Washington Post Correspondent Makes False Claims in LA Times Op-Ed

It seems that, more and more, some Op-Ed page editors are dispensing with fact-checking when columns convey a negative opinion about Israel – especially when the author is deemed to be an “expert” in the field. The most recent examples are Rashid Khalidi‘s error-filled column in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune on January 8 and an outrageously inaccurate opinion column by Washington Post reporter Jonathan Finer published in the January 14, 2009 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

In “Israel’s losing media strategy,” Finer complains about Israel’s limiting journalists from entering the Gaza Strip to report on the current war. He opens by contrasting the alleged freedom granted to reporters in southern Lebanon with the restrictions supposedly imposed by Israel:

During Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, reporters had the run of southern Lebanon, restrained only by their tolerance for the great personal risks involved. On the Israeli side of the border, where I spent three weeks covering the war that summer, it was a different story altogether.[emphasis added]

Reporters had the run of southern Lebanon? It is difficult to believe that Finer, who was reporting from northern Israel at the time, is unaware of fellow journalists’ testimony from southern Lebanon. They reported that Hezbollah tightly restricted access to areas under its control, strictly managing interview and photographic opportunities and following correspondents with assigned minders. In fact, Finer’s colleague at the Washington Post, media critic Howard Kurtz, addressed this issue more than once.

On his July 23, 2006 CNN media show, Reliable Sources, Kurtz dealt with “the question of how Hezbollah and the bombardment of Lebanon is being covered.” He showed a videotape of journalists discussing a tour conducted by Hezbollah for the foreign press. One journalist explains:

This morning, Hezbollah showed journalists around the ruins of its former stronghold, but Hezbollah is also determined that outsiders will only see what it wants them to see.

Kurtz then asked the question, “Is there a danger that journalists can be used by Hezbollah when they get these bomb damage assessment tours, when there’s very little ability to get any independent reporting to find out, you know, how much Hezbollah activity there may be in this or that residential area?” The answer was, “Absolutely.”

Kurtz next questioned CNN correspondent Nic Robertson:

Isn’t it difficult for you as a journalist to independently verify any claims made by Hezbollah, because you’re not able to go into the buildings and see whether or not there is any military activity or any weapons being hidden there?

Robertson replied:

Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operation. In fact, beyond that, it has very, very good control over its areas in the south of Beirut. They deny journalists access into those areas. They can turn on and off access to hospitals in those areas. They have a lot of power and influence. You don’t get in there without their permission…we were given about 10 or 15 minutes, quite literally running through a number of neighborhoods that they directed and they took us …They had control of the situation. They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn’t have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath…

On July 24, 2006, Kurtz followed up with a column for the Washington Post in which he repeated:

A Hezbollah leader last week gave Engel a tour of a Beirut neighborhood, including a supermarket basement where residents were taking shelter…CNN’s Nic Robertson got a similar tour of bomb damage from Hezbollah officials who “wanted to show us that their civilians are being caught up in this conflict,” he reported. Robertson concluded that what he was shown “looked like civilian buildings” but acknowledged that he did not go inside them. Hezbollah showed CBS’s Elizabeth Palmer the ruins around its former stronghold in Beirut, “but no one was allowed to stay too long,” she said, noting that the guerrilla group is “determined that outsiders will only see what it wants them to see.”

Other journalists similarly documented Hezbollah control of journalists’ access to subjects in southern Lebanon as well as the staging of scenes for the international press to record. For example, in an exposé aired on July 24, CNN’s Anderson Cooper reported:

…After letting us take pictures of a few damaged buildings, they take us to another location, where there are ambulances waiting. This is a heavily orchestrated Hezbollah media event. When we got here, all the ambulances were lined up. We were allowed a few minutes to talk to the ambulance drivers. Then one by one, they’ve been told to turn on their sirens and zoom off so that all the photographers here can get shots of ambulances rushing off to treat civilians. That’s the story — that’s the story that Hezbollah wants people to know about. These ambulances aren’t responding to any new bombings. The sirens are strictly for effect… (Anderson Cooper 360º,  July 24, 2006)

All this was about journalists’ access to civilians in southern Lebanon. No one even bothered to comment on the lack of access to Hezbollah fighters and operatives engaged in battle with Israeli soldiers. By contrast, Israel granted journalists unfettered access to civiliians threatened by rockets, and military censors operated under the principle of allowing publication of anything, “unless there is near certainty that publication will harm state security.”

But factual accuracy is apparently of no concern to Finer. He turns truth on its head, exonerating Hezbollah’s manipulation of the press while focusing on “restrictions” imposed by Israel’s military censorship on the battleground. While he acknowledges that “Israeli officials allowed full access to civilians living under Hezbollah rocket fire,” he whines that

To interview Israeli soldiers, however, we had to evade a battalion of public affairs minders, some of whom seemed to see their role as warding off paparazzi. Occasionally, we were brought to see troops preparing to enter Lebanon — but told not to speak with them. Public roads along the border were choked by checkpoints. And all journalists were forced to sign a list of “censors
hip” rules as a precondition for obtaining an Israeli press card.

It is remarkable that Finer, a foreign journalist, is unaware that armies in battlefield situations all have rules and restrictions governing journalists who report on the action. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, requires that:

Journalists in a combat zone shall be credentialed by the U.S. military and shall be required to abide by a clear set of military security ground rules that protect U.S. Armed Forces and their operations. Violation of the ground rules may result in suspension of credentials and expulsion from the combat zone of the journalist involved. (Statement of Department of Defense Principles for News Media Coverage of Department and Defense Operations, Enclosure 3, #4)

While journalists are generally given access to major U.S. military units, “special operations restrictions may limit access in some cases.” And while the U.S. Defense Department is committed to providing reporters with full access to information, it is with the following proviso:

unless its release is precluded by current and valid security classification…

…Information will be withheld only when disclosure would adversely affect national security, threaten the safety or privacy of the men and women of the Armed Forces, or if otherwise authorized by statute or regulation.(Statement of Department of Defense Principles of Information, Enclosure 2, #a, d)

Like the U.S. Department of Defense, Israel’s Defense Department constantly attempts to balance security concerns with its democratic value of providing freedom to the press. Far from imposing “draconian restrictions” on journalists, as Finer claims, the IDF came under criticism by the Winograd Commission of inquiry into the events of military engagement in Lebanon 2006 for being too open to journalists. The commission’s final report states:

During the war in Lebanon and afterward, the public leveled harsh allegations against the media … concerning reports published during the war which [were perceived to have] revealed state secrets, infringed information security, endangered soldiers’ lives, thwarted military operations … [and] adversely affected public morale.  

The commission noted that the IDF’s military censorship was unable to cope with the problem of live broadcasts which, in some cases, presented security risks (for example, disclosing where Katyusha rockets were landing, the movement of forces, etc.) and recommended ending the army’s open policy to journalists. The report proposed increasing military censorship to ban publication of material not only if there is “near certainty” that it will harm state security but also if there is “reasonable concern.”

Finer not only worked for the Washington Post (he is now pursuing a law degree at Yale) but gave a seminar on the practice of journalistic foreign correspondence at Yale University, with emphasis on reporting from conflict zones. But it is clear that neither experience as a journalist nor academic affiliation necessarily confers expertise or accuracy. Newspaper editors would be well advised to remember that before publishing unvetted opinion columns.

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