Truth Under Fire

Teen Newsweek is a mini-magazine for middle school students published by Weekly Reader, a company whose materials are used in over 90 percent of American public school districts and which describes itself as “a leader in the educational field.”

Middle school readers of Teen Newsweek‘s Oct. 23, 2000 issue came away with an extraordinary educational experience, though certainly not the one Weekly Reader had intended.

The cover story, entitled “Peace Under Fire: Palestinians and Israelis on the Brink of War,” is a case study of media bias, and has served as a basis for teaching hundreds of students about the pitfalls of errors, distortions and one-sided reporting in respected publications. More significant, perhaps, is that it taught them the importance of demanding public accountability for journalistic errors and unfair reports.

At the start of the article, a prominent photo of three Palestinians, the one in the middle holding up blood-covered hands, is labeled: “In the West Bank city of Ramallah, bloodied Palestinian protestors express their rage.” The false impression most uninformed readers would gain from this caption is that these Palestinians are victims of Israeli aggression, wounded during fighting. But, its clear resemblance to the famous photograph of the young Palestinian who held up his bloodied hands the day of the lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah on Oct. 12, 2000 raised suspicions. The same photo, by the Corbis Sygma photo agency, also ran in the regular Newsweek magazine, and its differing caption heightened doubts about the veracity of Teen Newsweek’s caption. It read: “In Ramallah, a Palestinian mob killed two Israeli reserve soldiers, then Israel retaliated by bombing a police station. At left, protesters revel in the blood of a policeman.”

From this, CAMERA concluded that far from being victims, the Palestinians in the picture took part in the blood lynching, in which the two Israelis were shot, burned, mutilated, dropped from a window, and dragged through the streets.

Other problems with the Teen Newsweek story, which was culled from a longer version in Newsweek, include a total imbalance in Palestinian versus Israelis speakers–two to zero. Thus, Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian representative to the United States, falsely charges: “You have to view the protests on the West Bank in the context of people fighting for their freedom. . . . One has to remember that the Israelis are in Palestinian towns. They are on Palestinian territory. . . .” No Israeli is permitted to refute the charge. Similarly, the article twice quotes Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, but never gives Israelis a chance to answer his charges.

The article also adopted the Palestinian position in blaming Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount for the outbreak of violence, and ignored the evidence contradicting that claim.

In addition, Teen Newsweek omitted key facts. For example, in discussing the Israeli retaliatory bombing of the Palestinian police station after the lynchings in Ramallah, the writer failed to note that Israel gave a three-hour warning of the attacks to enable evacuation, and also fired warning shots. As a result, not one Palestinian was killed in the strikes.

Particularly jarring was a table entitled “Days of Rage” which illustrates the number of Palestinian and Israeli minors killed since 1987. A quick glance at the chart made it quite clear that far more Palestinian children died in the conflict than Israeli children during that period.

What the chart didn’t make clear was the context in which both groups of children have died. Was the child killed while engaging in violent activity such as throwing Molotov cocktails? Or, was the child, sitting in the backseat of his mother’s car, killed when stones smashed through the windows?

According to Western, Israeli and Arab accounts, Palestinian children have been encouraged by PA officials and teachers to participate in the riots against Israeli soldiers. Schools have been closed to allow children to join in the fighting. An Oct. 31, 2000 Associated Press (AP) article confirmed that Yasser Arafat “called for renewed resistance by young activists, ‘these children who throw the stones to defend Jerusalem, the Muslims and the Holy places.'”

An Oct. 25 article from Jordan Times describes the violent extracurricular activities of children like Omar Assad, who flings stones and Molotov cocktails at Israelis after school. A professor interviewed at the scene of the riots boasts of the rock-throwing students nearby: “At this stage it is better that they are engaging the Israelis than going to classes. . . . We have to capitalise on this momentum. They can always study mathematics later.”

Despite the fact that these children have found themselves in the midst of older Palestinian gunmen shooting at Israelis, there has not been an official effort to keep them home and out of bullet range. To the contrary, the editor-in-chief of the official PA newspaper, Al Hayat al-Jadidya, published an editorial calling parents who try to keep their children away from clashes a “fifth column” (traitors) and accused them “of the most severe transgression” (Oct. 27, 2000, translated by Palestinian Media Watch).

Teen Newsweek leaves out this crucial context, leading students to believe falsely that Israelis are callously gunning down children, when in fact, these children are often involved in highly violent activities which endanger lives–their own and others’.

Some 500 middle school students (and some parents), most of them from the Moriah School in Englewood, N.J., wrote to Teen Newsweek executive editor Charles Piddock, sharing their concerns about the article.

The barrage of emails prompted Piddock to call a meeting of the editorial board in November, 2001, after which he told the Jewish Standard of Bergen County, N.J., “We’re going to run the photo again with the explanation that the caption was incomplete and misleading. . . . When I saw it printed the next week I knew that it was a screw-up.”

With this news, the teens involved in the correction effort were elated, but satisfaction gave way to disappointment when the clarification appeared in the Dec. 11, 2000 issue. The clarification stated, in part:

To clarify, the men in the picture are not injured. Many writers also assumed the men in the picture are the ones who had murdered two Israeli soldiers in a Palestinian police station in Ramallah on October 12. They are not.

According to the photographer, Ilkka Uimonen, the Palestinians in the picture were displaying bloody hands after Israeli helicopters bombed the police station in retaliation for the mob lynching of the Israeli soldiers. The men in the picture had rubbed their hands in a bloody rug removed from the police station. The men told the photographer they thought the blood was that of a Palestinian policeman who was injured in the bombing. The men were not involved in the slayings of the Israelis, but were on the streets of Ramallah following the bombing of the police station.

CAMERA investigated the statements of the Dec. 11 correction, and in doing so spoke to the photographer, Ilkka Uimonen. (As it turns out, Teen Newsweek never spoke to the photographer, but had been in touch with Corbis Sygma.) Uimonen verified that the Palestinians in the picture told him that the blood on their hands was from a Palestinian injured in the retaliatory strike by Israel. On the other hand, he said that he found out that same day that there were no Palestinians injured seriously enough to produce that much blood. According to Uimonen, he therefore sent a second, corrected caption to Corbis Sygma that day. Uimonen promised to email CAMERA that corrected caption, but weeks later, when it still had not arrived, we called him at home only to find that he was incommunicado in Sierra Leone.

In that same conversation with Uimonen, CAMERA also learned that he did not know for sure that the pictured Palestinians “were not involved in the slayings of the Israelis,” as Teen Newsweek stated twice in its correction. Mr. Uimonen admitted that he did not want to believe that these people could be murderers. He said: “I didn’t want to portray these guys as someone who had part” in the lynching. He added: “I don’t have evidence that they took part in the killing. . . . Maybe they did, but I did not have evidence to support that.”

In other words, Ilkka Uimonen did not have evidence to say one way or another whether these particular Palestinians were innocent or guilty of the crime. And if the photographer on the scene didn’t have sufficient information, then certainly Teen Newsweek editors sitting in Connecticut did not.

In another approach to find out whether these particular men were involved in the lynching, CAMERA checked video reports and photographs of the Ramallah killings to see if the men in the photo could be identified. Although they were not found, this too is inconclusive. Many Palestinians were involved in the mob killing, and it would be no surprise if two or three were not captured on film. Moreover, many photographers in Ramallah during the killing were assaulted by Palestinians and their film was destroyed.

CAMERA wrote to Teen Newsweek executive editor Charles Piddock, pointing out that there simply is not enough information available about the photograph’s circumstances for Teen Newsweek to have made such a definitive “clarification.” Piddock stated later that the correction “may or may not be [accurate], but at the time we wrote it, we thought it was.” He said that Teen Newsweek was unwilling to pursue the matter further unless there was definite evidence that the correction was false. The point is that there is no evidence either way–and therefore the magazine should not have published the unsubstantiated information in the first place.

It was a hard-earned lesson for hundreds of teens that the media is not always fair or accurate, but that reader involvement is essential for journalistic accountability. Given the outcry by hundreds of readers and the extensive communication with CAMERA, Teen Newsweek will–one assumes–exercise far greater caution in covering the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And so, it seems, Teen Newsweek readers were not alone in gaining a valuable educational lesson.

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