By: Joe Strupp
Although coverage of the Middle East has invited passionate criticism and charges of bias for decades, the current struggle between Palestinian and Israeli forces has quickly become one of the most divisive and frightening conflicts for newspapers in years.
Veteran newsroom leaders are being battered by more e-mail, letters, and phone calls than ever before on this issue, from all sides, and with an unusually high level of anger, while newspapers such as the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and the Los Angeles Times are being singled out through organized protests and boycotts.
“There is a real desperate feeling to it — some of the opinions are sort of violent,” said Marshall Ingwerson, managing editor of The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, who has been accused by readers of “being in league with murderers” and “having no human decency.” The tone is “definitely harsher,” he says.
Whether it’s The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee accused of sympathizing with a Palestinian suicide bomber or editors at The Washington Post receiving e-mail messages comparing the Post with the former pro-Nazi paper Der Stuermer, the charges of bias and conspiracy are growing by the day.
On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that nearly 1,000 readers had suspended home delivery for at least a day in protest of the paper’s “inaccurate, pro-Palestinian reporting.” Editor John Carroll defended the coverage, saying the Times covers all aspects and points of view.
In some cases, the angry reactions have landed on the newspapers’ front steps, with the Chicago Tribune finding Jewish protesters outside its doors recently and the Star Tribune coming under fire in a full-page ad published April 2 within its own pages.
“It’s scary, this idea that one group or another could turn on journalists,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Many people, she added, have probably given up on the idea of peace and become terrified — “and one of the easiest things to react to is the media.”
Criticism of Middle East coverage is nothing new, but the current attacks against the papers come with more specific examples of alleged bias. “I have a core of a couple of dozen people who write me every single day on this,” said Phil Bennett, Washington Post assistant managing editor for foreign news. “Some of them even count the number of times we use certain words in a story.”
And major papers are not the only ones feeling the heat. Executive Editor Gary Gilbert of The Oakland Press in Pontiac, Mich., which has more than 100,000 Jewish residents in its circulation area, said criticism of coverage has been harsher in recent weeks. “There is a tone of hatred that we don’t see in anything else,” he said.
In most cases, readers will cite a certain story (or photo) and angrily complain that a similar story (or photo) more sympathetic to their side did not receive the same play. Via the Internet, readers also are finding stories on overseas newspapers’ Web sites and demanding that American newspapers publish them. “There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet that people want us to follow,” said Sanders LaMont, ombudsman for The Sacramento Bee.
The protest ad in the Star Tribune — supported by a string of Minnesota politicians, including Gov. Jesse Ventura and the state’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton — slammed the paper’s practice of limiting use of the word “terrorism.” In response, Managing Editor Pam Fine accused the ad of grossly misrepresenting the Star Tribune‘s policy. She said the paper permits use of “terrorist,” but prefers specific references to a “suicide bomber” or a “gunman.”
In recent weeks, protests at other papers against using “suicide bomber” or “terrorist” has prompted calls for new labels, such as “homicide bomber,” which advocates claim puts more attention on the victim than the perpetrator. But some traditionalists, such as Bruce Porter, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, warn against changing words to appease critics at the expense of clear reporting. “You can overrespond,” he told E&P. “These things end up being extremely fashionable.”