The Devil Lies in Details Washington Post Omits

Telling details often make or break news articles. In coverage of the Gilad Shalit/Hamas prisoner exchange, they made The Los Angeles Times’ “Palestinian elation is mixed with Israeli anguish” (October 19). Their absence broke The Washington Post’s “In swap for Shalit, Hamas sees victory” (October 19).

The third, fourth and fifth paragraphs of Los Angeles Times correspondent Edmund Sanders’ dispatch, versions of which appeared in other Tribune Newspaper publications including The Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, read:

“Older and grayer than the 20-year-old who was sentenced to life in prison for murder, [Fouad Abu] Amrin was one of 477 Palestinian convicts released Tuesday [October 18] in the first step of a 1,027-for-1 exchange for kidnapped Israeli solider Gilad Shalit.

“About 80 miles away in a coastal Israeli city north of Tel Aviv, embittered father Zeev Rapp, 66, sat at home and watched the television in disgust. In 1992, Amrin stabbed Rapp’s daughter, Helena, 15, in the heart as she was on her way to school. Now he was walking free [in the Gaza Strip] with other prisoners.

“‘We feel as though our daughter has been murdered all over again,’ the Herzliya resident said. ‘We are living through the pain again.’”

Washington Post readers get no sense of the enormity of the crimes committed by the freed Palestinian terrorists. Post correspondent Ernesto Londono quotes two of the freed Arabs by name, but does not report why Israel jailed them. “Akram Abdullah Kassem, one of the prisoners released in Gaza, said he was happy to be free after 10 years in custody, but saddened by the fellow prisoners he left behind.

“‘I’m demanding to the resistance not to spare any effort to kidnap more soldiers,’ he said Tuesday. ‘The Jews only understand one language — the language of force.’

“Sana Shehade, 36, one of the 27 women freed as part of the deal, called Shalit ‘my token to freedom.’

“She said that as Shalit’s mother delighted in the reunion, she should keep in mind that there are thousands of ‘Palestinian mothers waiting to hold their sons.’”

While The Post stenographically repeated Palestinian language – “resistance,” “militant” – The Los Angeles Times accurately used the “T” word – terrorism – in its own copy:

“For Israel, the lopsided exchange once again found leaders of the nation choosing between two of its deepest ideals: protecting security by refusing to negotiate with those it considers terrorists and never abandoning one of their own.

“Nearly 300 of the 1,027 prisoners who are being released have been serving life sentences for murder or terrorism-related crimes.”

The Post, in its own words, avoids the precision of terrorist and terrorism (under U.S. law, the threat or use of force against non-combatants to influence larger audiences and achieve political, religious, economic or other goals). Instead, the newspaper refers to “the deal to swap Shalit for so many captured Palestinian militants ….” It does quote Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s use of terrorism and terrorist.

Not telling readers why Israel had imprisoned the Palestinian Arabs now being freed, The Post refers obliquely to “the deal to swap Shalit for so many captured Palestinian militants ….”

The Post’s lead paragraph refers to “the militant Palestinian faction Hamas.” Later it mentions “Hamas’ military arm.” The paper previously has referred to “militant” settlers and trade unionists. Whatever actions the broad, vague word militancy describes, it does not refer to things that are by definition criminal.

The Post likewise speaks of Hamas’ “military wing.” But uniforms, weapons and training of Hamas terrorists don’t make them members of a military. Militaries operate according to recognized international laws of warfare; targeting noncombatants, as Hamas does both tactically and strategically, violates those rules and makes its “Qassam Brigades” not a military but a terrorist wing.

As part of its conclusion, The Los Angeles Times’ dispatch reports that “as the celebration proceeded in Gaza, where the former prisoners were honored like war heroes, tens of thousands of people gathered for nationalist and religious speeches by Hamas leaders and released prisoners.

“‘Just as they have children and girls, so do we, and it’s our right to kill all those who came to kill our women and children,’ [Amrin] said of the apparently random attack [on Helena Rapp].”

The Post quotes released prisoner Akram Abdullah Kassem referring to “the resistance.” But, in contrast to The Times, it avoids reporting self-justifying claims to and celebration of a “right to murder” by the Palestinian side.

Flawed as was “In swap for Shalit, Hamas sees victory,” The Post’s follow-up, “Amid celebrations, Hamas hopes for lifting of Gaza blockade” (October 20), may have been 
worse. Missing telling details included:

* Hamas ousting rival Fatah (the movement of Yasser Arafat and his successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) from the Gaza Strip in a bloody five-day civil war. The Post euphemistically writes that “Hamas assumed power in Gaza in 2007 ….”

* That Hamas and its allies have fired thousands of mortars and rockets into Israel since it unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The Post says Israel imposed a blockade, including limits on construction material, after Hamas took over in 2007 and “intensified” those measures “after the 22-day Gaza war that ended in January 2009 to make it harder for Hamas to stockpile long-range rockets and build bunkers.” No mention that Hamas and its allies and surrogates already had been firing rockets and operating bunkers – sometimes amid hospitals and schools – not just stockpiling weapons.

* Repeated out-of-context – that is, in Palestinian fashion – use of the words “resistance,” “armed resistance” and “militant” in Post narrative as well as in quotations from Arab sources.

Post coverage of events leading to the prisoner exchange was mixed, making the newspaper’s October 19 and 20 failures even more disappointing. For example, in “Israel prepares for Shalit’s release; Captive soldier to depart Gaza via Egypt; Hamas plans festivities for freed prisoners,” October 18, Londono mentioned “relatives of victims of terrorist attacks who oppose the deal.” And he properly qualified Hamas claims, referring not to “occupied Palestinian land” but rather to “what it [Hamas] calls the occupation of Palestinian land.”

In “Israeli government says prisoner swap could occur next week,” October 13, Londono correctly noted that Hamas “is considered a terrorist organization by much of the West.” The Post’s Oc tober 17 dispatch “For some Israelis, pardons reopen wounds; Victims’ families protest as 477 prisoners to be freed in swap are named,” refers specifically to the 2001 bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem that “killed 15 civilians and wounded more than 100.” It quotes a brother of a woman involved as saying his sister is “proud of what she’s done …. She did it in full conviction.”

But The Post’s October 13 article also refers to “the militant Palestinian group Hamas” and to “Hamas’s military wing ….” Likewise, the October 18 report mentions “the militant group Hamas” and indirectly labels terrorism as “militancy.”

Militant environmentalists. Militant union members. Militant Jewish settlers. Militant Palestinian terrorists. Does the use of the foggy word “militant” in place of the specific word “terrorist” still matter? Yet again, it’s worth recalling a sentence from the conclusion of George Orwell’s still-important “Essay on Politics and the English Language”:

“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The repeated absence of telling details, of necessary context tells readers that, in relying on Palestinian-leaning political language as noted above, The Washington Post is doing more politicking than reporting.