into in their home on March 28. A father, mother, grandfather, and son were all killed leaving behind seven orphaned children. A pregnant daughter-in-law and her toddler managed to hide under a table and thus escape the marauding terrorist. The only coverage the Times provided, however, was the following sentence buried in an article about Arafat :

Even as Mr. Arafat made his pledge, a Palestinian gunmen shot and killed four Israelis in a Jewish settlement near the West Bank city of Nablus.

Similarly, it might have interested Times readers to learn how two little girls, ages 3 and 7, orphaned by a Palestinian suicide bomber were faring in the aftermath of a March 21 terrorist attack. Both parents were blown apart as they left a doctor’s appointment where they had just discovered they were expecting twins. However, no such story was forthcoming and indeed no mention was ever made of the two young survivors. While the list of possible stories humanizing the victims was long (Israeli victims of terrorist attacks during the period of our study and the week preceding it numbered 73 dead and hundreds wounded), the Times, for the most part, ignored these possibilities.

Even the horrific Passover attack which killed 28 Israelis and wounded 130 did not prompt even one follow-up story; there was no mention of the Holocaust survivors who were slain nor of the children who lost both parents at once.

It is impossible to ignore the blatant imbalance in human interest stories presented. There were 5 human interest stories exclusively about Israeli suffering of which only 2 focused on victims of terror attacks. By contrast, there were 14 human interest stories focused solely on Palestinian suffering or on terrorists and their families.

Human Interest Stories about Israelis

  1. April 1: Serge Schmemann, In Jerusalem, Bare Streets and Concern for Children
  2. April 5: Joel Greenberg, 2 Girls, Divided by War, Joined in Carnage
  3. April 6: Serge Schmemann, On Border With Lebanon, This Family is Never Scared
  4. April 8: Joel Greenberg, 6 Israelis Mix Confusion, Fear and Determination
  5. April 11: Barbara Crossette, Niece of Israeli U.N. Ambassador Killed

Human Interest Stories about Palestinians

  1. March 31: Neil MacFarquhar, Grimly, Palestinians Stay Tuned to News
  2. March 31: Joel Greenberg, Daughter Concealed Angry Soul of a Martyr
  3. April 1: Joel Brinkley, Relatives and Neighbors Proud of Suicide Bomber
  4. April 1: John Kifner, Residents Cower in Vibrant Ramallah, Now A Ghost Town Occupied by Israelis
  5. April 3: Joel Brinkley, Gazans Await Israeli Attack Despite Lack of a Buildup
  6. April 3: John Kifner, In West Bank, Burials Reflect Politics and Passion
  7. April 4: James Bennet, Bleeding to Death
  8. April 4: Joel Brinkley, Hamas Spirits Soar
  9. April 5: John Kifner, Under Siege, Without Power or Water
  10. April 6: James Bennet, Many Wounds and a Wish to Die for the Homeland
  11. April 10: Joel Greenberg, Freed Palestinians Tell of Roundup in Grim Detail
  12. April 10: David Rohde, Palestinians Say Israelis Sow Hatred in the Raids
  13. April 11: Joel Brinkley, The Assault is Over, the Casbah Is in Ruins
  14. April 11: Serge Schmemann, Attacks Turn Palestinian Plans Into Bent Metal and Piles of Dust

3. Terrorist and Victim in “Balanced” Profiles

A human interest story about the Israeli teenaged victim of a supermarket suicide bombing was run one week after the terrorist attack, but was paired with a profile of her killer (April 5: Joel Greenberg, 2 Girls, Divided by War, Joined in Carnage).

Not only was this first and only report providing any details about Rachel Levy blurred into an equating of young lives lost on both sides of the conflict, it was the third one giving details and photographs of the terrorist.

The first story about the attack focused more on the Palestinian suicide bomber than on her victims (March 30: Serge Schmemann, Suicide Bomber, 18, Kills Two Israelis and Herself). This was followed the next day by an article about the suicide bomber’s family (March 31: Joel Greenberg, Daughter Concealed Angry Soul of a Martyr). Together, the two articles presented information about the terrorist’s name, sex, age, occupation, motivations, brothers, father, as well as a large full length photo of her and another of her mourning father. The only information provided about the victims of this terrorist attack was that “a man and woman were killed,” and that at least 30 were wounded. No names, no descriptions, no occupations, no ages, no mourning families and no photographs. While the female victim of the bombing was named one week later, the male victim of the bombing was apparently deemed un-newsworthy, his name never mentioned. He was Haim Smadar, temporarily working as a security guard at the supermarket during the Passover holidays.

4. Emphasis on and Mislabeling of pro-Palestinian Sympathizers

There were at least four stories which quoted Adam Shapiro, an American Jew who entered Ramallah to protect and assist Yasir Arafat. Two articles were devoted exclusively to him or his words.

On March 30, Shapiro was quoted in three paragraphs of a news story about the Israeli army’s encirclement of Arafat’s compound (James Bennet, Israelis Besieging Defiant Arafat). Another story that day was comprised entirely of Shapiro’s quotes (Joel Greenberg, American Describes Arafat’s Post Under Siege). On March 31, an additional story was devoted to Shapiro’s phone call to his family (Susan Saulny, For American A Long Night Inside Arafat’s Compound).

Subsequent reported threats against Shapiro’s family were covered not only in the metropolitan news section, which is understandable, but were deemed worthy of an editorial directed at “irresponsible local supporters of Israel.” With all the urgent issues facing people around the world, this was indeed a puzzling editorial judgement, especially since there was no proof that these calls, if they actually occurred, came from supporters of Israel.

It is also notable that in the April 3 story (Saulny, Threatened, Couple Flee Apartment in Brooklyn), Adam Shapiro is consistently referred to as a “humanitarian worker,” a curious designation in light of Shapiro’s open support for “armed resistance” and a Palestinian “violent movement.” Nowhere in its extensive and quite sympathetic coverage of Shapiro did the Times see fit to quote from Shapiro’s January 29 article in Palestine Chronicle, in which he explained his support for nonviolence as merely tactical, as a means to manipulate the media. Writing with his fiancée, Shapiro explained that:

While we do not advocate adopting the methods of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., we do believe that learning from their experience and informing a Palestinian movement with this knowledge can be quite valuable and of great utility. ...

[T]he use of nonviolence is about control and power – those who maintain nonviolence and exploit the use of violence by the oppressor maintain control and power, which is something that can be manipulated to present a story, a case or an image.

... we accept that the Palestinians have a right to resist with arms, as they are an occupied people ... Palestinian resistance must take on a variety of characteristics – both nonviolent and violent...

Shapiro and his fiancée also wrote that Palestinians killed in nonviolent protests will have died in a manner:

... no less noble that carrying out a suicide operation. And we are certain that if these men were killed during such an action, they would be considered shaheed Allah.

It is nothing short of astounding that the Times would characterize as a “humanitarian worker” someone who holds such views, and who could write that a “suicide operation” is “noble.” And it was not just Adam Shapiro who benefitted from such mischaracterizations by the paper. The Times ran several large photographs and articles about pro-Palestinian supporters demonstrating for Arafat, and photo captions, headlines, and articles invariably labeled them as “pacifists,” “peace advocates,” or “peace activists,” thus adopting the terminology of partisan players while ignoring the fact that these so-called peace-lovers limited themselves to anti-Israel activities.

5. Photographic Bias

Photographic images of unfolding events in the Middle East help shape the perceptions of those dependent on the New York Times as their major or only source of information. Unfortunately, the images and captions displayed on the pages of the Times reveal a total lack of balance.

During the period of the analysis, the Times presented a total of 18 photographs of Israelis (not including those of Israeli leaders). Of these, 7 presented the aftermath of suicide bombings and only 2 appeared on the front page.

In sharp contrast, there were 45 photographs portraying Palestinians as victims, Israelis as aggressors, or Palestinian suicide bombers and their families, 11 of which appeared on the front page (not including photographs of Palestinian leaders).

In addition, there were 19 mostly large photographs of pro-Palestinian demonstrators versus only 1 small photograph of an Israeli solidarity demonstration in New York, despite the fact that numerous pro-Israel demonstrations had been staged across America. In addition, there was a large photograph of Israelis demonstrating against Israeli military actions.

Aside from the lack of balance in size, number, and placement of photographs, the captions attached to them were often distorted or misleading, including the use of editorializing, lack of context, or selective information added to the photograph. For example:


March 30: Under large front-page photograph:

“Israeli troops stormed through a hole into the Palestinian Authority compound in Ramallah yesterday.”

Since it is not obvious that Israelis are “storming” anything, this is editorial comment.

Misleading and/or Insufficient Context

April 3: Under large front-page photograph:

“Israeli soldiers ordered a Palestinian to raise his shirt during a search yesterday at a checkpoint near Ramallah.”

No context is provided for the soldier’s request. The caption implies that Israelis are gratuitously humiliating the Palestinian. A less prejudicial caption might have read:

“Israeli soldiers checked a Palestinian for concealed weapons at a checkpoint near Ramallah.

April 4: Under large front-page photograph:

“Israeli guards at a border checkpoint beat a peace activist yesterday during a demonstration in Jerusalem.”

The caption again provides no context. The photograph shows an Israeli policeman who appears to be subduing, not beating, a man by pinning him to the ground with one knee. No information is given for what this “peace activist” was doing before being subdued. Likewise, the terminology “peace activist” prejudges the motives and activities of these anti-Israel demonstrators.

April 6: Under large front-page photograph:

“Palestinian girls were followed by Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem yesterday during a break in the city’s curfew.

The caption implies that Israeli soldiers are harassing two young girls. The photo shows two girls walking on a street. Israeli soldiers are a distance behind them and do not appear to be looking at the children. Again, no context is given.

Addition of Selective Information

April 4: Under a photograph of Israeli soldiers patrolling a street in Bethlehem:

“Israeli soldiers patrolling Bethlehem yesterday. Shops were closed and few residents ventured out. Some ambulances could not reach the wounded.

The caption might have read:

“Israeli soldiers patrolling Bethlehem yesterday. Palestinian gunmen, some dressed as Israeli soldiers, battled with Israeli troops in and around Bethlehem’s Manger Square. The troops drove back gunmen until about 200 shot their way into the Church of the Nativity.

April 8: Under photograph of Palestinians gazing out from an arcade:

“ Palestinian fighters watched yesterday from an arcade in the Nablus casbah as Israeli tanks tightened their grip on the city. Earlier, in a narrow street in the Old City, an Israeli sniper found a clear line of fire and killed Ahmed Tabouk, a leader of previous uprisings against Israeli occupation.

The caption might have read:

“Fighting in Nablus was focused on the casbah yesterday, as troops moved house-to-house. The army found three weapons factories in Nablus today, where an Israeli sniper killed Ahmed Tabouk, Fatah military wing leader.

In addition to selective information, the caption adopts Arab terminology – “uprising against Israeli occupation.”

6. Op-Ed’s

In the two weeks following the Passover Massacre (March 28-April 11), the Times op-ed page carried seven guest op-ed’s that concentrated on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in addition to those by their regular columnists.

Of the invited guest op-ed’s, four were by people generally known to espouse a Palestinian perspective who criticized Israel’s policies and/or discussed Palestinian victimhood. The other three op-ed’s included one by a far-left opponent of the Israeli government, another by a member of the left-wing Labor-Meimad wing of Knesset, both of which opposed Sharon’s policies, and the third by a former U.S. security adviser critical of Sharon. The Times’ guest op-ed’s at such a critical time were limited to a left-wing, anti-Sharon perspective, with no one included to present the mainstream Israeli perspective.

The op-ed’s included:

March 30: Yossi Beilin, “More War Is Not the Route to Israeli Security

Yossi Beilin, well-known as one of the architects of Oslo and an opponent of the current Israeli government, predictibly blames Sharon for the current crisis.

April 2: Raja Shehadeh, “The Path From Oslo to War

Raja Shehadeh, author of a book on “Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine” condemns Israeli government policies and defends Arafat as a “moderate.”

April 4: Shibley Telhami, “Why Suicide Terrorism Takes Root

Shibley Telhami, professor of politics at the University of Maryland, grew up in a Christian Palestinian family in a Druze Arab village in Israel. Telhami clearly and forcefully condemns suicide terrorism, but suggests that Israel’s “occupation” is at the root of Palestinian suicide bombers who, he says, have adopted this method “because they think it is effective in making occupation unbearable to Israel.”

April 5: Shlomo Ben-Ami, “Bush’s Mideast Opportunity

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a leader of the “peace camp,” foreign minister in former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government, and one of the principal negotiators in the Camp David and Taba talks with the Palestinians, is a member of Knesset who opposes Sharon’s policies. In this article, he urges abandoning interim agreements, imposing an international solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and employing a multinational peacekeeping force – views rejected by the Israeli Cabinet and a vast majority of the Israeli electorate.

April 6: Daoud Kuttab, “Forced Off the Air in Ramallah

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist who heads the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University, writes frequently about life under what he calls “Israeli occupation.” In this article, Kuttab writes emotionally about Israeli soldiers destroying a radio station in Ramallah during military actions there.

April 7: Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Moral Duty, National Interest

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, has been regarded by many Israelis as less than an evenhanded broker. In this article, Brzezinski forcefully states that “...the 4.8 million Jewish Israelis cannot permanently sustain the subjugation of 4.5 million Palestinians (1.2 million of whom are second-class Israeli citizens)...” The term “subjugation” would doubtless be disputed by most Israelis, as would the claim that Israeli Arabs live as second-class citizens.

April 10: Allegra Pacheco, “Life Under Siege

Allegra Pacheco, a Jewish lawyer who represents Palestinians in the West Bank, is a fierce anti-Israel activist who condemns Israel as “apartheid” and calls for its dismantlement as a Jewish state. In this article, Pacheco accuses Israel of being in defiance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and presents Palestinians as blameless victims.

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