License to Err on SF Chronicle Opinion Pages

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, a prominent journalistic organization, states in its code of ethics that “Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.”

At first glance, it might appear that the San Francisco Chronicle agrees. That newspaper’s code of “Ethical News Gathering” asserts: “We strive for accuracy and should quickly correct errors or misleading statements.”

And although the Chronicle’s code specifies that it refers to “news” gathering, the newspaper seems to understand the need to correct errors on the opinion pages as well. In the month of April 2006 alone, the newspaper published corrections to 13 errors in opinion columns.

Other significant factual errors, however, were inexplicably left uncorrected by the Chronicle–even after those errors were brought to the attention of the newspaper. These uncorrected errors, which appeared in columns and letters assailing Israel, are cause for serious doubt about the credibility of the newspaper’s opinion pages.

Below are errors the San Francisco Chronicle has not corrected:

1) The error-prone anti-Israel activist Saree Makdisi alledged on March 31, 2006 that

As the state of the Jewish people, Israel is, after all, the only country in the world that expressly claims not to be the state of its actual citizens (one-fifth of whom are non-Jews), let alone that of the people whom it governs (half of whom are Palestinian).

This one sentence contains multiple falsehoods.

First, Israel does not “expressly” claim not to be the state of its citizens. It does claim to be “a Jewish and democratic state” (see, for example, Israel’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty). This description is subject to interpretation, and in fact is widely debated. But in no way does it “expressly” assert that Israel is not the state of its citizens.

In addition, Makdisi was way off in claiming Israel is the “only country in the world” to so define itself. Respected Israeli legal expert Amnon Rubenstein points out that nine European countries have “passed laws granting official status to the connection between the nation and its ethnic or national brethren living abroad.” Furthermore, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report notes that the Evangelical Lutheran Church is the official state religion of Denmark and Norway, and “enjoys some privileges not available to other faiths.” In Greece, the Constitution establishes the Eastern Orthodox Church as the “prevailing religion.” The official titles of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran begin with “The Islamic Republic of…,” a point reinforced in those countries’ constitutions. The Jordanian constitution describes that country as an “Arab State” and notes that “Islam is the religion of the State.” The Saudi constitution states that “Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion.” And numerous other states describe themselves in a similar manner.

It is similarly untrue that “half” of the people governed by Israel are Palestinian. According to the CIA Factbook, there are 3,953,239 mostly Palestinian non-Jews in Israel and the West Bank (2,460,492 non-Jews West Bank and East Jerusalem and 1,492,747 non-Jews inside pre-1967 Israel; Israel no longer governs the Gaza Strip) and 4,859,370 Jews in Israel and the West Bank. Numbers from Israeli and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics paint a similar picture, revealing that about 42 percent of Israel and the West Bank are mostly Palestinian non-Jews. (Note that some researchers have found Palestinian population figures for the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be highly inflated.)

The discrepancy is significant. The demographic balance between Jews and Palestinians in lands controlled by Israel is hotly debated, and with good reason. Many Israelis agree that the Zionist ideal of a Jewish and democratic state requires a Jewish majority within the final borders of Israel; and some critics of Israel go further, insisting that the Jewish state would be undemocratic if it were to have in any territory under its control–that is, both Israel and the West Bank–an Arab population whose numbers equal or exceed those of the Jewish population. Yet despite intense debate about the numbers, demographers and commentators agree that, contrary to Makdisi’s claim, well over half of the people in land controlled by Israel are Jewish.

2) A May 6, 2006 letter to the editor, charging that Israel is engaged in a “genocide of the Palestinians,” claimed Israel a) “dammed off the water supply into Gaza, so that 1.2 million people living there have no fresh drinking water”; b) “built a massive wall around Gaza”; and c) controls the gates between the Gaza Strip and the outside world and decides “who and what may pass through.”

Each of these assertions is patently false.

Regarding water: On May 11, only a few days after this letter was published, the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper reported on Israel’s use of Palestinian tax money to pay “Israeli firms who supply Palestinians with electricity and water.” The following month, a press release by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics about the Palestinian environment pointed out that 97.9 percent of households in the Gaza Strip are connected to a public water network and that Mekorot, the Israeli water company, is a main source of Palestinian water. It made no mention of Israel “damming” the Palestinian water supply.

Even if, hypothetically, Israel were to cut off the roughly 5 million cubic meters of water it supplies to the Gaza Strip, it would not be true that 1.2 million people would “have no fresh drinking water.” Much of the Strip’s water comes from groundwater in the Strip itself.

Most importantly, without drinking water, these 1.2 million Gazans described by the letter writer would have died of dehydration within a week.

Regarding the Gaza Strip borders: There is no “wall” around Gaza, massive or otherwise. The border between Israel and the Strip is marked by a fence. Furthermore, since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, the country does not control the Rafah crossing between that territory and Egypt. Consequently, it does not “decide who and what may pass through” the crossing, a point made clear by countless media reports from Gaza. (For example, a news story published by the Chronicle two weeks after it ran the error-filled letter noted: “The Rafah crossing is staffed by European Union monitors and by Palestinian forces who answer to Abbas .”)

3) A May 29 Op-Ed in the Chronicle by George Bisharat claimed U.N. Resolution 242 calls for “Israeli withdrawal from the territories it seized in the Six-Day War in 1967.”

Resolution 242 does not call for a withdrawal “from the territories,” but rather “from territories.” Note that the omission of the word “the” was intentional, and is central to the meaning of the resolution. As Eugene Rostow, an American drafter of 242, explained, “motions to require the withdrawal of Israel from ‘the’ territories or ‘all the territories’ occupied in the course of the Six Day War were put forward many times with great linguistic ingenuity. They were all defeated both in the General Assembly and in the Security Council.” (For more on Resolution 242, see here.)

The significance of the error is underscored by the number of media outlets who have published corrections to similar misstatements, which include the following:

Error (International Herald Tribune, Hans Küng, Op-Ed, 3/4-5/06): The Palestinians can likewise demand that first Israel withdraw from all occupied territories in accordance with UN resolution 242. . .

Correction (3/7/06): An opinion article Saturday about preventing a clash of civilizations referred incorrectly to UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 Middle East War, which calls for Israel’s armed forces to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” not all territories occupied in the war.

Error (Associated Press, Salah Nasrawi, 3/18/05): The Jordanian proposal is meant to amend a Saudi peace initiative adopted at the 2002 Arab summit held in Beirut, which offered Israel peace with all Arab nations on condition it returns all land seized in the six-day war of 1967 – including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syria’s Golan Heights – in line with U.N. resolutions 242 and 338.

Correction (Updated story, 3/18/05): The Saudi initiative offered Israel peace with all Arab nations on condition that Israel returns all land seized in the six-day war of 1967 in line with the Arab interpretation of U.N. resolution 242. The initiative also calls for the creation of a Palestinian state and a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue. Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war, calls on Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict” but does not say explicitly that the pullback should be from all such territories. However, Arabs view the resolution as just that – calling for Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syria’s Golan Heights.

Error (Boston Globe, 7/13/00): The Palestinians insist that the peace accord signed on the White House Lawn more than six years ago was established within the framework of Israel complying with UN Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Correction (7/14/00): A story in yesterday’s edition on the Mideast summit at Camp David should have made it clear that UN Resolution 242 does not refer to the West Bank by name but calls for Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the 1967 war. The resolution, which formalizes the principals of land-for-peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, is ambiguous on the amount of occupied territory from which Israel should withdraw.

If the Chronicle truly “strive[s] for accuracy,”as it claims in its code of ethics, it must run corrections to the errors listed above. Until then, readers should be skeptical of factual assertions in opinion pieces about Israel–and also wonder why errors about Israel are not redressed while other mistakes in the opinion pages are readily corrected.

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