Report on Washington Post “Bias”

July 08, 2003

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-- Tom Gross


Groups accuse Washington Post of bias against and in favor of Israel
By Jeff Johnson
Congressional Bureau Chief

A pro-Israel media watchdog group Monday called for a "seven-day subscription and advertising suspension" boycott against the Washington Post, accusing the newspaper of slanting its coverage in favor of Arab terrorists. A Palestinian group that also monitors media coverage of the Middle East conflict agrees that the Post is biased, but in favor of Israel rather than Arabs who desire the creation of a Palestinian state.

"For some reason, if it's al Qaeda, Hamas or Hezbollah attacking America, they're 'terrorists,' but if they're attacking Israel or Jews, they're 'militants,'" said Peter Hebert, a member of the board of "That's a real problem; words do have meanings."

A Nexis database search of recent Post articles seems to support Hebert's claim. For instance, in a July 4 article, John Ward Anderson chose not to identify Palestinian civilians who used military weapons to attack Israeli civilians as terrorists.

"Palestinian militants fired rockets at a small Jewish settlement in the central Gaza Strip late Wednesday, and Israeli troops responded today by temporarily closing the strip's recently reopened main road..." Anderson wrote.

But that same day, Post writer John Mintz reported on the possibility of military tribunals for accused members of al Qaeda.

"President Bush designated six suspected al Qaeda terrorists as eligible for trial before military tribunals yesterday...," Mintz reported.

Hebert claims the bias against Israel at the Post and in other establishment media outlets in the U.S. is not limited to terminology. He points to a July 29 article by Post writer Molly Moore entitled "Israel's Lethal Weapon of Choice: As Assassinations of Militants Increase, Citizens' Uneasiness Grows."

"It's in the headline," he said, the frustration evident in his voice. "Militants? No, I'm sorry. These are terrorists."

Moore's article noted the fact that 33-year-old Abdel Rahman Hamad "was shot dead by a sniper as he sat on his roof reading the Koran" and that 27-year-old Mohammad Abayat "was killed when he picked up the receiver of a pay phone that blew up outside a hospital where he was visiting his sick mother."

The story identifies the two men as "suspected Palestinian militants" but makes no mention of evidence linking them to specific terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians or their ties to known terrorist organizations.

The report also recalled: "The toll of civilian bystanders and others killed who were not intended targets of the [Israeli assassination] missions increased 2 1/2 times during the same period." No mention was made of the number of Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians in suicide bombings and other types of terrorist attacks.

"There's a sympathetic portrayal of Palestinian terrorists who become targets of Israeli assassinations," Hebert argued, noting that the U.S. has been pursuing a nearly identical policy of targeting members of Saddam Hussein's former regime in Iraq. "We're not going after 'militants,' we're going after 'terrorists.'"

Hebert accused Moore and Anderson of being "the most notoriously biased writers at the Post."

"Israel is being cast in a negative light because Israel is trying to do the two things any government on earth is supposed to do," Hebert argued, "protect its borders from external threat and ensure law and order within."


Ahmed Bouzid, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Palestine Media Watch (PMW), told that he does not believe the Washington Post is "biased, as such," but said the newspaper's reporting is often "lacking."

"For instance, you have coverage that presents the news out of Israel and the 'occupied territories' with a certain slant, even if the slant is not intentional, we think that the reporting is flawed," Bouzid said. "Not 'biased' in the sense that somebody is trying to present a certain picture, but flawed."

In its own analysis of the Post's coverage, PMW criticized the publication for the use of the terms "retaliate" and "retaliation" to refer to Israeli actions against Palestinians.

"Framing the violence from the Israelis as 'retaliation' or 'reaction' is a way of saying or conveying the message that the Israelis are only defending themselves, which is a way of framing the coverage that pushes one picture versus another," Bouzid complained.

The same type of bias is evident, he claimed, in the Post's use of the words "vigilante" versus "terrorist."

"When Palestinians engage in what is clearly terrorism, they call it 'terrorism,' which is accurate," Bouzid admitted. "But when some [Israeli] settler engages in terrorism, in other words, terrorizes a Palestinian civilian, it's not called 'terrorism,' it's called a 'vigilante act.'"

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, considered by most news organizations to be the final authority on matters of journalistic linguistics, makes no mention of appropriate uses of the words "terror, terrorism or terrorist." Nor does it address the use of the terms "militant" or "vigilante."

The AP does define the phrase "Middle East" as applying to "southwest Asia west of Pakistan and Afghanistan (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Yemen, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen), northeastern Africa (Egypt and Sudan) and the island of Cyprus." No mention is made of "Palestine."


Telephone calls to Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler were not returned Monday afternoon, but Getler criticized Moore's July 4, 2003, story on Israel's attempts to stop suicide attacks against its citizens through preemptive assassinations of the terrorist leaders who plan those attacks.

"[I]t is indeed hard to understand why this lengthy article did not state clearly, and with whatever precision was available, that many hundreds of Israelis (821, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry) have been killed in suicide bombings and other violent attacks since September 2000 and that almost 5,000 have been injured or maimed," Getler wrote in a July 6 column.

"This is clearly part of the anguish and anger that fuel this brutal and seemingly endless conflict, and it needs to be explained, just as the Palestinian side is explained, in more than passing terms in an article of this length and interest," Getler wrote.

Getler has also taken the staff of the newspaper he represents to task in the past for their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Critics who see an anti-Israeli bias claim that the Post frequently fails to point out that organizations such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which carry out terror attacks, do not want an end just to the occupation but to Israel as well," Getler wrote in a June 9, 2002, response on the paper's editorial page. "That, in my view, is a fair criticism."

One day later, Post "Media Notes" writer Howard Kurtz commented on a decision to change the identification of a supporter of a Palestinian terrorist attending that terrorist's funeral.

"In April [2002], the [predecessor to] notes, the Post picked up a quote from the Associated Press - 'Sharon 'should expect all doors of hell to break loose, vowed one masked militant' but changed the attribution to 'one of the mourners,'" Kurtz acknowledged.

"Phil Bennett, assistant managing editor for foreign news, says such criticism has prompted the paper to be more careful about language, such as not describing killings as 'retaliation' so the Post doesn't seem to 'implicitly justify attacks,'" Kurtz said.


Neither Bouzid nor Hebert seems interested in hurting the Washington Post financially. Both appear interested only in gaining what they believe is unbiased coverage of one of the most significant civilian and military conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

"The point is not whether you are anti-Israel or anti-Palestine," Bouzid said. "The point is, are you doing your job correctly?"

Hebert is adamant that his group does not want readers to cancel their subscriptions to the paper.

"That is not our goal... a change in behavior is fine," he said.

"Use the word 'terrorist' when the word 'terrorist' is appropriate. If the word 'militant' is appropriate, okay, that's fine," Hebert concluded. "If Israeli soldiers do something inappropriate, then report it, tell the truth. But don't cast Israel in a negative light for engaging in self-defense."

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.