Editing the President

President George W. Bush spoke to editors from across the country at the Newspaper Association of America’s convention in Washington, D.C. on April 21. Bush reiterated the support he gave Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza Strip withdrawal plan a week earlier, criticized Palestinian Arab leadership, and warned against Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons, specifically mentioning the Iranian threat to destroy Israel.

The Washington Post covered Bush’s NAA appearance in a 22-paragraph report headlined “Iran ‘Will Be Dealt With,’ Bush Says; Bid to Start at U.N., President Says,” by Staff Writer Mike Allen. However, on those parts of the president’s speech that praised the Israeli initiative, condemned Palestinian leadership, and focused specifically on Iran’s potential nuclear weapons threat against Israel, the Post article was 0-for-3.

On Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, Bush said:

I also believe a free Palestinian state would be a major change agent for world peace. Ariel Sharon came to America and he stood up with me and he said, “We are pulling out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank.” In my judgment, the whole world should have said, ‘Thank you, Ariel. Now we have a chance to begin the construction of a peaceful Palestinian state.”

Unfortunately,there was a kind of silence [from the Palestinians and others], wasn’t there? Because the responsibility is hard …. The Palestinian leadership has failed the people year after year. And now is the time for the world to step up and take advantage of this opportunity and help to build a Palestinian state that’s committed to the promise of individual rights and rule of law, and fairness and justice so the Palestinian people have a chance to grow a peaceful state; and so that Israel has a partner in peace — not a launching pad of terrorist attacks on her border.

The Post did not report this section of the president’s speech at all.

On Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its threat against Israel, the president said, among other things:

I think the message is getting delivered to them that it’s intolerable they develop a nuclear weapon; particularly since their stated objective is the destruction of Israel.

The Post reported Bush’s comments this way:

The development of a nuclear weapon in Iran is intolerable, and a program is intolerable …. Otherwise, they will be dealt with, starting through the United Nations.

CAMERA shared its criticism of Post coverage with National Editor Michael Abramowitz. Abramowitz replied that:

I fear there is a misunderstanding of the role of newspapers. We are not stenographers for the White House. We do not simply print everything the president has to say on a given day. We have to pick and choose and try to highlight the most newsworthy aspects of the president’s speeches and interviews.

It is a difficult task and we try hard to be fair, but reasonable people can disagree about what’s important. In this case, I think Mike Allen picked precisely the right subject to emphasize, the president’s comments on Iran,and he did so in a fair and balanced way. I don’t particularly think his omission of the president’s comments on Israel and the Palestinians to be problematic, since — as your own analysis acknowledges — this was a restatement of the White House position. One could hardly argue that we have given short-shrift to President Bush’s support of Prime Minister Sharon. On April 15 we ran a prominently displayed, front-page story on Bush’s support for the Sharon withdrawal plan, and followed that up with other articles on the subject.

However, Abramowitz added, “we always welcome comments and criticism, even when we disagree.”

CAMERA appreciates Abramowitz’s reply and openness to criticism. However, we must note that while we do not expect the news media to act as government stenographers, we continue to think the items omitted in the Post’s April 21 coverage of Bush’s speech were crucial. After a week of widespread criticism of his support for Sharon’s proposal, the president chose to reiterate it publicly, and challenged other leaders to join him. He spotlighted the Palestinians’ chronic failure to provide leaders willing and able to seek a peaceful settlement with Israel — a reality still too-frequently discounted by other international leaders and major media.

As for the Iranian threat against Israel, Iranian leaders – as if testing international reaction – have mused publicly several times in the past few years about the possibility and desirability of destroying the Jewish state with nuclear weapons. The silence in response from heads of governments and organizations such as the United Nations has been virtually unanimous. Bush’s highlighting of the Iranian nuclear threat and its specific Israeli target strikes us as eminently newsworthy.

Omissions that downplay dangers to Israel while minimizing or ignoring Palestinian Arab failures are not uncommon on the Post’s foreign pages. Perhaps the national desk did not recognize the foreign news value in the portions of the president’s speech it chose not to report. Whatever the reason, Post readers lost out.

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