WASHINGTON POST-WATCH: Front Paging An Obsession

The Washington Post‘s front page for Saturday, August 30 provided an unavoidable example of the newspaper’s odd obsession with Israel. That is, with news from and/or about the Jewish state that portrays it, if not simply in a negative light, then at least as troubled or problematic. Even readers who typically ignore such coverage complained to CAMERA about this peculiarity.

From all the international, national, regional and local news competing for most prominent placement, Post editors selected four topics for page one treatment. The headlines, from top of the page down, were:

“McCain Picks Alaska Governor: Palin First Woman on GOP Ticket; Democrats Insist Running Mate Lacks Experience,” with two sidebar articles;

“New Orleans Prepares For Gustav; City Hopes to Avert Katrina-Like Disaster”;

“In Israel, A Clash Over Who Is a Jew; Ultra-Orthodox Contest Conversion”; and

“As Food Becomes a Cause, Meeting Puts Issues on the Table.”

Israel Uber Alles

What editorial judgement decided that “In Israel, A Clash Over Who Is a Jew” was front page news? The struggle between the Orthodox, especially the “ultra-Orthodox” (or, as many prefer, “fervently Orthodox”) rabbinic establishment and the government, non-Orthodox rabbis and members of the secular public over Jewish religious status is newsworthy. It has been in Israel and in foreign press coverage periodically for at least the past 25 years.

But what important, new development landed it on The Washington Post’s front page? None, apparently.

The article tells of a convert whose status as a Jew — and that of her children — was rejected last year by a local rabbinic court and, on a appeal, by a second rabbinic tribunal. The case, said to illustrate the circumstances of many recent immigrants, has now been appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court. But the dispatch establishes no immediacy, no date for the rejected appeal, no date for a Supreme Court hearing.

Also calling the page one placement into question is the byline, that of The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Griff Witte. Witte had been out of Israel on leave for several weeks — National Public Radio’s Linda Gradstein (see Post-Watch “Bias by Omission,” September 2) had been substituting — and was not expected back until October.

According to The Post’s foreign desk, Witte wrote the article before beginning his leave. It had then been in the editing process until its August 30th publication. In any case, page one is not the place newspaper editors usually drop what they call “evergreens,” especially not without a compelling new development.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere in the News …

The August 30 Post’s inside pages carried other foreign dispatches more newsworthy than an undated feature about the religious status of Jewish converts in Israel. For example:

* “Iran Corroborates U.N. Nuclear Monitor’s Estimate of Centrifuges in Operation.” The lead on this article, by Post Foreign Service Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink, read:

“Iran is using 4,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium and plans to install an additional 3,000 of the devices, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Reza Sheikh Attar said Thursday in an interview on Iranian state television. Sheik Attar did not say when the new machines would begin operating, but his statement corroborates the International Atomic Energy Agency’s estimate of the number of centrifuges that Iran is currently using. The country says it plans to build a total of 54,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, which can be used to fuel nuclear power plants or to build nuclear weapons.”

Hard news, timely news, about a subject with international implications, and, incidentally, a subject that illustrates one of the threats Israel faces. Post editors placed it on page A – 15, second page in that day’s World News section.

* Also illustrating the nature of the region in which Israel not only strives but thrives as the sole Western-style democracy was a page A-18 article headlined “Russian Offensive Hailed in Mideast,” by Post Foreign Service Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer. The lead: “For some in the Middle East, the images of Russian tanks rolling into Georgia in defiance of U.S. opposition have revived warm memories of the Cold War. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew last week to Moscow, where he endorsed Russia’s offensive in Georgia and, according to Russian officials, sought additional Russian weapon systems.

“Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s influential son, echoed the delight expressed in much of the Arab news media. ‘What happened in Georgia is a good sign, one that means America is no longer the sole world power setting the rules of the game,’ the younger Gaddafi was quoted as telling the Russian daily Kommersant. ‘There is a balance in the world now. Russia is resurging, which is good for us, for the entire Middle East.'”

Both of these articles, by timeliness and subject, had a stronger claim on page one than did “In Israel, A Clash Over Who Is a Jew.”

So did two of the three articles on A-14, the front page of The World news section. These were “Karadzic Defies Court, Refuses To Enter Plea; Bosnian Serb Accused of Genocide,” and “China Unlikely to Loosen Its Grip in West; Experts Anticipate Unyielding Response to Latest Fatal Attacks in Xinjiang Province.” The third, “Less Yen for Foreign Travel In Aging, Risk-Averse Japan” was an over-played human interest feature

… But Wait, There’s More

Headlines from the Israeli press just before “In Israel, A Clash Over Who Is a Jew” appeared included “Iran Supplied Hezbollah With Advanced Missiles,” from Ynetnews.com, the English-language Web site of Yediot Aharanot, Israel’s largest circulation Hebrew-language daily; “Israel: Assad Not Serious About Peace,” from The Jerusalem Post; “Militants Take Control of Hamas Council,” The Jerusalem Post (apparently the terrorist group is about to become even more extreme), and “Israel Leads OECD in R&D,” from Globes, the Israeli business paper.

Globes reported that the 30 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries — including most leading free market, democratic states — averaged 1.7 percent of gross national product spent on research and development. The United States, for example, was at 2.2 percent, South Korea and Japan at 3.2 percent. Israel spent 4.7 percent of GDP on research and development. This might help explain reported Israeli advances in bio-medical and high technology fields — the kind of recurrent stories The Washington Post hardly ever gets around to covering, let alone on page one, even though Americans often benefit unknowingly.

Fixations by nature indicate lack of balance. The Post’s negative fixation on Israel certainly does.

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