Critics of Middle East Coverage Keep the Heat on Their Local Papers

For Peter Hebert, 43, boycotting The Washington Post last summer was like kicking his daily coffee habit.

“I’ve been reading the Post since I was 16. It’s like asking me to give up Starbucks in the morning,” said the Germantown, Md., mortgage lender.

But in recent years, especially since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, Hebert grew convinced the paper’s reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was skewed by a bias that portrayed “Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as freedom fighters.”

In June, Hebert helped lead a weeklong boycott of the Post. Activists estimated that 1,000 people cancelled their subscriptions. The paper says just 400 of its approximate 800,000 readers dropped out.

Though the boycott admittedly inflicted only “a little pain” on the Post, Hebert said, it sent a “loud signal” of what he terms deep dissatisfaction in the community with the Post’s Mideast coverage and prodded Post columnists to tackle the debate in print.

Now the anti-Post campaign, along with a handful of similar boycotts or protests that targeted major dailies, CNN and National Public Radio, is turning into a media war of attrition over coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Nationally we are at a different stage, with the media at least recognizing how sensitive a subject this is,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “We see the media as the battleground, not the enemy.”

In Washington, Hebert is leading an effort to transform the Post boycott Web site, eyeonthePost.org, from a subscription-cancellation vehicle into a kind of media monitor that offers daily analysis of Post stories and a searchable database so users can track the Post’s coverage back to the collapse of the Oslo peace accords.

“Boycott may have been seen as a dirty word,” he said. “We need to make this long term. We’re going to pursue the Post, and we hope for a meaningful dialogue.”

EyeonthePost.com already links to such onetime boycott efforts as jointheboycott.com, which was aimed at the Los Angeles Times. David Frankenthal, the Los Angeles attorney and teacher behind that site, said “thousands” of people boycotted the Times for one day in April.

“There are so many sites commenting on the media that have identified this problem. It’s a crowded field,” he said.

Unlike the Washington group, Frankenthal still hopes to apply economic pressure on the Times by getting subscribers to cancel and convincing major retail stores to reconsider advertising.

At the same time, the site includes analysis of the Times’ alleged anti-Israel slant, calls for a six-month “commitment to fair and balanced reporting” and runs polls to measure attitudes about the paper.

Like other media critics, Frankenthal is troubled by the “moral equivalence” the Times purportedly has drawn between Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli counter-terror operations.

“The Times will cover the terrorist attacks in Israel, but then they’ll run lengthy stories about the frustrations that led to the suicide bombings,” he said.

“That gives terrorists a platform.”

Los Angeles Times and Washington Post representatives did not return calls for comment.

Several boycott groups say newspapers apply a double standard in the language used to cover terrorism.

In Philadelphia, for example, the Zionist Organization of America, which led a boycott fight against the Philadelphia Inquirer that culminated in a July rally at the newspaper’s headquarters, maintains the Inquirer is guilty of “bad journalism” when it comes to reporting on Israel, said Steve Feldman, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia District of the ZOA.

Like many media activists, Feldman said the Inquirer does not hesitate to use the word “terrorism” when referring to the Sept. 11 attacks or the recent Bali bombing linked to Al-Qaida.

But “when someone kills Jews in Israel, they’re labeled as Palestinian activists or militants,” he said.

Even the Inquirer’s ombudsman, Lillian Swanson, said it is difficult to explain the paper’s approach to stories on terrorism.

In general, the Inquirer refers to “those who throw rocks” as “militants,” she said, and those who blow themselves up as “suicide bombers.”

But “it’s a slippery slope when you try to decide who is a terrorist,” she added. “I don’t want to split hairs or parse words.”

At the same time, Swanson defended the paper, echoing a July column she wrote responding to the boycott effort.

“My impression is that our stories are not nearly as critical” of Israel “as those published in Europe or in Israel. Our stories have been critical of both sides,” she said. “Our job is to be an independent newspaper, and what we’re doing on the ground in Israel is report as fairly and accurately as we can.”

Advocates on both sides react to the paper, she added, and Inquirer editors in turn realize they will be scrutinized closely.

So far the Inquirer boycott effort has generated 700 cancellations, according to the paper, though Feldman puts the number at double that.

Meanwhile, the ZOA is entering what called “phase two” of its media watch. Feldman wouldn’t provide details, but predicted more “outreach” to advertisers and non-Jewish groups.

In New York, meanwhile, a group that took aim at the New York Times this summer, called “NYTimesprotest.org,” is running newspaper ads urging the Pulitzer Prize committee to award the Times a prize for “biased reporting.”

In September, the ads ran domestically in the New York Post, New York Sun, Washington Times and Wall Street Journal, while in Israel they ran in the Jerusalem Post and Ma’ariv, said the group’s spokesman, Fred Ehrman.

The group continues to seek subscription boycotts, he said, and is asking Jewish organizations to place obituaries in Jewish publications rather than in the Times.

“We want the Times to be a better newspaper, and the only way they’ll hear anything is through economic means,” he said.

Like other critics, Ehrman complains of generally unfair treatment of Israel in the Times, though he singled out Jerusalem-based correspondent Joel Greenberg as particularly “odious.”

Ehrman pointed to an Oct. 21 story about Palestinians who fled their town because of violence by nearby Jewish settlers. Greenberg only once mentions Palestinian violence against the settlers, and far into the story.

A Times spokesman, Toby Usnik, did not refute that specific complaint, nor address the group’s overall claims of bias. But he did say the Times was well aware of the criticism.

The Times is “highly conscious of sensitivities surrounding coverage of the Middle East,” he said. “If occasionally the facts of a particular news situation seem likely to provide more satisfaction to one side than to others, our policy is to restore the balance promptly in our overall coverage.”

In Chicago, Kotzin said Jewish officials continue to meet with Chicago Tribune officials and journalists to foster good relations and voice Jewish concerns about Mideast coverage.

Meanwhile, Ed Lasky, a stock trader who is active in a group called Citizens Against Terror, which has been critical of the Tribune’s Israel coverage, said that in coming weeks the group will launch a Web site called “The Tribune Watch” to track the Tribune’s reporting.

The group already has run ads in the Tribune’s rival, the Chicago Sun — whose owner, Conrad Black, also owns the Jerusalem Post — blasting the Tribune as anti-Israel.

The Tribune’s Public Editor, Don Wycliff, retorted that the charge of bias “is absurd.” Wycliff, however, said he understood complaints about photos that seemed anti-Israel.

“If you’re always shooting from behind Israeli lines at kids throwing rocks, that’s what photos will show,” he said. “You must take care to show the other side.”

One group that claims success with its media campaign is Minnesotans Against Terrorism, which says it convinced the Minneapolis Star Tribune to alter its editorial policy on Mideast stories.

In April, the group ran an ad, with such supporters as the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, his opponent, Norm Coleman, Gov. Jesse Ventura and others, blasting the paper for “systematically deleting” references to terrorism aimed at Israelis.

Mark Rotenberg, a general counsel for the University of Minnesota and a leader of the group, said the Star-Tribune has begun reversing that trend, owning up to mistakes in columns and running “dozens of references” to anti-Israel terrorism.

The paper’s reader representative, Lew Gelfand, could not be reached for comment.

Now the Minnesota group is setting its sites beyond print, working on producing a documentary for local cable TV about “the threat of terrorism” facing the United States and Israel, Rotenberg said.

In Chicago, Lasky believes that maintaining such consistent focus on media outlets will produce results.

“There’s nothing like a bright, shining light on a news source to ensure fair coverage,” he said.

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