Slouching Toward Jerusalem


Journalists needed a world-class spin detector to make sense of the Middle East last week. The factual apocalypse arrived in the form of three big news stories on October 12: the “apparent terrorist attack” that killed 17 U.S. Sailors in Yemen, the Palestinian mob-killing of two Israeli soldiers who took a “wrong turn,” and the Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets that Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak called a “signal” of readiness but not a “provocation” to war.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour lucked out, landing an exclusive October 12 interview with Barak that will easily stand the test of time. But the sheer volume of contradictions in that day’s stories left many reporters performing triage, nailing down as many details as possible while abandoning others to the realm of the unknown. With so many holes came the temptation to report things that may or may not have been true.

Temptation #1: Name Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect in the “terrorist attack.” After Clinton denounced the attack, Daffy Duck-style, as “despicable,” word went out that Yemen is considered a “safe haven” for terrorist groups, including the bin Laden network. The New York Post made hay with this tip the next day, under the headline “Bin Laden’s signature all over it.” A day later, the Daily News slapped bin Laden on the cover with usual suspects Saddam Hussein and Abu Nidal.

Neither tabloid mentioned the caveat, repeatedly issued by U.S. officials, that there was as yet no hard evidence linking the attack to any particular group. But that disclaimer did appear in The New York Times, which is bending over backward these days to avoid pointing the finger at suspects. Near the top of a Times front-pager on October 15, John F. Burns stressed for the umpteenth time in days that investigators still “have no firm leads on the identity or motive of the attackers.”

Temptation #2: Depict the dead Israelis as innocents who got lost on the way to headquarters. This was the story put out by Barak, who claimed the two were detained at a checkpoint and taken to the Ramallah police station, where they were torn limb from limb. When Palestinians called the two undercover “spies,” Barak denied it, pointing out that they were driving a vehicle with an Israeli license. (A fascinating detail, but hardly dispositive of the spies claim.)

The Times‘ Deborah Sontag reported both sides of this story, but she seemed to ignore the implications of one set of sources: According to eyewitnesses, Sontag reported, the soldiers drove directly into the city center, where a crowd was gathering for the funeral of a Palestinian victim.

Hmm. The Washington Post‘s Keith B. Richburg was skeptical enough of the “wrong turn” story to report that the soldiers “apparently” got lost—and to allow a Palestinian man to ask the obvious: What the hell were two Israeli soldiers doing in the middle of Ramallah?

Temptation #3: Downplay the Palestinian body count. It’s been widely reported that the latest cycle has killed about 100 people so far, almost all of them Palestinians. Yet dead Arabs don’t get the same play as dead Jews.

Case in point: 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah, a Palestinian who was killed by Israeli soldiers during crossfire on September 30, and whose death was captured on video by a French TV crew. The Times ran the TV image on the front page of its late edition October 1, though al-Durrah’s name did not appear in the story. The next day, the Times ran a front-pager noting that “the riots claimed their first Israeli victim today,” with an al-Durrah sidebar inside. The accompanying photo showed no face, only the site where “a 12-year-old” was killed.

The Times first united al-Durrah’s name and face in an October 8 Week in Review piece titled “Sticks and Stones: A Deadly Brand of Child’s Play.” This time, the photo was wrapped in spin, with the Israeli army claiming that “both father and son had been part of the crowd throwing stones and Molotov cocktails” and that Palestinian leaders were now paying parents to turn their children into martyrs.

By contrast, consider how the Times played last week’s money shot of a Palestinian waving his bloodstained hands out the window of the Ramallah police station. On October 13, they plastered that shot on the front page, with the hands blown up to the size of subway tokens. No ambiguity there—and no replay with Arab spin.

And what about Khalil Bader, the Palestinian whose funeral was preempted by the lynching? The Los Angeles Times at least reported his name. Times reporters were too busy interviewing the families of Israeli and American casualties and obtaining their head shots for the October 14 edition.

Temptation #4: Play down the incendiary role of Ariel Sharon, leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud party. It’s generally agreed that Sharon “sparked” the latest cycle of violence when he visited Jerusalem’s Temple Mount on September 28. But as of last week, the media had largely left him behind closed doors. Two Times stories October 9 only mentioned in passing the fact that Sharon wants to be foreign minister. And on October 12, when Barak announced his plan to form a new government, most reporters seemed blind to the power play at hand.

Instead, editorialists ganged up to make Arafat the bogeyman. The Washington Post was diplomatic in its editorial of October 13, saying, “If [Sharon] hoped by means of his provocative visit to the Temple Mount to undermine [the peace process], he has succeeded. But he has succeeded only because Yasser Arafat made it so. Mr. Arafat did not simply refuse to call off . . . the riots; he actively and deliberately stoked them.”

The Times October 13 editorial echoed the lesser-of-two-evils scenario. “As angry as he appeared yesterday,” said the Times, “Mr. Barak seems prepared to do what he can to halt the bloodshed. Mr. Arafat has shown no such inclination in recent days, even though everyone knows that he can break the cycle of conflict.”

One exception to the Arafat-bashing came from The Wall Street Journal, whose October 13 international page delivered a sharp analysis of Sharon, under the headline “An Old Soldier Who Isn’t Fading Away.” It noted that Sharon failed to prevent the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982.

But top honors go to CNN’s Amanpour, who posed tough questions to Barak. Having pointed out that “there is no parity whatsoever” between the firepower of the Israeli army and the Palestinian civilians, she challenged the view that the Palestinians are solely responsible for the escalating violence. Barak responded with a classic denial: “We are not creating the provocation.”

But it was another answer that resonated loudest, inviting viewers to draw their own conclusions. When Amanpour repeated Arafat’s claim that Israel had declared war on the West Bank, Barak sputtered, “That’s nonsense, bullshit, and propaganda.”