WASHINGTON POST-WATCH: Simple Story, Simplistic Coverage

The  Washington Post’s coverage of a June 5, 2008 Palestinian terrorist attack that killed an Israeli was simplistic and inadequate. Unlike  the New York Times’ article on the event, the Post  lacked or obscured basic detail and implied a false moral equivalence between Israelis and their murderers.

Wrong from the start

“Israeli Man, Palestinian Child Killed in Attacks” (June 6) by Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief Griff Witte opens as follows:

An Israeli man and a Palestinian child were killed Thursday in separate attacks as Israel and Hamas traded fire in and around the Gaza Strip.

“Traded fire” implies mutual responsibility where none exists. So does pairing the deaths of the Israeli, not named by the Post but described as “a 52-year-old civilian,” and that of  “the Palestinian child, a 4-year-old girl, [who] was killed later in the day when Israeli forces fired a missile at the house in the Gaza city of Khan Younis, Palestinian medical officials said.” According to the Post,  “The Israeli military said it was targeting a Palestinian fighter.” [emphasis added]

If the Israeli victim (Amnon Rosenberg, 52 years-old and a  father of three) of the attack for which Hamas claimed responsibility  was a civilian — as the Post reported —then his killer, by definition, was not a “fighter”— as the Post wrote — but a terrorist. The Post also omitted noting that Hamas is listed by Israel, the United States, and other countries as a terrorist organization.

Washington Post Uses Passive Language for Palestinian Attack

Unlike the New York Times’ article, “Israeli Man and Gaza Child Die in Strikes (June 6) by Ethan Bronner, which used direct and simple language to describe the Palestinian mortar attack, the Post whitewashed Palestinian aggression by using indirect, passive language.

According to the New York Times’ lead paragraph:

Mortar shells fired from Gaza killed a 52-year-old Israeli worker on Thursday, and two hours later, an Israeli missile aimed at the source apparently killed a 4-year-old girl playing in her yard.  

“Mortar shells fired from Gaza” directly describes what happened as opposed to the language used by the Post — “a mortar shell landed at a paint factory” — as if no human responsibility caused the “landing” (why not “struck,” “exploded” or “hit”?).

The Times noted “an Israeli missile aimed at the source” — that is, the Israelis were targeting terrorists and the child was an accidental victim. According to the Times:

Major Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman said that if a child had been hit, it would be further evidence of the way Hamas fires from civilian areas. She said Israeli commandos in Gaza found missile launchers and antitank missiles buried near a schoolyard basketball court recently. “We try to take out the mortar and rocket launchers,” she said. ‘But they are mobile and lightweight.”

Major Leibovich and her statements, directly or paraphrase, did not make the Post.

The Times also informed readers that Rosenberg “was the 16th person killed by mortar or rocket fire from Gaza since 2004.” The Post observed that Hamas “has escalated its rocket attacks since taking over Gaza last June,” but did not point out that this has meant literally thousands of rocket and mortar firings and did not specify Israeli fatalities.

Dropping the news

The first seven paragraphs of the Times’ nine-paragraph report focuses on the Palestinian terrorist attack and Israeli counter-terrorism strike. The last two deal with the likely complication the violence poses for “Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas” and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ call for renewed dialogue with Hamas. By contrast, only five paragraphs in the Post‘s 15-paragraph dispatch cover the attack; 10 focus on diplomacy and a possible large Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Post language — in addition to repeated erroneous references to Palestinian “fighters” instead of terrorists — terms Abbas’ PA as “the moderate Palestinian leadership.” The Times correctly describes Abbas’ Fatah Party as “the more pro-Western” as compared to Hamas. Pro-Western is not a synonym for moderate; Saudi Arabian and Egyptian leadership are, in the context of Arab politics, “pro-Western.” They are not, in any sense meaningful to citizens of Western democracies, “moderate.” Neither is Fatah or the Palestinian Authority.

The Bigger Picture

The New York Times is not the gold standard when it comes to Arab-Israeli coverage. However, it, the Associated Press (“Israeli aircraft, troops pound Gaza; At least 17 others injured one day after Hamas shelling kills Israeli civilian,” June 6) and the English language Web site of Yediot Aharanot, Israel’s largest daily, ynetnews.com (“Father of 3 killed in mortar attack, IAF strike kills girl in Gaza,” June 5), for example, all did a better job than the Post. Post senior management, editors and reporters usefully might ask themselves why.