Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorials Fail to Abide by Journalistic Standards

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is the most recognized newspaper in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Its coverage, especially its editorials, are persistently hostile to Israel. Many of its editorials on Israel and the Middle East are written by Dan Simpson, a former ambassador with the State Department. Simpson routinely injects hostile and demeaning comments about Israel into his editorials, often gratuitously. Simpson crosses the line that separates provocative opinion from mean-spirited bias. He levels unsubstantiated allegations about the Jewish state and its supporters in the United States. On several occasions, Simpson has insinuated that Jewish-Americans manipulate the media and corrupt the American political process to benefit Israel.

CAMERA and the Pittsburgh office of the Zionist Organization of America [ZOA] sent to John R. Block, the publisher, David M. Shribman, the editor and Allan J. Block, an influential board member and relative of John Block, on March 20, 2015, a letter detailing the bias and examples of the factual errors in editorials and Op-Eds published by the newspaper. The recipients of the letter refused to meet with local ZOA representative Stuart Pavilack and dismissed the complaint out of hand.

The newspaper did publish, prior to the letter on March 4, 2015, a letter to the editor co-written by CAMERA and the ZOA, pointing out factual errors in an Op-Ed. However, the newspaper has thus far failed to take any corrective action on the editorials. Recent editorials appearing since the letter was sent continue the pattern of hostility to Israel.

In an editorial on April 8, 2015, Trust Kerry on the Iran deal, Simpson alleges:

The problem in Washington, for the most part, is the susceptibility of a significant number of American politicians to campaign contributions. Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who cooked up the letter signed by 47 senators to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that basically said the Iranians should not believe the American negotiating team in Switzerland could represent the United States, accepted more than $2 million from Jewish-American extremists in campaign contributions. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., received $284,000 in 2014. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife gave $150 million to American politicians and perhaps as much to candidates in the recent Israeli elections.

Notice his use of the descriptive “Jewish-American extremists.” It is typical for Simpson to level such defamatory accusations without providing evidence.

The CAMERA-ZOA letter of March 20 listed examples of inaccurate and inflammatory material published by the Post-Gazette. The letter noted that these examples did not meet the newspaper’s own standards published on its web site by Editorial Page Editor Tom Waseleski.

Concerning opinion pieces, Waseleski wrote:

They should be clear, thought-provoking, well informed and decent. People must be given enough facts in an editorial to know if the opinions are well grounded.

His words reflect the code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists, which states that journalists should:

1. Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.
2. Verify information before releasing it.
3. Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
4. Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
5. Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.
6. Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
7. Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.

Recent examples of errors and bias in editorials, an Op-Ed and a cartoon appearing in the Post-Gazette include the following:

Example 1: Dan Simpson, “Potential American allies in the fight for Iraq are a sorry lot” August 27, 2014. Simpson wrote:

Other Capitol elements favoring war include the Israel lobby, which wants to see American public concern diverted from what Israel is doing in Gaza and from pressing it for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians over the future of the Israel-Palestine territory. American forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would serve as useful distraction in that regard from the point of view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and his American supporters.”

CAMERA Comment: This is defamatory speculation. Simpson provides no substantiation of an “Israel lobby” prodding America to go to war in Syria. He does not identify one example of Israel’s supporters intentionally diverting attention from Israeli actions in Gaza.
Simpson further wrote:

And then there are the Kurds. They are claiming that if only the United States would provide them hotter weapons, they would be prepared to stand up to Islamic State forces. There are a couple of problems there. One of these is that what the Kurds want is their own country. The first problem with that is that the Kurds would create their own country out of pieces of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

CAMERA Comment: Simpson is wrong; the Kurds have not demanded a country that would include pieces of Iran or Turkey. Simpson is utilizing what is commonly referred to as a straw man argument, attributing to the Kurds a position they do not hold in order to deny them legitimacy.

Example 2: “Engaging Iran: Visitors to Pittsburgh bring message worth noting” September 11, 2014. The editorial states:

Ms. Mathews and Mr. Pickering came to Pittsburgh to alert people to the importance to Americans of what is underway and to ask them to be interested and involved. Opposition to an agreement is already being encountered from the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters in the United States, weighing in with Congress through campaign contributions and other pressure.

CAMERA Comment: No evidence is provided to this incendiary charge that campaign contributions are accompanied by the demand that Congress oppose engagement with Iran. Why does he only single out “pressure,” as Simpson calls it, from Israel’s supporters? What about pressure from Iran’s supporters or any other groups that engage in lobbying? There is an implicit double-standard.

Example 3: Dan Simpson, “Don’t send weapons to Ukraine” February 11, 2015. Simpson wrote:

First of all, it’s about being relentlessly in search of enemies. We miss th
e Soviet Union. It has been replaced by complicated, harder-to-defeat non-state organizations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, with Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Zaydis, Houthis, Gazans, Copts, Israelis and Palestinians stirred in. Wouldn’t it be nicer if we just had a simple, straightforward enemy to face? as in a Soviet-style Russia headed by a 21st-century czar? We are still using weapons systems suited to fighting the former Soviet forces and facing them would require putting the factories of big campaign-donor companies back in production. Wouldn’t that be nice and easier?

CAMERA Comment: Simpson lumps Israel, a sovereign state, with a list of non-state organizations. Simpson classifies Israel as a “non-state” and potential adversary of the United States. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once put so eloquently, he is entitled to his views, but not his facts.
Example 4: Rob Rogers’ cartoon titled, “Which is the more heinous and cowardly act,” July 22, 2014, depicts Israel deliberately killing a Gazan civilian.
CAMERA Comment: The incendiary image invokes a bigoted perception of Jews and the message is defamatory. Testimony from Israeli, British and American military commanders who have investigated such claims concluded no substantive evidence exists suggesting Israel intentionally targets civilians. British Col. (Ret.) Richard Kemp has testified to the United Nations, “….the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.” Most recently a group of military officers headed by retired U.S. Army General Charles Wald testified on this matter. Why does the newspaper fail to report on that?
Example 5: An excerpt from a joint letter sent by CAMERA and the ZOA that was published by the PG specifies the egregious factual errors and distortions appearing in Christopher K. Mellon’s Op-Ed, Netanyahu, the Great Divider (3/2/15). The letter states:
Christopher K. Mellon’s criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is both misguided and misinformed. Mr. Mellon fails to appreciate that Congress is acting well within its responsibilities by injecting itself into the debate over treaties and relations with foreign governments. Congress alone can impose sanctions and approve treaties under the Constitution.
With respect to Israel’s relations with Turkey, Mr. Mellon seems unaware that it was the Islamist President Tayyip Recep Erdogan who sundered relations with Israel, not the other way around. Nevertheless, despite the antagonism, Israel’s economic trade with Turkey is at an all-time high. Contrary to what Mr. Mellon contends, the “Basic Law” changes nothing in the legal status of Israelis, Christians, and Muslims. It puts into writing what has always been understood about Israel – that it was founded as a Jewish state. Most European states and Muslim-majority states have officially-recognized state religions and give certain privileges to the state’s predominant ethnicity.

Regarding his claim that Mr. Netanyahu is creating division, a recent Gallup poll shows Mr. Netanyahu’s favorable rating increasing significantly among Americans. Mr. Mellon adopts an antagonistic position toward the Israeli prime minister, and if the facts don’t support his argument, he jettisons the facts.

Example 6: Arabian turmoil: “The peninsula must cope with two emergencies” January 26, 2015. The editorial states:

King Abdullah in 2002 made a useful proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace, offering Arab recognition of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories. The initiative was rejected by Israel.

CAMERA Comment: This editorial misrepresents the topic because it omits crucial information. The Saudi proposal underwent significant changes in order to be accepted by the other Arab states. This included adding a non-negotiable demand that Palestinian refugees (including their millions of descendants) be allowed to settle in Israel. Such a provision is widely recognized as incompatible with the continued existence of the State of Israel.

Example 7: Dan Simpson, “Iraq is crumbling, no surprise” June 11, 2014. Simpson wrote:

How they were able to do that is a common story in the Middle East, featuring various sandboxes with flags and the role of oil, tribes and armed minorities such as the Israelis, the Sunnis in places like Bahrain, the Alawites in Syria and the Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

CAMERA Comment: This editorial contains factual errors. Simpson mistakenly lumps Israel, a sovereign state, with minority groups living within majoritarian states. He is also misinformed about the status of Christians in Egypt, Syria and Palestine. They are not an armed minority, but are instead a defenseless minority who are currently suffering from Islamist violence for that reason.

Example 8: from the same editorial, Simpson wrote:

At least a half-million Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans have died since 2003.

CAMERA Comment: This editorial repeats information from a discredited study appearing in the British medical journal, The Lancet. There is no credible study that counts a “half-million Iraqi” dead due to the violence since 2003.

Example 9: “Pivotal Jordan: Refugees pose new strains to Israel’s neighbor” November 21, 2014. The editorial states:

Those relations have recently been strained by extremist Israelis, illegal West Bank settlers as well as some political figures in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party…

Comment: The Editorial board declares the West Bank settlers “illegal.” In fact, the settlements are not illegal according to both United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and American policy.

Example 10: From the same editorial:

Israelis should think hard before toying with the stability of Jordan…..

CAMERA Comment: Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that Israel’s national interest dictates an intense concern with Jordan’s survival and has made it clear that Israel is ready to do whatever it takes to defend it. (source: World Affairs, July 3, 2014)

Example 11: “Blindness in Gaza: Leaders of Israel and Hamas make innocents suffer” July 18, 2014. The editorial states:

Violence in Gaza will continue to flare up, as it has three times in the past five years, until Israel starts to move seriously toward a two-state solution. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s answer to a democratic unity government between Fatah and Hamas was to suspend payment to 43,000 civil servants and continue enforcing stifling border controls… The plight of Gazans even before the Is
raeli operation was a humanitarian crisis, with limited clean water, electricity and opportunity for jobs and economic growth.

CAMERA Comment: First, there is no mention Hamas is sworn to the destruction of Israel and that is the reason Israel responded harshly to the proposed unity government, which failed anyway. Second, Israel does not pay salaries of the 43,000 civil servants employed by Fatah and Hamas. Lastly, an official from the Red Cross, Mathilde Reidmatten, in 2011 stated, “there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” Without denying that economic hardship exists, it is an exaggeration to describe it as a “humanitarian crisis”. There is no hunger or denial of the basic necessities, there is access to health care and clean water.

The PG consistently portrays Israel as the cause of Middle East problems and gets other facts about the Middle East wrong. This is evidenced by the numerous examples cited in this report that not only fail to meet the standards of fair and accurate reporting, but do not meet the high ethics dictated by Tom Waseleski and the Society of Professional Journalists. 
A competitor to the Post-Gazette, the Tribune Review, publishes more balanced and informed editorials. In recent years its circulation has increased relative to the Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh’s newspaper-reading public should note the bias of the Post-Gazette and seek more balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East and urge the newspaper to live up to its own standards.

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