Petty Politics in Washington Post’s Israeli Vote Coverage?

Labor Party—upper case “P,” but Likud party—lower case “p”? “Center-left Labor” but “right-wing Likud?” Yes, consistently in Washington Post articles just before and after Israel’s March 17, 2015 election.

All together, seven Labor Party references, nine Likud party; no Labor party or Likud Party mentions. Petty differences, or petty editorializing in the news pages?

In “Israeli leader says he may lose; Netanyahu Faces Tight Election; Center-left’s Herzog, Livni hold small lead” (March 16), Post Jerusalem Bureau Chief William Booth and bureau correspondent Ruth Eglash told readers that “the final round of opinion polls Friday showed Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party facing a surprisingly strong challenge by Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Labor Party [emphases added] ….”

The dispatch also claimed that Israel is “a country where the electorate has been moving steadily rightward for the past 15 years.” If the center of the Israeli electorate has been moving rightward for years, then perhaps parties on the right are closer to it and parties on the left further away than in past. Would that not have been the case for Likud, which had parties leaning further right to compete against during the campaign and possibly coalesce with after it? (For more on Israeli electorate, see Addendum below.)

In The Post’s March 16 article, its inconsistent “Likud party” but “Labor Party” could have been excused as a one-day aberration, a recurring typo. CAMERA pointed it out to the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau and foreign desk, recommending it be corrected and the position of Likud as well as Labor on Israel’s political spectrum be described accurately.

That didn’t happen. “Netanyahu: No Palestinian state; Apparent Reversal On Eve Of Election; Israeli leader again confronts Washington” (March 17), quoted “an opposition leader in the Labor Party …” but referred to Netanyahu’s “right-wing Likud party [emphases added]…” Second references also were to “Likud party” but “Labor Party.” Likud got a third lower case “party” description as well.

The Post’s first election results coverage in its print edition, “Virtual tie in Israeli election; Exit Polls: About 27 Seats Each; Netanyahu may have coalition-building edge” (March 18) mentions “Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog” but “Netanyahu and his rightist Likud party.” There are second references to “a Likud party leader” but “a leader of the Labor Party …” A front-page graphic speaks of “Netanyahu’s Likud party” but “Herzog’s Labor Party.”

In the penultimate paragraph, The Post quoted Netanyahu as saying in the campaign’s closing hours that “the right-wing government is in danger.” The expiring coalition included several parties to Likud’s right, parties that exist partly to offset Likud’s position nearer Israel’s political center.

Of course, journalism must deal in shorthand often due to space limitations. A Post reply to CAMERA’s criticism of the March 16 article said as much.

It also asserted that the descriptions—“center-left” and “right-wing”—were meant to help readers identify the parties and paralleled those used by many Israeli and U.S. media. That may be true but common usage is not automatically accurate or valid usage. Nor does it explain the consistent “Labor Party” versus “Likud party” language.

Confirmation that typographical dismissiveness of Likud was Post style, not a chain of errors, appeared to come with repeated examples in the newspaper’s March 19 print edition. In the front page article “Victorious Netanyahu faces host of troubles; Premier’s own words may add to challenges at home and abroad” (March 19), Booth reported that after their election win, “Netanyahu and his Likud party began negotiating a new coalition government ….” Then followed another reference to “Labor Party [emphases added] leader Isaac Herzog….”

A sidebar by Eglash, “For Herzog’s supporters, hope fades to despair overnight” continued the unbalanced usage. “…[F]inal results made clear that Netanyahu’s rightist Likud party had trounced the center-left Zionist Union ….” and “the Zionist Union—led by Labor Party [emphases added] head Herzog ….”

A speculative article, “Netanyahu’s win points to 2 more years of strained U.S.-Israel ties,” by reporter Steven Mufson, cited “some of the pre-election rhetoric from Netanyahu’s Likud party …”

Oddly, two Post Op-Ed writers critical if not hostile to Netanyahu and his party managed to use equivalent style in the March 19 Post. E.J. Dionne Jr., in “Bibi’s bitter victory; Netanyahu’s late-campaign statements called to mind the worst in politics” paralleled “Netanyahu’s Likud Party” with “Israel’s historic center-left Labor Party ….” Harold Meyerson’s “Fear and loathing in Israel,” which described the prime minister as a race-baiting “Jewish George Wallace,” nevertheless wrote “with polls showing his Likud Party trailing its Labor Party [emphases added] opponent ….”

A page one Washington Times article (“Israeli voters close to ousting Netanyahu as housing trumps Iran,” March 12), referred to “Netanyahu, a moderate conservative by Israeli standards …” and Herzog’s left-leaning Labor Party [emphases added] ….”

In a USA Today Op-Ed column (“Israel Vote May Help Mend Fences; right, centrist parties’ election turnout could impact Iran, Palestinian issues,” March 18) Amb. Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s lead Israeli-Palestinian envoy, referred to “Benjamin Netanyahu’s ‘rightist’ Likud Party,” signaling readers not to understand “rightist” in Israeli politics as they would in U.S. partisan competition.

If Labor was center-left, as The Post described, then how was Likud under Netanyahu not center-right? To Likud’s right were parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu—which the newspaper labeled as “ultranationalist” and “secularist”—while to Labor’s left was, for example, Meretz—which The Post chose to ch
aracterize as “traditional secular-leftist” rather than, as Ross did, “left-wing.”

Likud and Labor occupied positions on the Israeli political spectrum roughly comparable to those of Republicans and Democrats in the United States: center-right and center-left. That each party had its “wingers,” right and left, respectively, didn’t change their overall pitches to the electorate. At least it should not have on the news pages.
Election coverage anywhere usually reports either on an individual Party or party. It doesn’t implicitly endorse one group with a capital letter P while denigrating a rival by using a lower case p. It’s not Conservative Party versus Labor party in the United Kingdom, Democratic Party versus Republican party in the United States. So how, four days running, was it Labor Party versus Likud party in The Washington Post’s news pages, and “center-left Labor” to “right-wing Likud” at that when both parties’ electoral centers of gravity are likely to be equidistant from the hole in the middle of the Israeli political bagel?

Netanyahu called for early elections last December. The Post had four months to determine accurate, consistent descriptions for the parties. It failed to do so, and the knee-jerk use of “left-of-center Labor Party” but “right-wing Likud party” suggested not just sloppy reporting and/or editing but also a partisan tilt petulantly expressed.

On the news pages, such practices read and looked like bias and undermined credibility. Future coverage ought to eschew invidious generalities like these in favor of definitions accurately reflecting policy positions. That is, if the paper means to be The Washington Post, not the Washington post.

Addendum: Evelyn Gordon’s “Israel’s Left-Wing Right-Wing” in the March 2015 issue of Commentary argued that Israel’s political or ideological center has moved left, not right, in the past 15 years. “Ideas once confined to the far-left fringe are now mainstream.”

Most conspicuously, according to Gordon, negotiating a “two-state solution” with the Palestinian Arabs, something even Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin rejected in his successful 1992 campaign, has been broadly accepted, at least aspirationally. What also has changed, and confused reporters and commentators among others, is that more Israelis—while supporting previously left-wing policies—self-identify as being on the political right in reaction to years of Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism, plus Iranian threats. They tell pollsters they believe in a two-state deal as a goal, but given Palestinian behavior, “about 70 percent of Israelis no longer believe it’s achievable anytime soon.”

A Jewish Telegraphic Agency breakdown of the new Israeli parliament by seats the parties won (“Knesset by the numbers,” by Ben Sales, March 19) bolstered Gordon’s analysis. It looked at the overall right-center-left balance and concluded the left gained even as it lost the vote. Sales found “a net gain of four seats for the center-left-Arab bloc and a corresponding loss for the right-haredi [fervently Orthodox] bloc.”

Netanyahu appeared strengthened by Likud’s gains, but these appeared to be at the expense of right-wing, not left-wing parties. In any case, the new, 20th Knesset “will have a record number of women lawmakers, more Arabs and fewer [Jewish] religious members.”

All the more reason for news media, including The Washington Post, not the Washington post, to report with statistical and political precision, not outdated shorthand.

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