Thursday, February 12, 2009

Honest Reporting on Gaza

Operation Cast Lead illustrates the futility of understanding ongoing events in the context of artificially set boundaries in time like ''January 1'' or ''December 31.''

A simpler way to make sense of the Mideast in 2008 would be to separate out the last four days and say 2009 began on the morning of December 27, when Israeli jets took the air for the first strikes.

Discussion of Mideast coverage could then take into account the crisis for news services. Major events around the world -- including presidential elections, the financial crisis, Iraq, the Beijing Olympics, a Tibetan uprising, Iran's nuclear program, plus the war in Georgia -- exposed how thinly spread the news services were.

And facing financial losses, publishers slashed budgets, closed bureaus, downsized newsrooms, all to emphasize local reporting; a small handful of papers, most notably the Christian Science Monitor, decided to cease daily printing altogether to focus efforts online.

So for 361 days, the Mideast's biggest stories, namely, the Gaza border breach, the Hezbollah prisoner swap and Ehud Olmert's resignation, didn't hold big media's attention as long as they might have in previous years. We saw less over-reporting of Israel and fewer wonks.

Yes, the war changed the year's complexion. The seeds of conflict were sown throughout the year. In June, Israel and Hamas agreed to an oft-violated cease-fire. By July, it was becoming clear Hamas was using the truce to rearm. Then in November, the IDF discovered a tunnel leading directly into Israel. A subsequent incursion destroyed it, but the Palestinians responded with further rockets. Hamas eventually ended the truce with Israel and intensified the rocket fire.

While it's irresponsible to ignore the four days of war taking place in 2008, it's equally absurd to draw sweeping conclusions about Cast Lead so soon after the fact. So our awards only account for material produced right up to the end of 2008. The bulk of the MSM's Gaza war foibles were produced on the 2009 side of the calendar; we’ll see how they look in the context of a 2009 snapshot for our next awards.

We thank our readers for sharing their feedback on the year's worst Mideast coverage. On with the "awards."

Worst Caption: Time

Earlier this year, Hamas scored propaganda points with a self-generated blackout, sparking plenty of candlelight photos in the world's newspapers. One photo in particular was taken by Reuters and published by Time.

A look at the sunlight between the closed curtains clearly indicates the gathering took place during the day. And while Reuters' own caption did not specify night, Time wrote:

Blackout: The Israeli embargo has left the Gaza Strip without electricity. The Palestinian Parliament was forced to meet by candlelight on Tuesday night.

Time eventually revised the caption.

Lamest Correction: City TV

In August, Canada's City TV anchor Gord Martineau erroneously reported that the IDF killed 11 Palestinians during anti-fence clashes in Nilin. When HonestReporting Canada took action, City TV indeed issued an on-air ''correction'' on August 18 -- with a tersely worded statement embedded within another text report on a dynamic screen during the program's broadcast on Mideast matters:


A more appropriate correction would have been verbally stated by the anchor. The correction was so badly buried that many readers who watched the video completely missed it and thought we linked to the wrong broadcast!

Sloppiest Fact Checking: Boston Globe

Boston Globe editors didn't bother double checking the stats when Eyad al-Sarraj and Sara Roy wrote in February:

Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99 percent.

But Martin Kramer crunched the numbers, found them half-baked, then sourced the stats back to Egypt's Ahram Weekly, writing:

You don't need to be a math genius to figure out that if Gaza has a population of 1.5 million, as the authors also note, then 680,000 tons of flour a day come out to almost half a ton of flour per Gazan, per day.

The Globe posted a correction at the bottom of the web page, which Kramer rightfully called onto the carpet too:

The pounds-for-tons ''correction'' is an attempt to cover up the authors' original sin: they just copied the figure straight from the Ahram Weekly (which anyway doesn't use pounds--it uses metric measurements). The Boston Globe should go back to the authors and ask for the precise source of their figures. It's called fact-checking.

Sarraj and Roy are entitled to their opinions, but even op-eds have to be based on accurate info.

Poison Pen Award: Emad Hajjaj

The downsizing of American newspapers is hitting cartoonists. Along with reporters, Western cartoonists now focus locally more than ever. So compared to recent years, 2008 saw fewer cartoons about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This year's poison pen award goes to Emad Hajjaj, of Jordan's Al-Ghad newspaper.

A Palestinian graphically crucified on an electrical pole plays to the lowest prejudices. You'd think Muslims would be more sensitive to religiously offensive cartoons.

Most Humiliated Journalist: Charles Enderlin

Not only did a judge rule against France 2 in its defamation suit against media critic Philippe Karsenty, the network's long-covered-up raw footage from the day Mohammed al-Dura died was also posted on YouTube.

Adding insult to injury, Charles Enderlin, who narrated the internationally broadcast images, nearly lost his Israeli press credentials.

Most Questionable Terror Links: The Guardian

The Guardian's Israel and the Palestinian territories page features a list of ''Useful Links,'' including the ''Hamas military wing.'' The link goes directly to an English language site of ''Ezedeen Al-Qassam Brigades,'' which describes itself as ''the armed branch of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).''

Without even a shred of lip service to the spurious distinctions between Hamas' political and military ''wings,'' The Guardian's link raises questions.

Why give Hamas the legitimacy of a link? How can The Guardian equate the so-called ''military wing'' with sites like the Knesset, Haaretz, Gush Shalom, Bitterlemons, and UN relief agencies, among others? Does the link break British laws, which proscribe Hamas as a terror organization? Could The Guardian become culpable for terror?

David McKie, filling in for regular readers' editor Siobhain Butterworth, weakly responded:

Hamas is a significant player in the region in terms of politics and power and it was felt appropriate to include a link to their website.

The link remains; we await a more adequate reply.

Most Morally Blind (UK): The Economist

During the year, the MSM often characterized Palestinian rocket fire and IDF efforts to curb the Qassams as "tit-for-tat." But The Economist entered a new realm somewhere between The Twilight Zone and Star Trek:

THE latest round of fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, showed how mere chance can make events spin out of control. In the preceding weeks exchanges of Palestinian rockets and Israeli missile attacks on Gaza, in which cause and effect had merged into a seamless continuum, had intensified.

The Economist's view -- that the conflict has no rational beginning, existence, or end -- excuses readers from making any judgments. Worse, this language breeds further terror.

Most Morally Blind (Collegiate): The Emory Wheel

The Emory Wheel (pdf format) featured a cartoon by student Dylan Woodliff. Strangely enough, Woodliff felt compelled to write a four-paragraph, 251-word "explanation" alongside it:

I have no intention of inciting a connection with the Holocaust . . .

Well, that was the whole point of the cartoon. At least editors gave Professor Deborah Lipstadt a right of response.

Most Morally Blind (USA): Los Angeles Times

As Palestinians formed a human chain along the Israel-Gaza border, rockets were fired into Israel. The Los Angeles Times wrote:

As Israelis watched nervously from across the border, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip staged parallel protests Monday against the Jewish state, placing a few thousand placard-waving demonstrators along the main highway and firing 11 rockets into Israel.

How can the Times possibly equate a peaceful human chain with rocket fire?

Biggest Snit: Johann Hari

In advance of Israel's 60th anniversary, columnist Johann Hari of The Independent crudely (and literally) compared Israel to excrement. HonestReporting responded, but Hari dug in his heels, accused us, our colleagues at CAMERA, Melanie Phillips and Alan Dershowitz of smearing Israel's critics and suppressing free speech. HonestReporting fired back, as did Melanie Phillips and other bloggers who joined the dustup.

The result: HonestReporting's biggest snit of the year, leaving us with a welcome spike in page views, but no satisfactory response from Hari.

Most Insane Holiday Greeting: Channel 4

UK's Channel 4 decked the halls with boughs of folly by inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to give the annual "alternative Christmas message."

Alternative messages in recent years were given by the likes of 9/11 survivor Genelle Guzman, Afghan war veteran Sgt. Major Andrew Stockton, even Sharon Osbourne and Marge Simpson. They never advocated wiping Israel off the map.

Dumbest Headline (USA): New York Times

Imad Mugniyeh's quarter-century of dirty deeds includes the truck bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, hijacking TWA flight 847, blowing up the AMIA building and Israeli embassy (both in Buenos Aires), kidnapping Terry Anderson, murdering William Buckley and William Higgins, and the Khobar Towers bombing.

So by the time the Hezbollah commander died an appropriate death -- blown to pieces in a booby-trapped car -- there was no doubt he deserved the title "terrorist." Yet this NY Times headline said:

Bomb In Syria Kills Militant Sought As Terrorist

Dumbest Headline (Europe): Avriani

Looking at the US elections, Avriani, a Greek daily, came up with this headline:

The anticipated victory of Obama in US elections signals the end of the Jewish domination - Everything changes in USA and we hope that it will be more democratic and humane

(Translation by the Athens News Agency.)

Ugliest Rationalization For a Blood Libel: Roland Jabbour

Defending broadcasts of Hezbollah's Al-Manar-TV in Australia, Roland Jabbour, chairman of the Australian Arabic Council, told The Age:

He said he would not call Jews the offspring of apes and pigs, but that in the context of "the crimes of the state of Israel" it was reasonable for al-Manar to do so and to portray Israeli rabbis as killing Christian children to use their blood in Passover meals.

Most Appalling Birthday Tribute: Al Jazeera

The MSM slobbered over celebrity birthdays like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince Charles, but Al-Jazeera's fawning fete for Samir Quntar took the cake. The video must be seen to be believed.

Quntar was convicted of murdering Danny Haran, his four-year-old daughter, and a policeman in a 1979 terror attack. Haran's two-year old daughter also died when her mother accidentally smothered her to keep her from crying while hiding. Shortly before his birthday, Israel released Quntar in a swap with Hezbollah for the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

Biggest Range of Problems: BBC

Readers vented a shockingly wide array of problems.

Some complaints focused on coverage glorifying George Habash, a video equating Rafik Hariri and Imad Mughniyeh as "great national leaders" (the Beeb apologized), a revisionist look at Israel's 60th birthday, a so-called eyewitness report that instead raised eyebrows, the Jerusalem bulldozer rampage (another apology), even an entertainment piece about Paul McCartney which somehow squeezed this sentence in:

Israel says the barrier, the route of which was declared illegal by the international court in the Hague in 2004, is for its security, but the Palestinians say it is a device to grab land.

Other readers, however, touched on deeper flaws: rehashing old news, Trevor Asserson's special report (pdf format) detailing problems with BBC Arabic, the Beeb's continuing cover-up of the Balen report, habitually choosing fringe Jews to "represent Israel," a BBC charity giving money to an organization that funded propaganda for the 7/7 bombers (Hanif Malik just filed a libel suit), and last -- but not least -- an utterly incomprehensible complaints system. Enough said.

Dishonest Reporter of 2008: Lauren Booth

Once in a while, reporters cross a line from covering a story to becoming part of it. Usually - like in Los Angeles and Chicago - it's due to an ethical lapse. But what if a journalist with an axe to grind deliberately becomes a part of the story?

That's what happened with Daily Mail columnist Lauren Booth. Although she's well-known for being the sister-in-law of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, lesser known is the fact that she works for Iran's satellite news channel, Press TV – meaning Booth's on the Iranian payroll.

In August, Booth joined two boatloads of protesters sailing to Gaza for what was essentially a Free Gaza Movement publicity stunt. She was quite open about her dual role as both activist and reporter. The BBC caught up with Booth before she set sail:

Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair who is now an international envoy to the Middle East, tells me she is travelling as both supporter and reporter.

"I dearly want to go to Gaza again to support the Palestinians and to show the world the reality of what's going on there".

In Gaza, Booth happily met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, joined a candlelight protest, and posed for some awkward photos too.

Then she stranded herself in the Strip.

Rather than depart unhindered with the two ships, Booth decided to stay on. Free Gaza's next boat was weeks away -- with no assurances Israel would allow it to pass. She literally missed the boat.

Eventually, the Briton sought to leave by land, only to be rebuffed by Israel and Egypt. For security reasons, Israeli law forbids the entry of foreigners from Gaza who entered the strip illegally. (Two Israeli citizens, activist Jeff Halper and reporter Amira Hass did return to Israel through the border crossing; both may face legal action.) Egypt never explained its initial refusal to Booth.

Stuck in Gaza, Booth continued her so-called "journalism." In one particularly galling interview with George Galloway, she described Gaza as a "concentration camp," adding, the situation is "a humanitarian crisis on the scale of Darfur."

Even before the war, everybody agreed Gaza was in bad shape, but Booth's exaggerated sound-bites ultimately did a disservice to the Palestinians, insulted the victims of the Holocaust, and trivialized the estimated 750,000 Darfuris who were killed or became refugees.

Before the recent conflict, photos like these didn't indicate wide-scale food shortages remotely resembling Darfur or Nazi Europe. Booth never had any intention of covering Gaza. She wanted to be a part of the story.

Booth eventually left Gaza via Egypt, but Gaza never left Booth. She has already launched Aloha Palestine to raise money for a larger passenger ship. And she continues to shill for Gaza.

We respect Booth's right to be active in the causes of her choice. But by trying to legitimize her jaunt through the veneer of respectable journalism, Lauren Booth shows she misses the boat again.

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