Yahoo! Takes Sides with Kevin Sites

Yahoo!, which claims to be the “most trafficked Internet destination worldwide,” is well known for its news site, along with its search engine and e-mail services.

Yahoo! News originally served as an online clearinghouse of news stories by various wire services and newspapers, compiled and organized into subject categories by Yahoo. But in September 2005, when veteran journalist Kevin Sites began writing for Yahoo! News, the Internet giant entered a new journalistic realm.  The site now became a purveyor of its own original news stories; and with this change came new journalistic responsibilites.

From the start, Sites and his new bosses at Yahoo! proclaimed to understand the need to conform to ethical journalism.  A press release announcing the launch of Sites’ new Yahoo! home, “In the Hot Zone,” emphasized that the reporting “will be rooted in traditional journalistic standards.” A mission statement on the Web site pledges adherence to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and tells readers to expect “honest, thoughtful reporting” which will provide “a clear idea” about the various armed struggles in the world. And each dispatch from Gaza, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Jerusalem begins with the following note:

We’re profiling doctors, victims of the violence, journalists and artists — one from each side. In focusing more on the human picture than the political one, we aim to present a clearer portrayal of the scope of the conflict.

Despite these principled words, Sites’ Yahoo! News reports from the region were hardly impartial.

True, Sites did match reports about Palestinians with ones about Jewish Israelis; but this is where the ostensible balance ends. And while some of his profiles indeed focused “more on the human picture than the political one,” much of his work was made up of partisan political discussion conveying an anti-Israel narrative.

For example, despite superficially representing both sides of the conflict, both the Palestinian and Israeli artists interviewed by Sites repeated practically the same message: one of allegedly arbitrary, indiscriminate Israeli brutality and Palestinian victimization.

Actor Ali Suliman, a Palestinian who played a suicide bomber in “Paradise Now,” was quoted by Sites describing life in the West Bank city of Nablus. “You are a target for the soldiers all the time.” he said. “The soldiers go inside and take people, whoever they want. It’s like you’re waiting for your death all the time.” To Suliman, it is this atmosphere that causes attacks against Jews. “[E]veryone has the potential to be like this because of the bad situation in which they live,” he said of Palestinian terror.

“Balancing” this article is one about Israeli filmmakers Gal Uchovsky and Eytan Fox. Their message essentially repeated that of Saliman:

… Israelis are still so obsessed with the Holocaust and their status as victims renders them blind to the fact they themselves have become aggressors, imposing pain and suffering on the Palestinians. … The first step in helping the Israelis understand how cruel they themselves have become lies in making some kind of peace with their own traumatic past. …

We become victimized to the point that we’ve become aggressors, and now others use terror as a weapon against us. It’s not the tool of the strong, it’s the tool of the weak. So (in our film) we wanted to examine the fact that we still see ourselves as victims — even though we are a vibrant nation and have a strong army that can defend us just fine.

… the occupation — building all these settlements on Palestinian lands. Apartheid roads. The West Bank is a very, very unfair thing and most Israelis are unaware of it.

For good measure, they added: “Hamas is not very radical at this moment …. They have, like, five missiles that can kill maybe three people.”

Finding a Palestinian and an Israeli who agree that Israelis are “cruel” while overlooking all Palestinian shortcomings might make for an uncomplicated account of the Middle East conflict, but it certainly does not provide readers with the “more complete picture” promised by Sites in his mission statement. Nor does it follow the SPJ Code of Ethics, which the reporter claims to espouse. That code calls on journalists to give subjects of news stories “the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing”; to “tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience …”; and to “support the open exchange of views.”

If Sites truly wanted to provide a “complete picture,” he would have had no trouble finding Israeli artists to provide alternate points of view. Filmmakers Kobi Yonatan and Amir Tal, for example, directed a documentary about Palestinian sniper fire on Israeli civilians in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. The renowned author Aharon Megged has criticized those among the Israeli elite who express “moral and political identification with those who deny our right to live in this land, ignoring their explicit declarations about their ultimate aim to do away with us.” Eyal Megged, also an award winning author, has written that it is a “distortion of casualty statistics [to cite] the numbers of dead Palestinians to illustrate the injustice of certain [Israeli] military moves. After all, one could have said that more Germans died than Americans during World War II, but this would have been irrelevant to the justice of the Allied invasion.” Each of these opinions or subjects would have been a genuine contrast to those discussed Saliman, the Palestinian actor. The same cannot be said for Uchovsky and Fox’s viewpoints.

Sites’ profiles of a Palestinian and an Israeli journalist followed the same pattern.

Sami Al Salem, a reporter for the Palestinian Authority run WAFA news service, is described as someone who “used to read a lot of literature by Israeli writers to try to understand them better.” He shared this new understanding with readers:

“I learned two things from the Israeli writers I read,” he says. “There is racism against Palestinians, but also a racism between Israelis — depending on what part of the world they’ve come from.”

Once again, the Israeli interviewed by Sites complemented rather than contrasted with Al Salem’s message of alleged Israeli racism. Alex Levac, a photojournalist who writ es for Ha’aretz, assailed his countrymen:

Israelis don’t want to see the Palestinians; it’s like they exist, but we don’t want to know anything about them. …

The reporter for Ha’aretz, known for its often harsh criticism of Israeli policy, was also quoted discussing Israeli government censorship of the press.

Ironically, only two days before Sites’ profile on Levac was posted on Yahoo! News, a New York Sun article about Khaled Abu Toameh, a former PLO news reporter who now writes for the Israeli Jerusalem Post, reported:

Mr. Abu Toameh notes that an independent free press does not exist in the West Bank of Gaza. “They burn it down. They beat you up,” he says. “The media there is controlled by the PLO.”

Of course, Sites didn’t interview Abu Toameh, or for that matter any Palestinians with substantive criticisms of their society. Likewise, Sites never included in his Yahoo! profiles anyone who had much positive to say about Israel. It seems that whichever side you’re on, you have to be critical of Israel and sympathetic towards Palestinians to be profiled by Yahoo!’s new correspondent.

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