“I think we can all agree that the Gaza rocket fire is reprehensible and is aimed at terrorizing Israeli civilians. It’s disruptive and traumatic. But let’s be clear: The overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza are like bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.”
Patrick B. Pexton, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, wrote that in his Nov. 23 column, two days after Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense ended in a cease-fire with Hamas.
Hamas, with the aid of Iran, was launching missiles with greater range than at any time before. The suburbs of Tel Aviv and Ashdod were being hit now along with the beleaguered towns of Sderot and Ashkelon. Jerusalem became a target, as the Iranian Fajr5 missile, with a range of 50 miles, made its debut.
The discussion of media coverage in the Washington area was triggered by a photograph on the front page of the Washington Post on Nov. 15 that showed a devastated Palestinian man holding the shrouded body of his 11-month-old son, a victim of a rocket strike on his home in Gaza. The photo caption used the words “Israeli bomb strike.” Yet, there was never a discussion that this bomb might have actually been launched in Gaza, falling short of Israel.
Where were the photographs in the Washington Post of years of Kassam rockets landing in Sderot, so many that there is even a “museum” of the rockets?” The same questions can be asked of the Grad rockets hitting Ashkelon.
Pexton wrote in his column that “the Post staff then authenticated and verified the facts behind the Associated Press photo. The baby was real. The bombing was real.”
He then validated the question of balance, that there weren’t photographs of Israelis hunkered down in bomb shelters nor were there similar photographs of dead or wounded Israelis.
“The Post cannot publish photographs that don’t exist,” answered Pexton. “No Israeli civilian had been killed by Gaza rocket fire since Oct. 29, 2011, more than a year prior. The first Israeli civilian deaths from Gaza rocket fire in 2012 did not take place until Nov. 15, when Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, began firing more accurate and deadly missiles in response to the Israeli offensive that had begun the day before. There were no recent photos of Israeli casualties to be had on the night of Nov. 14.”
Pexton wrote that there was a photo on an inside Nov. 15 page showing an Israeli mother taking refuge in a bomb shelter with her young children.
“I think we can agree that the Gaza rocket fire is reprehensible and is aimed at terrorizing Israeli citizens,” Pexton wrote.
Then came the line about the bee stings.
In a Dec. 17 interview with the JT, Pexton said that he wished he would have used different words.
“Since the first day I got here, anything related to Israel is always on top of the email and snail mail in terms of numbers,” he said. Pexton added that he receives less emails from Palestinians.
In terms of Operation Pillar of Defense, Washington Post coverage started with the front-page photo of the Palestinian man holding the body of his 11-month-old son. The headline to the right of the photograph read, “Israeli aircraft pound Gaza.”
• Nov. 16: “Attacks intensify along Gaza border. 18 Palestinians, 3 Israelis dead.”
• Nov. 17: “Israel calls up ground troops. Hamas raises stakes in conflict. Rocket from Gaza strikes near Jerusalem.”
• Nov. 18: “Gaza clash widens. Israel expands air assault against Hamas, says Tel Aviv-bound rocket was intercepted.”
• Nov. 19: “Civilian toll up in Gaza fighting. Little headway in cease-fire talks. Israeli airstrike kills 10 members of a family.”
• Nov. 20: “For Israel, choices on Gaza are stark. Mideast upheaval adds to tension. In Israel Resigned to the rockets and retaliation. In Gaza Line between militants and civilians thin.”
• Nov. 21: “Clinton joins bid to end Gaza strikes. Truce talks mired as attacks escalate; Netanyahu doesn’t rule out ground invasion.”
• Nov. 22: “Deal reached to halt Gaza fighting. Egypt brokers cease-fire; Israel-Hamas accord averts a ground war.”
• Nov. 23: “Morsi asserts broader powers.”
• Nov. 24: “Cease-fire has benefits and risks to Netanyahu. Photo with a headline: Gaza border confrontation is fatal. Caption: Palestinians retreat from a security fence on the border between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip, as an Israeli army vehicle passes by. A cease-fire that ended eight days of fighting between Israel and Hamas was largely holding Friday, but Israeli troops killed one Palestinian man and wounded 13 others, as they approached the border fence after hearing erroneous reports that restrictions on entering a buffer zone had been lifted.”
• Nov. 25: “Hamas tactics garner support. Frustration with diplomacy. Palestinians see path to victory through fighting.”
• Nov. 26: “In Gaza, caution can’t save innocents. Deaths in two families during recent conflict show limits of Israel’s warning policy.”
Douglas Jehl, the Post’s foreign editor wrote in an email to the Washington Jewish Week, “We remain committed to fairness in all aspects of our news coverage. There may be some times when some readers perceive our coverage as lacking balance, particularly such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, when passions run so strong.
“We take readers’ concerns very seriously,” he added, “and are constantly reviewing our coverage, because the Post’s credibility rests on a reputation of fairness. However, I would disagree with any suggestion of bias in the Post’s coverage and would note that our critics come from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian job.”
Pexton said that he hears from Jewish organizations and also receives letters from many different Jewish organizations when it comes to the Post’s coverage of Israel. But he said he almost never hears from Palestinian groups or individuals.
“We are always careful,” he said. “We know we have avid readers of the Post. We are always asking, ‘What’s the truth here?’ We tell it like we see it even if it offends people,” said Pexton. “I don’t see any purposeful skewing of the news or issues. It’s all about the truth.”
Pexton routinely receives more than 300 emails a day, and he does attempt to answer as many as possible. Sometimes, he’ll write his column so that he can answer a large number of readers at once. He said that 90 percent of the people he calls or emails are appreciative even if they still disagree.
And then there was the reference to “bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.”
“A lot of people were offended by it,” he said. “In retrospect, I should not have [written] it. It was a little too flip. I’m sorry. It was a little over the edge.”
The reaction to the “bee sting”
reference was filled with its own sort of venom.
Rabbi Jack Moline, spiritual leader of Agudath Achim of Alexandria and one of the nation’s most respected Conservative Movement voices said, “In spite of protestations to the contrary, the goal of the Post these days seems to be selling newspapers. As Ambassador [Michael] Oren said about the picture of the father with his dead child [unauthenticated as a result of Israeli military action], there is still nothing compelling about people sitting in a shelter. So whether or not the Post set out to be biased, the decision to run that picture and tell in words or photos other ‘compelling’ stories was a judgment of the situation.
“Other `factual’ inclusions add to that judgment, for example, references to the last conflagration in Gaza in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. For the Post to ignore the tilt that such representations create is disingenuous and calls into question their concern with objectivity. After all, standard usage in journalism these days is to call Hamas actors ‘militants’ because ‘terrorist’ is a word that prejudges a situation (one man’s ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter’ — in spite of the designation by the U.S. government of Hamas as a terrorist organization).”
Moline added that Pexton “reveals his own bias with the bee stings statement. I wrote and told him he needed to resign, he’s not an honest broker. Today is actually a very good day to challenge him on this: The incident in Newtown may have multiple challenges attached to it, but it happened due to a perfect storm of circumstances. Yet, we had reports of other schools going on lockdown because of rumor and panic. Would he contend that the murders of these children, in the scheme of things, was an isolated incident and should not be considered significant to Americans living in New Hampshire, Iowa or Oregon?”
Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he was deeply troubled by the bee sting quote.
He added that he feels the Post’s editorials and op-ed choices generally are balanced when it comes to Israel.
“When it comes to news coverage, I think the Post is weighted against Israel,” he said. “I do not think the photographs are vetted properly. Very often the picture is above the fold, and if you saw the photo you would feel empathy toward the Palestinian point of view, and chances are, you wouldn’t have made it to the article. If you flipped to the inside you would see that rockets were being shot at Sderot civilians to kill.
“Newspapers,” he said, “have to capture the moment. Even if the Post provides the proper context in a story about Israel, it is usually found at the bottom of the article.”
Halber added he is continuously troubled by the word “militant” when describing a person shooting a rocket into Israel. The word he would prefer is “terrorist.”
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in an op-ed appearing in the Nov. 28 Washington Post that Hamas has a definite media strategy. Its purpose, he wrote, “is to portray Israel’s unparalleled efforts to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza as indiscriminate firing at women and children to pervert Israel’s rightful acts of self-defense into war crimes.”
In the Post op-ed, Oren writes, “Hamas knows that it cannot destroy us militarily but believes that it might do so through the media. The ambassador added that the Post, as other major publications, produced front-page images of Palestinian suffering. There is, he wrote, an “imbalance” when it comes to writing. “The subtext,” he wrote in the Post op-ed, is clear: “Israel targets Palestinians, and Israelis merely die.”
Eric Rozenman, Washington director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, said that the ombudsman’s bee comment “infuriated people who are familiar with the news. It was an inversion of reality, a dismissal of legitimate Israeli concerns.
“There was bias at the Post before,” he continued, “but that comment pulled back the curtain to remind people of what they sensed they read in the Post.”
Rozenman sees the bee comment as part of a pattern.
“That column was a huge reminder,” he said. “I don’t think that the ombudsman is a bad guy. I just don’t think he gets it. He doesn’t necessarily see the pattern that we’ve seen in the paper for decades.”
Rozenman said that one can find photos of suffering Palestinians going back for years, but what always seems to be amiss is what he called “Palestinian aggression against Israelis.”
Rozenman, a former WJW editor, said he doesn’t think that Post staffers gather in their newsroom and discuss what they can do to make the Palestinians look good.
“It’s an institutional template,” he said, “that transcends editors who come and go, but the pattern remains.”
“You don’t get photos of Israelis,” he said, “because they are only seen as problems.”
“I have certainly never found them to lean over in a direction that heavily reflected an understanding of all the many nuances behind Israel’s actions,” said Dr. Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “Nevertheless, they have been problematic over the years; their current posture remains viewing Israel as Goliath and the Palestinians as David. That is a position that is reflective of much of the American press.”
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of B’nei Tzedek in Potomac said that the “Post has been often supportive, and sometimes surprisingly so, when it comes to the Washington-area Jewish community and Israel. But there is still a strong sense that when it comes to photo choices and placements, there’s a strong sense that they have this notion as portraying the Palestinians as underdogs and the Israelis as the aggressors.”
Concerning the bee sting quote, Weinblatt added, “It was the most obnoxious thing I’ve seen anyone write. It doesn’t meet any journalistic standard. “
Pexton said he did get his share of hate mail for the comment. But then again, he is always getting some sort of disagreement or angry correspondence. Once, he listened to a voicemail that left no verbal message, only the sound of gunshots.
He’s even heard the paper called “anti-Semitic.” Usually, he just lets people go on until they’ve made their point. He said, sometimes the discussions he has are “really ugly.”
He said that he is the “backstop and the problem-solver” for the Post. Pexton added that the Post’s Jewish readers are educated and “care about everything. They are avid newspaper readers.”
Bias against Israel?
“I do not think that is true,” he said. “I watch how our staff edits and how decisions are made. They don’t think with a bias.”
Or as Jehl wrote in an email to WJW, “I would argue that our commitment to on-the-ground reporting from around the world is one of the Post’s greatest strengths. In the latest crisis, Post reporters were dispatched to both Israel and Gaza to ensure that all aspects of the story were to be witnessed and reported. I am proud of what they accomplished.”
Moline has a different feeling, however. He said, “I don’t know if the entire Washington Post is biased against Israel.”
Still, he said, because they did not dismiss the charges with “enough energy,” he said it is likely the Post staff knows in the back of their minds that there is some truth to the allegations.