Insisting on an Error: The Washington Post – Infallible, or Just in Denial?

The headline over Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell’s April 20 column read, “Was ‘Excluded’ the Wrong Word?” The column itself proved that it was, and yet the ombudsman did not find that a correction was necessary to The Post‘s assertion that “except for a relatively small Druze population,” Israel excludes its Arab citizens from mandatory military service.


Post reader Wendy Leibowitz requested at correction to a Dec. 20, 2007 article by Scott Wilson,  foreign editor and previously the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau chief. The article stated that Arabs other than Druze were excluded from the Israel Defense Forces. Leibowitz pointed out that many Israeli Bedouin, who are Arab Muslims, have served.

Leibowitz, sometimes using information supplied by CAMERA, pursued her request in e-mail exchanges with Howell and Wilson. Her effort was to no avail. The Post denied facts contradicting its allegation of Arab exclusion from the IDF.

Informed that thousands of Bedouin have served in the Israeli military as reconnaissance scouts and trackers, The Post insisted only a few did so — as “spies.” Excluding Bedouin (as somehow non-Arab and only “spies”), The Post demanded of Leibowitz, “Give us the name of one Arab.” Otherwise, “we won’t back down.” She supplied the names of three Israeli Arab soldiers killed in the line duty just since 2000, and referred to five others. (Two more have been killed recently along the Israeli-Gaza Strip armistice line, which she subsequently pointed out.)

In one response to Leibowitz, the ombudsman wondered why, if The Post‘s claim that Israeli Arabs were excluded from the military were in error, the paper hadn’t heard from the IDF or the Israeli embassy in Washington. Of course, not getting a complaint hardly confirms an article’s accuracy. Many ordinary readers have told CAMERA that they are resigned to Post Arab-Israeli errors (such as the more recent, uncorrected, Post assertion that “the Gaza Strip is one of the world’s most densely populated places” — it’s not even close — and the 21-month old, still uncorrected, claim that the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war was Israel’s longest – the War of Independence, from late 1947 to early 1949, was).

The column

On April 10, CAMERA published ads headlined “The Washington Post Refuses To Correct Key Error on Israel” in The Washington Times, and in the Washington Jewish Week. The ads detailed The Post‘s denial of the correction request. The ad pointed out that the Los Angeles Times had corrected a similar error, and that other news media reported the matter accurately.

CAMERA’s advertisement, published on April 10 in the Washington Times. Click above for larger image.
Reacting to the ad, the ombudsman reported in her April 20 column that “the IDF has more than 170,000 active-duty members,” of whom “about 5,000 are minorities; of those, about 70 percent are Druze [who, like most Israeli Jews, are subject to the draft], and 22 percent are Arab Bedouin, some of whom have traditionally volunteered as scouts. Eight percent are Christian and Muslim Arabs and Circassians [non-Arab Muslims] who have volunteered.”

Bingo! The Post discovered that the IDF accepts non-Druze Arabs. Thirty percent of 5,000 is 1,500; excluding the few Circassians, it’s safe to say that nearly 1,500 Israeli Arabs are on active duty right now. They are not excluded from military service.

So why hasn’t The Post published a correction? The rest of the ombudsman’s column amounts to an off-the-point partial subject change. It may not open a window into the psychology of Post Arab-Israeli coverage, but it definitely shows resistance to doing what the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists calls for: “Be accountable …. Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” 

“Some Arab Israeli soldiers have died in recent fighting, according to Israeli press reports,” the ombudsman wrote. Yes, and according to information from CAMERA, supplied to the paper by Leibowitz weeks before the ads appeared.

Like the foreign desk unjustifiably excluding Bedouin, the ombudsman added that “that 8 percent amounts to 400 out of about 1.2 million Israeli Arabs ….” But the proper comparison, given the nature of the error, is not between non-Druze, non-Bedouin Arab soldiers and Israeli Arab society at large. Rather, as noted above, it is between the number of non-Druze Arab soldiers and the standing army, nearly 1,500 out of 170,000.

Off track
The ombudsman follows tangents irrelevant to the error and correction request. These include acceptance of Arabs by the larger, Israeli Jewish society, which faces and has faced Arab aggression. The ombudsman reports the observation by University of Pennsylvania Prof. Ian Lustick that “it is quite difficult for Arab Muslims to enter the army … but not impossible. Unlike Christians and Bedouins, Muslim Arabs are discouraged and prevented even if they volunteer.” Except that Israeli Bedouin are Muslim Arabs. So, Lustick tells the ombudsman that Israeli Arab Christians and Israeli Arab Bedouin are not discouraged from military service. They are not excluded. Two other academics, Israeli Arabs, tell the ombudsman the same thing.

Yet, “The Post’s Wilson is firm on his word choice. ‘It is not merely unusual to find Arabs in the IDF – it is amazingly rare. Other than some Druze soldiers, who in Israel generally do not consider themselves Arabs, and a few Bedouins, who worked as spies, I did not encounter a single Arab in IDF uniform. And I spent a lot of time with Israeli soldiers. As a class, Arab citizens of Israel are excluded from the military.'”

Translation: “I suspect I’m wrong – the Druze are Arabs, their political allegiance to the state of Israel hardly erases their ethnic/cultural background, and Bedouin, who most definitely are Israeli, Arab and Muslim also serve in significant numbers. This is regardless of whether I mistakenly called a battalion of trackers and scouts ‘a few spies.’ Just because I didn’t see many doesn’t prove they don’t exist, any more than, to paraphrase Ms. Leibowitz, just because most Israelis never saw me in Israel didn’t mean I don’t exist. But I’m out on a limb now, so I’ve got to hold on.”

The ombudsman concludes: “It would have been better if Wilson had qualified ‘excluded’ and mentioned the Bedouin.” Better? It would not have been erroneous. Excluded, like pregnant, does not bear much qualification. Implicitly answering the headline over her column, the ombudsman concedes that “excluded” was indeed the wrong word.

But don’t look for a correction. According to the ombudsman, though “a small number of Arabs do serve in the IDF … it’s obvi ous that Israel does not want them serving in large numbers or they would be drafted.” Therefore, numerous volunteers to the contrary, non-Druze Arabs must be excluded from the IDF. The Washington Post says so.

Ironically, The Post‘s marketing slogan is, “The Washington Post: If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” But it’s The Post that insists on not getting it. The Washington Post website introduces  the ombudsman’s column this way: “Reporting about Israel and the Middle East is an important but thankless task. A Middle East reporting assignment means catching flak from pro-Israel and pro-Arab groups who often see stories through their own lenses.”

This is a variant of the discredited, old journalism school slogan about “if both sides are angry with you, you must have done something right.” Actually, repeated criticism may suggest repeated failure. In any case, the error in question here was pointed out first by one Post reader, not a group. And CAMERA’s media monitoring rests on journalistic standards — including accuracy, objectivity, comprehensiveness, context, and correcting mistakes — not whether an article makes Israel look good or bad. The Post continues in denial on this one.

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