Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The New York Times and the Perils of Mideast 'Balance'

by Peter Hart
February 4, 2009

New York Times reporters Ethan Bronner and Sabrina Tavernise went to Gaza (2/4/09) to look into stories of civilian atrocities, and turned up some very powerful examples. Unfortunately, the impact of that reporting was undermined by the all-too-familiar tendency to "balance" these facts with criticisms of Palestinians.

For a piece that is attempting to get a better sense of who's "version" of events is more accurate, the Times reveals its bias from the start, rendering a white phosphorous attack on a house as a "phosphorus smoke bomb," the qualifier "smoke" helpfully suggesting that the bomb, which accidentally incinerated most of a family in their home, was being used legally as a smoke screen.

The Times underlines this point in the second graph by noting that the bomb was "intended to mask troop movements outside." According to whom? That claim is stated is as a fact, with no attribution.

The Times' reporters continue by writing:

The war in El Atatra tells the story of Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza, with each side giving a very different version. Palestinians here describe Israeli military actions as a massacre, and Israelis attribute civilian casualties to a Hamas policy of hiding behind its people.

In El Atatra, neither version appears entirely true, based on 50 interviews with villagers and four Israeli commanders. The dozen or so civilian deaths seem like the painful but inevitable outcome of a modern army bringing war to an urban space. And while Hamas fighters had placed explosives in a kitchen, on doorways and in a mosque, they did not seem to be forcing civilians to act as shields.

OK--neither side's tale is completely accurate. But after reading the Times' own account, it certainly seems that the Palestinian "version" is much closer to reality. Nonetheless, the reporters chalk up the differences as part of "a desire to shape public opinion."

The Times goes on to review--and in some cases debunk--some of the Israeli justifications, including an attack on a school and the destruction of homes. The impact of that investigative work is, yet again, diluted by the framing of the big picture:

Both sides engage in their own denials.

Israelis argue that this war was especially tough because they had waited so long before taking action in response to the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza over eight years.

Yet after Israelis withdrew their settlers and soldiers from Gaza in late 2005, they killed, over the next three years in numerous military actions here, the same number of Gazans as those killed in this war--about 1,275.

For their part, few Palestinian villagers even acknowledged the existence of fighters here. Hamas is now asserting that it achieved a victory.

Let's compare those two forms of "denial." Israelis somehow have convinced themselves that their military has been exercising unusual restraint--while killing over 1,000 people before this latest round of attacks. Palestinians, meanwhile, deny the existence of Hamas fighters in their area-- though, by the Times' own reporting, in the very same article, Israeli claims about the numbers of Hamas fighters in this given area appear to be (in some cases) unfounded.

This equivalence comes amid stories of heart-wrenching suffering--an injured baby left to die on a tractor because Israeli soldiers were firing on family members trying to get to a hospital. Why dress up that kind of reporting with this sort of "he said, she said" balance? Perhaps the sense that the truth is too one-sided.

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