Web sites potent weapon in shaping Middle East story

Activists spotlight media they say give wrong view

The media are caught in the crossfire over their Mideast coverage in a way that makes the days of the thoughtful letter or the angry call seem quaint.

Political activists are using Web sites to spotlight offending media outlets. These media watch sites offer detailed critiques of coverage, background reports on news organizations or journalists considered especially biased and suggest action for readers to take—from firing off an e-mail to planning boycotts or protest rallies.

“Unless I owned a major newspaper or a powerful TV network, would I be so effective at getting my message across?” asked Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab American Action Network, a pro-Palestinian group.

Abunimah operates ElectronicIntifada.com from Chicago. His site and that of the Palestinian Media Watch in Boston are credited with making the pro-Palestinian cause more prominent with the media in recent years through letters to editors, op-ed pieces and appearances on talk shows.

In Jerusalem, Lenny Ben-Davis, former second in command at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., reads the online editions of a handful of major U.S. newspapers and dispatches his electronic critiques before the bundles of newspapers have been tossed off the trucks in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

The 30,000 subscribers to honestreporting.com are then urged to bombard the offending news organization.

“Our purpose at HonestReporting.com is to be a platform, an outlet, to the frustration that people have out there to how Israel is being portrayed in the media,” said Sharon Tzur, director of Media Watch International, which runs the site. Media Watch also monitors the press in Italy, Russia and Argentina.

Tzur said after months of mostly e-mail protests to the editorial side of the news organizations, temples and synagogues are trying to get management’s attention through subscription boycotts, protests to advertisers or withholding of funding to listener supported radio stations.

“The majority of the correspondence we have received believes we are pro-Palestinian, but we have received correspondence from people on both sides of the issue,” said Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman at The New York Times.

Mathis declined to provide the number of lost subscribers but said she couldn’t recall any other topic that has provoked such an intense reaction.

A one-week boycott of the Washington Post in June is being organized by a Web site called BoycottThePost.org, which claims the paper has an anti-Israel bias.

WBUR, a National Public Radio station in Boston, estimates it has already lost $1 million, about 4 percent of its budget, in canceled pledges, withdrawal of underwriters and new sponsors failing to sign on specifically because of Middle East coverage.

Other public radio stations around the country have had some drop in financial support but none has been targeted like the Boston station.

“We’ve estimated that it could be as high as $2 million by the end of our fiscal year on June 30,” said Mary Stohn, a WBUR spokeswoman.

Democratized concerns

“The fact is that e-mails have democratized people’s concerns about the news media,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman for NPR, which has gotten 9,000 e-mails on the Middle East in the past three months.

While a good number of e-mails are from thoughtful individuals with a valid beef, ombudsmen have said the bulk are orchestrated campaigns or “cut and paste” complaints from media monitoring sites.

“E-mail has amplified the ability of the public to do this but I am not sure it has made their cause more effective,” Dvorkin said.

Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post, said there are several reasons for the high volume of complaints.

“Part of this is an effort to intimidate, part of it is to shift the focus from Israel’s actions to the newspaper’s actions and part of it is critiquing, which has some value and which editors should pay attention to,” Getler said.

Formerly foreign news editor, Getler writes a weekly column addressing reader complaints and has been critical sometimes of the Post’s coverage.

Many links

The media watchdog sites also have numerous links that allow readers to read and compare coverage of news organizations worldwide. This often prompts complaints about why certain events were not covered or reported with a different angle or emphasis.

Andrea Levine, head of CAMERA, a Boston-based media watchdog group, said it is more difficult now to talk back to the media about the Middle East.

“It is much more complicated now, a much more sweeping problem. If there is a mistake about UN resolution 242 that is straightforward, it can be fixed the next day. This is a much deeper criticism,” she said.

For the first time, editors and ombudsmen say, Palestinian groups are showing that they have learned the ropes of getting the media to pay attention.

“Most of the Arabs and Muslims are recent immigrants and they are not in the tradition of writing letters. They are smart, articulate and educated but not heard,” said Ahmed Bouzid, president of Palestine Media Watch.

Recently on the site, Bouzid urged that the media be pressured to produce more stories on continuing Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

While supporters of Israel contend that U.S. coverage is slanted to favor the Palestinians, Bouzid praised the coverage for being “more nuanced and a little more into the Palestinian sufferings.” But, he said, “the basic narrative is not challenged, it has not changed. Why always say the Palestinians are initiating the terrorism?”

Levine, who prefers a “behind the scenes” telephone call or a letter, is concerned that the “cacophony of voices and legitimate and illegitimate criticism being flung around does muddy the issues.” However, CAMERA’s long-time complaints about NPR have been ignored, she said, forcing the group to demand the firing of the foreign news editor. “NPR is a chronic problem,” she said.

In turn, Dvorkin accused CAMERA “of a kind of McCarthyism to go after an individual like that.” Dvorkin called CAMERA’s efforts to undercut NPR funding as a “deeply unhealthy gesture.”

Rita Ciolli is a staff writer for Newsday.