By: William E. Jackson, Jr.
Jack Shafer in Slate on July 28 posed a timely question, as modified by me: Does the increased nationwide availability of the New York Times cut into the circulation of local newspapers among well-educated readers when it comes to coverage of major foreign news?
As a decades-long reader of the print version of The New York Times and my local The Charlotte Observer, I think the short answer has to be “yes.” I offer as evidence one week’s coverage of the latest Middle East conflict involving Israel and Lebanon.
In addition to the detailed and abundant stories in The Times, vivid photos of destruction and human tragedy from Israeli bombs and Hezbollah rockets were run on the front page — the realities of the war — while almost none were to be found on the front page of the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer. And rarely did the conflict merit print coverage “above the fold.”
On July 21, not quite below the fold in the middle of the page, the only dramatic photo of Beirut destruction (a deserted district ravaged by Israeli bombing) over a period of a week was published by the Observer. The headline of the McClatchy story read: “Shiite Suburb Bears Brunt.” Inside the paper, on the single page routinely devoted to reports on the war (including small boxed wire service insertions) there was an AP story — “Marines Return to Lebanon, Help Americans Reach Exit” — with a photo of American evacuees on the deck of the USS Nashville, and a photo of a U.S. Marine. Also, there were these two McClatchy stories: “U.N. Urges Truce, Pursues Peace Plan,” and “Arab-Israeli Town (Nazareth) Blames Homeland.”
On July 22, the lead story was from McClatchy: “Israelis Calling Up Thousands of Reserves,” accompanied by a photo of an American child being carried to a U.S. Navy craft by a Lebanese Red Cross worker. Inside, there was the NYT story: “U.S. Rushing Precision Bombs to Israel,” and an AP story — with photo of Navy craft ferrying evacuees to the USS Nashville off the coast of Lebanon — “U.S. Evacuations Hit Full Stride.”
On July 23, the lead story above the fold was McClatchy’s: “Israeli Tanks Sweep into S. Lebanon.” (Inside was a photo of Lebanese in Sidon.] On the other side of the front page was a story about a Charlotte family that had been trapped in Lebanon now back home on American ground, with a photo. Inside was a McClatchy report: “Prisoner Since 1979 is a Key to Conflict.” And under a Middle East news digest: “U.S. Focus: Confronting Hezbollah.”
On July 24, a photo of Secretary of State Rice was inserted on the front page accompanied by just a headline: “Rice Will Arrive in Middle East Today.” There was also an inserted quote from the UN humanitarian chief as he toured Beirut, calling Israel’s destruction “a violation of humanitarian law.” And there was a reference to a story in the second section by the paper’s religion reporter: “Hundreds Rally to Support Israel in Charlotte.” The latter was alongside a photo of Israeli children “emissaries” leading the crowd in singing the Israeli national anthem.
Two McClatchy stories were on page 2: “Bombing Continues with No Signs of a Ceasefire,” and “Rice in Mideast as Arab Anger Grows.”
On July 25, not one story on the conflict ran on the front page. But there was a sidebar with a photo of Rice and the Lebanese prime minister embracing, and a reference to stories inside: “Diplomatic Efforts in ME: Secretary of State Rice Offers Support for Lebanese Government While Death Toll Mounts.” On page 3, there were two McClatchy stories: “Civilian Death Toll Over 300,” and “Blair and Annan Favor Peace Force.”
On July 26, there was no story on the front page, but there was a photo of an Israeli missile attack on Tyre — on the day when a UN observer post in Lebanon was hit by the Israelis. There was a sidebar indicating an inside story: “Israel Widens Hold in Lebanon.” Also, two AP stories on page 7: “Israel Seals Rival Stronghold,” and “Rice’s Travels Produce No Quick Answers.”
On July 27, below the fold, a McClatchy story “Israelis Meet Stiff Resistance from Hezbollah,” continued inside as “9 Israelis Die in Lebanon Clashes.” And, inside: “Wary Israelis Still Hit ‘Hornets’ Nest,” and a short report: “Iranians Seek to Join Fight Against Israel.”
By July 28, coverage of the ongoing war had disappeared from the front page of the Charlotte Observer. Ditto: Sunday, July 30.
One final observation: Charlotte Observer editorials and the selection of letters to the editor were skewed in favor of Israel over Lebanon, not to mention Hezbollah. (This pattern was probably followed in other major regional newspapers in the United States.) However, there was no discernible pattern of imbalance in Observer news stories from the Levant — except for the relative lack of in-depth reportage, less descriptive headlines, and far fewer photos, compared to national newspapers.