The Washington Post, widely relied upon on in the nationís capital as an important source of news for elected officials and other policy makers and opinion-shapers, prides itself on the cutting-edge quality and factual integrity of its reporting. Unfortunately, the Postís Middle East coverage has long fallen short of such lofty attainments.
Israeli Bureau Chief Lee Hockstaderís coverage of events in Israel has been marred by unprofessional practices, including the repeated use of unnamed sources cited in support of opinion-laden assertions in his news articles. Also commonplace are heavily tilted human interest stories sympathetic to the Palestinians emphasizing the emotional pull of "victimhood" rather than facts and hard news.
For example, on July 7, Hockstader authored an article headlined "Infamous Killer or Mistaken ID?...Palestinians Ponder Arrest in Lynching." The article focuses on Aziz Salha, the man arrested as the killer who raised blood-drenched and triumphant hands at the window of a Ramallah police station where two Israeli reservists were murdered on Oct. 12, 2000.
Hockstader casts Salha as a possible victim of mistaken identity, citing the skepticism of his friends and relatives about his guilt. He emphasizes the ostensibly gentle nature of the man, noting that Salha "stutters...[and] perhaps because of his speech impediment, he tends to shyness." Hockstader notes, "His family said he was calm, good-natured and athletic."
The reporter offers still more grist for skepticism, observing that "...Salha was an anonymous face in the crowd at the police station...he had never been arrested and was not politically active..."
Then the reporter stepped into editorial terrain, writing that Salha was "as cognizant of the Israeli occupation as any Palestinian: Jewish settlements have been built east and west of his home village..." That is to say, according to the reporterís implication, the suspected Ramallah murderer committed his deed in response to oppression.
But why not say Salha was as much "as any Palestinian" a product of the Palestinian Authorityís hate indoctrination, that he acted on the ferocious anti-Israel exhortations of PA school texts, PA clerics, PA leaders, PA media?
In the same vein, Hockstader sets up a false equivalence between incidents of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. This practice is insidious because it effectively obscures the facts of the conflict and misleads readers as to who is initiating violence.
In the July 7 article, describing competing "images of outrage," he equated the vicious, deliberate murder of the Israelis with the tragic -- but unintentional -- death of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy caught in crossfire initiated by Palestinians against Israeli army positions. "For Palestinians," he wrote, "it is a terrified 12-year-old Mohammed Dura, cowering behind his father seconds before he was raked by Israeli machine-gun fire and killed last September 30."
Hockstader further obscures Palestinian responsibility for the savage killing in Ramallah when he presents a half-truth about a key event that occurred days before the lynching in the same area. He refers to a car accident that caused the death of Palestinian Isam Judeh, saying:
... Israel said the [motoristís] death had been caused by a road accident, a diagnosis later confirmed by independent foreign forensic experts. But among Palestinians the rumor was that the motorist had been tortured and killed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
Among Palestinians there was far more than a "rumor"—there was an outright propaganda campaign in which the accident victimís body was videotaped and broadcast on PA television with charges that Israel had committed atrocities against Judeh. Indeed, to this day anti-Israel websites are filled with images of Isam Judeh and baseless charges against Israel. (Physicians for Human Rights and a British forensic expert both investigated exhaustively and concluded he was a car accident victim.) The false and inflammatory charges of Israeli violence helped fuel the mob savagery against the two Israeli reservists only days later. Again, though, Hockstader omitted reference to the overt Palestinian role in stoking hatred and killing.
Finally, Hockstader implied that if Salha is guilty, he was merely caught up in the events of the demonstration and the reporter suggests the Palestinian is being mistreated by Israel. Two Palestinians were quoted. Salhaís brother said:
...it was a time when peopleís emotions were boiling over, and all of a sudden they see two [Israeli] soldiers in front of them. Iím not saying I agree with what happened, ... the situation was very highly charged with hatred.
And an acquaintance explained: "I think anybody who was in Ramallah that day couldíve done the same thing. He was just part of the mob." Hockstader added that:
since [the arrest] the family has barely had word of him. He has been allowed a single call home, four days after he was arrested. A Palestinian lawyer saw him in jail once, briefly.
Despite Hockstaderís clearly implying Israel may have the wrong man no Israelis were quoted in the article, whether family members of the murdered reservists or government or IDF spokesman.
A June 28 Hockstader story was equally biased, laying the onus for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff on Israel, this time with the focus on Ariel Sharon. The piece, little more than an anti-Sharon editorial, relied heavily on the dubious journalistic practice of citing unnamed sources, making half a dozen such references -- most hostile to the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister.
Hockstader says the Israeli leaderís refusal to negotiate "under the threat of terror and violence " is "recalcitrance." While, conceding that a "large majority of Israelis agree" with their elected leader on this matter, he nevertheless invokes an anonymous chorus of "American, European and Israeli analysts, [who say] Sharonís demand for weeks of Palestinian quiescence before making reciprocal moves is unrealistic."
(Hockstaderís use of "reciprocal" here is also peculiar. He obviously means something other than Israel likewise foregoing violence, as it had already done so unilaterally weeks earlier. Hockstader is implying that the Palestiniansí ending their killing of Israelis should be paid for by additional Israeli concessions.)
Another unnamed "European diplomat" pronounces Sharonís cease fire goals "an impossibility and everybody knows it." The same nameless source calls for "an enabling strategy for Arafat" and declares that "the only way of moving Sharon back to the table is through international pressure."
Hockstaderís habit of concealing his "analystsí" identity not only permits him to impute all sorts of views to unverifiable sources, but also protects him from criticism that he relies on one-sided commentators.
Such biased and shoddy reporting is unworthy of an important newspaper, read and relied upon in Americaís capital.
Appeared in the Jerusalem Post on July 20, 2001