AP: Accuracy Problems

Various journalistic codes of ethics underscore that media reports must be both accurate and impartial. If the reporting is not accurate, these guidelines call on editors promptly to correct errors.

The Associated Press (AP), a wire service used by thousands of newspapers across the world, has its own code of ethics written by the Associated Press Managing Editors Association (APME). The “APME Statement of Ethical Principles” includes the following stipulations:

The newspaper should guard against inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortion through emphasis, omission or technological manipulation. It should acknowledge substantive errors and correct them promptly and prominently. The newspaper should strive for impartial treatment of issues and dispassionate handling of controversial subjects.

The AP, though, has shown a disturbing pattern of uncorrected inaccuracies and “distortion through emphasis” in its Middle East coverage.

The Spring 2004 issue of CAMERA’s Media Report described how AP reporters have justified suicide bombings as “revenge bombings”; fallaciously claimed that Israel confined three million Palestinians to their homes (despite numerous AP photos showing otherwise); described 86 American citizens killed by Palestinian terrorists as “49 Americans . . . caught in the crossfire”; and deceptively described terrorist groups that attack and kill innocent men, women and children as “militias.”

When provided with proof of AP factual errors, International Editor Debbie Seward and President/CEO Thomas Curley failed to address in any way, let alone correct, the errors.

Factual Errors

On Sept. 13, 2004, AP reporter Abdullah al-Shihri wrote of Israel’s alleged obligations under “U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the return of Palestinian refugees and the restoration of 1967 pre-war borders.”

In fact, no Security Council resolutions call for the restoration of 1967 frontiers or the return of Palestinian refugees. (In addition, the 1967 lines with the West Bank and Gaza were armistice lines, not borders.) Al-Shihri’s misrepresentation related to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, the key resolution relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This carefully-worded resolution, crafted following the 1967 Six Day War with the aim of settling the ongoing conflict between Israel and surrounding Arab nations, calls for Israel to withdraw from an unspecified amount of territory to secure and recognized boundaries. Despite attempts by some Arabists to push the idea that 242 requires a withdrawal from all territory occupied by Israel in 1967, the framers of the resolution–including British Ambassador Lord Caradon and American Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow–have emphasized time and again that such an interpretation is inaccurate. Caradon once noted:

It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial . . . . That’s why we didn’t demand that the Israelis return to them.

After similarly erring on the stipulations of 242, newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and Washington Times have all published corrections emphasizing that Resolution 242 does not call for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines. However, the AP did not run a correction.

Regarding the supposed call for “the return of Palestinian refugees,” 242 actually only affirms the necessity “for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” It does not specify what this settlement should entail, and does not even suggest a return of refugees. (The other United Nations resolution that deals with Palestinian refugees–U.N. Resolution 194–is a General Assembly resolution, not a Security Council resolution. In any event, 194’s requirement that returnees first accept living “at peace with their neighbors” meant that Palestinian returnees would have to accept Israel’s right to exist, something that, even today, seems altogether uncertain.)

The Associated Press also misstated the facts regarding another major international accord–the Fourth Geneva Convention. Writing about this Convention, which deals with the protection of civilians in time of war, reporter Josef Federman erroneously claimed: “Since capturing the two territories in the 1967 Mideast War, Israeli has refused to accept the Geneva Accord” (Aug. 24, 2004).

In actuality, Israel signed the Fourth Geneva Convention on Aug. 12, 1949, and ratified it on July 6, 1951. Since then–including after the 1967 war–Israel has not withdrawn its commitment to the treaty. (Article 158 of the Geneva Convention permits signatories to unilaterally “denounce”–or formally abandon–the Convention).

To the contrary, even while contending that the Convention does not legally apply to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel nonetheless voluntarily abides by the humanitarian provisions of the Convention in these areas, a position articulated in 1971 by then-Attorney General of Israel Meir Shamgar.

Other recent errors, also uncorrected by AP, include erring on the name and gender of Israeli education minister Limor Livnat (reporter Mark Lavie called her “Limon”), understating the number of Palestinian rocket attacks that killed Israelis, and repeatedly referring to “several million [Palestinian] refugees and their descendants.” This unclear language implies that the number of actual refugees who left their homes was in the millions, even though estimates for that figure range from 450,000 to 700,000. More accurate language would be “hundreds of thousands of refugees and their millions of descendants.”

Whitewashing Terrorists

Another disturbing trend at AP is the repeated occurrence of inaccurate, imprecise, or misleading statements which downplay the deeds of terrorist groups.

For example, Hamas has proudly taken responsibility for dispatching dozens of suicide bombers who have murdered hundreds of civilians. Yet an assortment of AP writers in various reports have described Hamas as a group only “blamed” for attacks, implying Hamas’ responsibility for terrorism is disputed. (For example, one article noted: “Hamas has been blamed for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel.”) Since September 2004, after CAMERA protested this language, the AP seems to have discontinued use of this particular misleading phrase, but the whitewashing of Hamas continued.

For example, as reported in the Fall 2004 Media Report, in a report about the Beslan school hostage crisis, William Kole and Ibrahim Barzak observed: “Extremists have become chillingly brazen in singling out so-called ‘soft targets'”(Sept. 3, 2004). The article, however, identified one alleged exception to this trend: “Palestinian militant groups are unlikely to follow [the] lead” of the Beslan attackers, a terrorism analyst was quoted saying. A senior Hamas official asserted that “Women and children are not a target for Hamas.” An Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade spokesman added, “We never did such a thing and never would. When . . . children are killed, we are sorry for this because this was a mistake, not on purpose.”

In fact, of course, Palestinian groups have a long history of targeting Israeli youth, including most notoriously the 1974 hostage taking of schoolchildren in Ma’alot, 21 of whom were murdered; the 2001 bombing of teens at the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv, in which 21 mostly young people were killed; and the 2004 point blank shooting of Tali Hatuel’s four young daughters.

The Associated Press has also whitewashed Hezbollah by distorting the Lebanese terrorist group’s rocket attacks on Israeli villages during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, which ended in 2000. Two stories in November 2004 by AP’s Hussein Dakroub stated:

During the Israeli occupation, Hezbollah guerrillas fired Katyusha rockets into northern Israel in response to Israeli attacks on civilians in southern Lebanon.

This statement is neither accurate nor balanced. First, Israel did not launch “attacks on civilians” in southern Lebanon. When civilians were inadvertently harmed during Israeli military actions, it was during Israeli attacks on Lebanese fighters who, in violation of international law, used their civilian countrymen as human shields. In addition, Hezbollah, a group which openly seeks the destruction of Israel, fired rockets at Israel irrespective of any so-called Israeli attacks on civilians. Furthermore, it was widely understood that Israeli military action in southern Lebanon–both during the occupation and since–was in reaction to Hezbollah provocations, and not vice-versa.

For example, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said at a Jan. 20, 2004 news conference

that Hezbollah once again has caused this need for [an Israeli] response . . . . The deliberate action that they took, which resulted in the loss of life, once again demonstrates the nature of that organization.

Although the AP reported the claim that Hezbollah only responds to Israeli “attacks on civilians,” the wire service has in the past recounted Hezbollah rocket attacks that were not in response to any Israeli “attacks on civilians.” For example, after an Oct. 25, 1992 Hezbollah roadside bomb attack killed five Israeli soldiers, Israel retaliated with an air raid on a Hezbollah base. An AP report covered the Israeli reprisal, clearly noting that only Hezbollah “guerrillas” were harmed, and that, nonetheless, Hezbollah “retaliated” with a rocket attack on an Israeli town:

On Sunday, Israeli warplanes destroyed a Hezbollah base in an east Lebanon village, killing four guerrillas and wounding six. The village . . . is in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah operates guerrilla training bases. Hezbollah, retaliating for the air raid, unleashed seven Katyusha rockets that hit Israel’s northern coastal town of Nahariya . . . . (“Israel Shells South Lebanon In New Cycle Of Violence,” Nov. 9, 1992.)

To be objective, the AP should have reported that Hezbollah merely claims its Katyusha attacks on Israel are in response to Israeli aggression on civilians instead of passing this off as fact. To be accurate, the news organization should have noted that Hezbollah has in fact fired Katyushas into Israeli without any prior Israeli “attacks on civilians.” To be balanced, it should have given voice to Israeli or independent observers who dispute the accusation put forth by Hezbollah.

Instead, by choosing to report only Hezbollah’s rationalization for Katyusha attacks, the AP has in effect chosen sides in the dispute and ignored its obligation to be impartial.

Associated Press reporting similarly dovetailed with Hezbollah claims regarding a region along Israel’s northern border know as the Chebaa Farms. Although Israel fully withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah contends that the Chebaa Farms is Lebanese land, and that consequently its attacks on Israel are justified. The United Nations disagrees, and ruled that Israel had fully withdrawn from Lebanese territory. According to the United Nations, Chebaa Farms is Golan Heights land which Israel conquered from Syria in the 1967 war, and thus is not part of Lebanon at all. Nonetheless, on Jan. 9, 2005, after Hezbollah terrorists crossed the border and detonated a bomb that killed an Israeli soldier in Chebaa Farms, the AP chose Hezbollah’s narrative over the U.N. findings. Numerous AP reports erroneously stated: “a Hezbollah bomb attack killed an Israeli soldier near the border in southern Lebanon.”

UNRWA Damage Control

AP also engaged in damage control for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) after a controversial statement by agency chief Peter Hansen. On Oct. 3, 2004, Hansen told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime.” When AP picked up the story, reporter Peter Enav erased Hansen’s certainty and excised the reference to Hamas “members.” According to Enav, Hansen only “acknowledged that Hamas sympathizers might be working for the agency.” (Emphasis added.)

The Associated Press’ self-declared mission is to provide “news services of the highest quality, reliability and objectivity with reports that are accurate, balanced and informed.” Presently the news agency falls far short of this. While accuracy, for instance, may not be possible 100 percent of the time, accountability is. Errors should be corrected promptly. Nor is there any ethical or professional justification for AP’s repeated distortion of the facts about terror groups. The reputation of Associated Press’s International Desk will continue to suffer until standards are finally tightened and enforced.

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