Some U.S. Backers of Israel Boycott Dailies Over Mideast Coverage

Intense public reaction to coverage of the violence of the Middle East conflict has prompted unusually harsh attacks on several news media outlets and has led to boycotts of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

Broadcast news operations, including CNN and National Public Radio, have also been criticized. The general manager of one public radio station, WBUR-FM in Boston, said it had lost more than $1 million in underwriting and pledges this year � nearly 4 percent of its annual budget � because some supporters of Israel encouraged people not to give.

The criticism has come largely from supporters of Israel, and it reached a climax in recent weeks in the aftermath of the suicide bombing at a Passover seder in Netanya, which killed 28 Israelis, and the subsequent incursion by Israeli troops into West Bank cities like Ramallah, Bethelehem and Jenin, where the destruction of homes and loss of life among Palestinians was highly visible.

The swift communications of the Internet era apparently help fan the intensity of the criticism.

For instance, an account of supposedly anti-Israel remarks made by a CNN correspondent in Jerusalem was widely circulated, despite what Eason Jordan, the chief news executive of CNN, said were denials by the correspondent. Mr. Jordan said he could find up to 6,000 e-mail messages protesting coverage in his in-box in a single day.

The network, Mr. Jordan said, has as high a household penetration in Israel as anywhere in the world. It is being more closely watched right now, when, he said, Israeli sympathizers believe “that Israel is literally in a fight for its life.” He added, “One of the only things that Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon have in common is they both think CNN is biased toward the opposite side.”

The coverage by The New York Times has been condemned by rabbis in several congregations.

Pictures, headlines and photo captions have all been denounced, but the boycotters’ most fundamental complaints are that in their view The Times creates a false equivalence between the sides in the conflict and gives disproportionate attention to Palestinian suffering.

Critics of The Times dispatched hundreds of e-mail messages and angry commentary earlier this month when it published a front-page photograph of the Salute to Israel parade in Manhattan that showed a small group of pro-Palestinian counterdemonstrators in the foreground and pro-Israeli marchers and their supporters in the background.

Since the pro-Israeli marchers and supporters numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and the pro-Palestinian group in the hundreds, the photograph and a pair of related photographs in the Metro section reinforced the critics’ impression that The Times was straining to create a sense of equivalence.

An editors’ note the next day said, “In fairness the total picture presentation should have better reflected The Times’s reporting on the scope of the event, including the disparity in the turnouts.”

The boycott of The Times began on May 1 and is planned to last until the end of the month. Readers were urged by American Jewish figures critical of The Times’ coverage to cancel subscriptions for a month.

Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for The New York Times Company, said the boycott had resulted in cancellations, but would not say how many.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who is one of the organizers of the boycott, said in an interview this week, “Pictures appeared in The Times day after day, especially during Operation Defensive Shield, of suffering Palestinians, with no comparative pictures about suffering Israelis.”

He added, “Is it O.K. to keep writing things on suffering Palestinians who are suffering because of the terrorism of their colleagues and not to give sufficient attention to the victims of terror?”

Avi Weiss, the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, said articles like the one detailing the lives of both a teenage Palestinian suicide bomber and the teenage Israeli woman who was her victim reflected a skewed moral equivalence.

“The Times may feel this is necessary to present balance,” he said. “I would suggest there is no moral equivalence between cold-blooded murder and self-defense.”

Howell Raines, executive editor of The Times, responding to the boycott, said: “We respect our readers’ right to express their opinion. We are unhappy whenever we lose a single reader.”

He added: “Our plan for future coverage is to continue it within The Times’s traditions of fairness and balance. We feel that the coverage thus far has met our standards in this regard, and we will remain vigilant to make sure that continues to be the case.”

Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week, is a critic of The Times’s coverage. But in a May 10 editorial in his paper, which has tens of thousands of subscribers, he opposed the boycott.

“We need more constructive criticism, more marshaling of information, more voices speaking out for fair reporting,” he wrote, “not a call to shut ourselves off from reporting and opinions we don’t want to deal with.”

Other newspapers face similar criticism. A portion of the Web site, which is encouraging a one-week boycott of The Washington Post in June, complained that the newspaper “presents both sides of the conflict as if each were equally valid and credible.”

A brief boycott of The Los Angeles Times in April resulted in the one-day stoppage of 1,200 deliveries, according to Martha Goldstein, a spokeswoman for the newspaper.

At other newspapers, editors agree that the intensity of the criticism has steadily increased. James O’Shea, the managing editor of The Chicago Tribune, said: “It’s not looking at coverage over all over a period of months and asking, ‘Is there balance?’ It’s finding headlines, pictures, looking at the placement of a story and picking apart those elements.”

While the the pro-Israeli Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or Camera, studies newpapers for evidence of bias, Palestine Media Watch has been monitoring the coverage of newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Like pro-Israeli critics, the pro-Palestian groups focus on issues of balance and equivalence and on common vocabulary. Ahmed T. Bouzid, the president of Palestine Media Watch, argued, among other things, that the word retaliation was often used about Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets, which, he said, “frames it as a reaction to something, not an action initiated by Israelis.” He said he was pushing to eliminate mediocre journalism, not charging bias.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, echoed such criticism, but said he would not encourage a boycott. To do “what the Jewish community has done, to incite their members to boycott, to feel so injured that people work themselves into a lather over press coverage does damage to the possibility of discourse,” he said.

© 2002 The New York Times