Seattle Times Columnist Entitled to Own Facts?

Bruce Ramsey is entitled to his opinions. In fact, as a columnist for the Seattle Times, opinions are precisely what he gets paid for. It seems, though, that his employers feel he’s also entitled to his own facts. This despite journalistic codes of ethics maintaining that opinion pieces, like news stories, must be accurate.

In a March 31, 2010 column commenting on Israel’s justification for the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Ramsey claimed that rockets fired by Gaza Palestinians into Israeli towns “hadn’t killed any Israelis”:

Israel said it was defending itself, against rockets — homemade pipe-bomb-type rockets. These had been fired by Gazan hotheads against the Israeli town of Sderot to protest Israel’s quarantine. The rockets hadn’t killed any Israelis, but they might have. (“Congressman Brian Baird stands up for the people of Gaza”)

Not only is this claim about lack of fatalities demonstrably false, but so is just about everything else in that passage.

• Prior to the Gaza war, over 20 people were killed by Palestinian rockets.

• Israel was acting to stop not only the local “homemade” Qassam rockets, but also the sophisticated Grad or Katyusha type rockets launched from Gaza into Israel immediately prior to the war, and as early as 2006.

• The rockets had been fired not merely “against the Israeli town of Sderot,” but also against numerous other population centers, including the city of Ashkelon, the villages of Netiv Ha’asara and Netivot (in which Israelis were killed), Yad Mordechai, Shaar Hanegev, and Kfar Aza.

• And they were not merely fired to “protest Israel’s quarantine.”  Rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel were common long before Israel and Egypt closed their border crossings to most traffic.

CAMERA brought this information, along with substantiating details, to the attention of the Seattle Times’ editorial page editor, but the newspaper has not substantively responded to these points or taken any action to alert readers to the errors published.

Article IV of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Statement of Principles states 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.

Elissa Papirno, a former president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, likewise noted in 2000 that “opinion writing, like any writing in the newspaper, must rest on an accurate depiction of reality.” Papirno wrote this while serving as the associate editor and reader representative of the Hartford Courant, in an article about columns published by the Courant which, she explained, “contained numerous factual errors that undermined … the newspaper’s credibility for having published them.”

James Hill, who at the time was managing editor of the Washington Post Writers Group, agreed: “You have to hold columnists to the same standard as anyone at the newspaper,” he said. “If a column writer is making egregious errors in the process of stating his or her opinion, eventually it’s not the columnist who’s doing that, it’s the paper that’s doing that.”

And now, it’s the Seattle Times that’s doing that.

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