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The Perversions of Daniel Okrent

by ALISON WEIR

A little over a week ago, some members of our organization, If Americans Knew, met with New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent to discuss the findings of a detailed study we had completed of two years worth of Times news stories on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Okrent was going to be writing a column discussing the paper’s coverage of Israel/Palestine, and we felt our study would be an important resource. Using a PowerPoint presentation, we explained our findings and gave him copies of the 23-page report, along with approximately 40 pages of supporting documentation. In order to find as clear and objective a measure as possible, our studies examine how news organizations report deaths among both populations, Israelis and Palestinian. Basically, we simply count the deaths reported on both sides of the conflict, and then compare these to the actual number of deaths that had occurred. It is our view that all deaths are equally tragic regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity; we hoped that the Times shared that perspective. Findings Our statistical analysis of their coverage, however, showed that there was startling disparity in how deaths were reported, depending on the ethnicity of the victim. For example, we found that in 2004, at a time when 8 Israeli children and 176 Palestinian children were killed – a ratio of 1 to 22 – Times headlines and lead paragraphs reported on Israeli children’s deaths at a rate almost seven times greater than Palestinian children’s deaths. A one-month sub-study indicated that this disparity grew even larger when the entire article was analyzed, with Israeli children’s deaths mentioned (through repetitions of deaths reported on previous days) at a rate ten times greater than Palestinian children’s deaths. Times coverage of deaths of all ages, while less dramatically skewed, showed similar distortion. In the first year of the current Palestinian uprising, which began in fall of 2000, we discovered that the Times reported prominently on 42 percent of Palestinian deaths, and on 119 percent of Israeli deaths (follow-up headline articles, we find, frequently push coverage of Israeli deaths over 100 percent). In other words, the Times reported Israeli deaths at a rate approximately three times greater than Palestinian deaths. During this period over three times more Palestinians were being killed than Israelis. Overall, we found that in every single category Times coverage reported Israeli deaths at rates three or more times greater than Palestinian deaths. Such patterns of distortion gave readers the impression that equal numbers of people on both sides were being killed – or that more Israelis were being killed – when the reality is that Palestinians have always been killed in far greater numbers. In particular, we found that Times stories so often repeated reports of Israeli children’s deaths that in some periods they were reporting on Israeli deaths at a rate of 400 percent. In contrast, the majority of Palestinian deaths – particularly children’s deaths – were never reported by the Times at all. According to Israeli human rights groups and others who assiduously gather data on all children killed in the conflict, at least 82 Palestinian children were killed before any Israeli children were killed – and the largest single cause of these Palestinian children’s deaths was “gunfire to the head.” Yet, almost no one is aware of this, since Times coverage consistently omitted or minimized coverage of these Palestinian deaths. In other words, we found that New York Times coverage of Israel-Palestine exhibited highly disturbing patterns of bias. To make matters worse, since the Times is often considered “the newspaper of record,” with hundreds of newspapers subscribing to the New York Times News Service, the paper’s distortions become replicated throughout the country. Unintentionally, editors around the country are reporting this issue with a distortion based on ethnicity that most would oppose, if they were aware that they were doing it. New York Times Reaction We presented these findings, complete with charts, spread-sheets, clear sourcing, and extensive additional documentation, to Okrent and his assistant. We gave him the names and details of 32 Palestinian children who had been killed during the first month of the uprising – none of whom had been the subject of Times’ articles. (28 of these children, it was found, had been killed by gunfire to the head or chest.) Okrent appeared to accept our findings readily – even commenting at one of our findings that he “wasn’t surprised.” His subsequent column, purporting to examine Times coverage of Israel-Palestine, given all of the above, is perplexing. There is no mention whatsoever of our report, no mention of our two-year study, no mention of the 40-some pages of supporting evidence, no mention, even, of our lengthy face-to-face meeting (despite the fact that it appears we were one of the few groups to present our information in person). In his 1,762-word column, there are a total of three mentions of us. One is an off-hand sentence claiming that we “say” that the Times “ignores” the deaths of Palestinian children, whom, we “say” are often shot in the head or chest by Israeli soldiers. Instead of this loose, somewhat flawed paraphrase, Okrent could simply have quoted our report directly, perhaps even mentioning our substantial evidence. One wonders why he didn’t. A second reference, potentially damaging, significantly misrepresents what we said. (We have phoned the Times asking for a correction and space for rebuttal to Okrent’s allegations.) In his column, Okrent writes: “During my research, representatives of If Americans Knew expressed the belief that unless the paper assigned equal numbers of Muslim and Jewish reporters to cover the conflict, Jewish reporters should be kept off the beat. I find this profoundly offensive.” Actually, Okrent is referring to his own words at the meeting, not ours. Let us tell you the complete version. It is quite illuminating. Even before we had finished presenting our findings, Okrent interrupted to ask us why there was such distortion in Times coverage, what was causing the bias. He asked what we would suggest doing about it. I replied that I wondered if there was a lack of diversity in the reporters and editors working on the issue. I pointed out that since this was a conflict between a state whose identity and purpose of existence was to be a Jewish state, it seemed to me that the number of Jewish-American reporters covering it should be balanced by approximately an equal number of Arab/Muslim-American reporters, or that there be reporters and editors working on it – for example, Asian-American or African-American journalists – without predisposition to partisanship toward either side. Okrent said that it was impossible to find equal numbers of Arab/Muslim journalists of sufficiently high quality to balance out the number of Jewish reporters available to cover it, and ignored the suggestion that other groups be included in the reportorial/editorial pool. He said that there shouldn’t be an “ethnic litmus test” and that Jewish reporters shouldn’t be excluded just because there weren’t enough Muslims for the Times to employ. I agreed with him that there should not be a litmus test, and then asked him if he thought only Jewish reporters could cover it. No, he said, the problem, he felt, was that Times reporters only lived in Israel and didn’t live in the Palestinian territories. He then said that when he had suggested to reporters that they also live in the West Bank or Gaza, a person he “trusted” told him that this was too dangerous; they would be kidnapped. I then said that he needed to reconsider the reliability of this anonymous person, since I myself had traveled throughout Gaza and the West Bank as a freelance reporter without any danger from the Palestinian population. Finally, I said that fundamentally it was up to the Times to figure out how to improve their system of reporting – that I only saw the results. I said that we had provided free outside consultation, had found patterns I was sure they would find as disturbing as we did, and that it was now up to the Times to determine and remedy the cause. Overall, I found this exchange bizarre. We had expected some questions about our study, its methodology, what additional patterns we had noticed, etc. Almost none of this took place. On the other hand, we came away with the very strong impression that Okrent, who is himself Jewish, felt basically that only Jewish reporters could cover this issue and that, while their reporting would be more accurate if some of them lived in the West Bank or Gaza, they probably wouldn’t do this because it would be too dangerous for them (despite the fact that such Jewish Israeli journalists as Amira Haas have lived there for years). The fact that it could be both possible and valuable to have additional ethnic groups involved in covering this issue, including some without ethnic connection to this ethnic dispute, seemed incomprehensible to him. Finally, we were astounded at his assumption that it would be impossible for the Times to find sufficient numbers of high quality journalists of Muslim or Arab heritage to work on this issue. Still disturbed at the oddness of this meeting, afterwards I sent a follow-up email again explaining my view. I will print it below:

Email to Dan Okrent Dear Dan, Thank you for meeting with us, and for your willingness to take on what is certainly one of the most volatile issues in the news today — and one of the most urgent. I hope our study will help alert the New York Times to patterns of omission that I’m sure you find as disturbing as we do. Regarding your important question about what changes I would suggest: Truthfully, it is difficult for me to offer solutions, since I only see the results, and have no idea what the internal dynamics are of the Times’ reporting and editing that have created these patterns. It seems to me that news organizations themselves, once alerted to flaws in their coverage, are in the best position to undertake thorough analyses of the causation, and then to implement whatever changes are required. I suspect that your idea that coverage would improve greatly if reporters lived in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Israel is quite correct. One possibility, of course, is that the Times could hire some of the excellent Palestinian journalists living in these areas. When I visited Birzeit University a few months ago, I met a professor and a number of students in the journalism department that I found quite impressive. I haven’t visited any journalism departments in Gaza, but I did visit some classes in American literature at Islamic University in Gaza City in 2001, and found a level of teaching equivalent to the finest in US universities. At the same time, of course, it is important that those editing these reports be as unpartisan as possible — which, I suspect, requires that those in this position have diverse backgrounds. While I’m not Jewish, I can imagine similar situations in which I might believe that I had arrived at a neutral position, not realizing that I was still influenced by what my mother had believed, or what my aunt would say, or the narrative I had absorbed as a child — in other words, I might write and edit within parameters that would interfere with the accuracy of my work. Finally, below is some more recent information about the disturbing — and unreported, in the Times — pattern of Israeli forces shooting and abusing children and other civilians. 1. Here is the link to the Remember These Children information: http://www.rememberthesechildren.org/remember2000.html. Again, please note the high number of young people shot in the head, neck, and chest in 2004 and 2005. Please ask Mr. Erlanger why Times’ readers have not learned of these patterns. At least 29 Palestinian children have already been killed through March of this year, and one Israeli child. As you know, several more Palestinian young people have been killed this month. 2. The fact that Israeli forces have been targeting children and civilians has been noted in diverse reports. For example, Physicians for Human Rights reported: “Physicians for Human Rights analysis of fatal gunshot wounds in Gaza reveals that approximately 50% were to the head. This high proportion of fatal head wounds suggests that given broad rules of engagement, soldiers are specifically aiming at peoples’ heads.” Following are a few of the excellent and thorough articles on this topic that have appeared in the Israeli press, and some of the human rights reports on this topic. Gideon Levy article from Ha’aretz, “Suffer the Little Children”: http://www.dcipal.org/english/ Another Gideon Levy article (I highly recommend his column ‘twilight zone’): http://www.jerusalemites.org/ Defence for Children International report: “Status of Palestinian Children’s Rights” … http://www.dcipal.org/english/ Report on child prisoners: http://www.dcipal.org/ 3. I understand that Times reporters are reluctant to spend much time in the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, I would like to offer to personally take Times reporters to visit Palestinian hospitals to verify the high number of young people being shot by Israeli forces. In return, it would be excellent if Times’ reporters would then take me to visit Israeli prisons, so that we might investigate the conditions in which Palestinian prisoners — particularly children — are being kept. Again, thanks for your time. It was nice seeing you again — it has certainly resurrected many memories of Ann Arbor and The Michigan Daily. Best Wishes, Alison

Okrent’s Admission (As the last sentence of this email indicates, Dan Okrent and I were friends and fellow student journalists many years ago.) In his column, Okrent makes one other statement purportedly about us, but that actually seems to be a veiled confession: “I don’t think any of us can be objective about our own claimed objectivity.” Given that admission, it seems that it would have been appropriate for Okrent to at least note the existence of our statistical study, so that his readers could examine our findings for themselves. Truthfully, however, it is not rare for newspapers to cover up negative information about their organization, and for their ombudsmen to participate in the attempt to suppress such information. Fortunately, however, the internet provides an increasingly effective counter to such media censorship; this study, and others, are all available for viewing and downloading from our website: http://www.ifamericansknew.org/ We hope that anyone who feels Americans should be accurately informed on all topics – including Israel-Palestine – will tell others about these studies. ALISON WEIR is executive director of If Americans Knew. Some of her most recent work can be found in Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories (Seven Stories Press). Copies of Off the Charts: New York Times Coverage of Israeli and Palestinian Deaths can be ordered from contact@ifamericansknew.org .

 

Alison Weir is executive director of  If Americans Knew and president of the Council for the National Interest. An excerpt of her book was published in the March 21-23, 2014 issue of CounterPunch. Upcoming book talks can be seen on the book’s website.

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