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Boycotting the media

American Jews are expressing their dissatisfaction with media coverage of the Middle East by suspending their subscriptions to leading newspapers, starting with The New York Times

By Nathan Guttman

WASHINGTON - Jewish communities in cities across the U.S. have organized boycotts of almost all of the country's leading newspapers. A month-long boycott against The New York Times sponsored by groups of New York City Jews should end soon; The Washington Post could face a similar protest next month; The Los Angeles Times has had subscriptions suspended by more than 1,000 readers; and the Chicago Tribune has struggled with a wave of canceled subscriptions and protest letters.

A series of local initiatives undertaken by Jewish communities across America led to these boycott efforts. Mainstream American Jewish organizations have not officially endorsed the boycotts; and yet the protesters feel as though the boycotts have gotten a message across, and yielded results.

The most conspicuous measure was The New York Times boycott, spearheaded by New York City Orthodox activists Haskell Lookstein and Eli Scharf. The pair of rabbis decided to take action against what they consider The New York Times' anti-Israel bias. "The goal is for them to end this balance between the murderers and the murdered - for instance, when a young woman blew up a bomb in a supermarket [in Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel neightborhood - N.G.], and killed a young Jewish woman, they wrote one article about the two young ladies. That's atrocious," claims Rabbi Lookstein, who heads Manhattan's Kehilath Jeshurun.

But what really precipitated the protest against The New York Times was its coverage of an Israel solidarity rally staged in the city. The newspaper's editors chose pictures that showed a Palestinian counter-demonstration, which involved just a few hundred protesters; the Jewish rally, in which thousands took part, could be seen only in the background in the photo layout.

Although the editors acknowledged in print the next day that they had erred in the choice of a picture, the boycott was already in the works. Its organizers estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 readers answered their call, and canceled subscriptions to the paper for a month. "I don't want to destroy The New York Times; instead, I want them to understand the way we feel," Rabbi Lookstein says.

New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis confirms that the paper received a number of complaints from readers, but confirms that its policy is to maintain balance. "Our task is to cover all the sides, without partisanship or emotional involvement," Mathis said. The newspaper is not ignoring the Jewish protest; in fact, it invited the boycott organizers for a meeting with its editors, in which the various complaints were aired. The boycotters claim that results of their protest can already be felt; as evidence, they note that three photographs, including one on the front page, showed
the last terror strike at Rishon Letzion.

The Washington Post is also under fire. A group of Jewish readers is using the Internet to organize a temporary boycott, starting June. "The newspaper surveys positively the terrorists' positions, and uses misleading headlines to slant the coverage and distort objective facts," the boycotters' site declares. The site provides a number of examples of what its organizers regard as anti-Israeli bias.

In addition to subscription cancellations, protest actions include flooding newsapers with phone calls and letters to protest coverage against Israel. Demonstrations have even been staged in front of newspaper offices. The Chicago Tribune has experienced various forms of protest since the start of the intifada. Among other things, readers have complained that the paper refrains from using the word "terrorist" to describe armed Palestinians.

"We are very careful about the use of the word `terrorist,' and apply it only to those who carry out acts of terror," says Timothy J. McNulty, associate managing director for foreign affairs at the Chicago Tribune.

This explanation does not satisfy all of the newspaper's readers. Twice, groups of Jewish readers have demonstrated in front of the newspaper's offices in Chicago. "I think that our coverage is balanced and fair," says McNulty. "From the standpoint of those who complain, the goal of pressure exerted against the newspaper isn't to cause us to be balanced, but rather to make us pro-Israel," says McNulty.

Jews who remonstrate against American newspaper coverage of the Middle East are not only unhappy about what they regard as unwarranted "balance" between the two sides in the dispute. They charge that the media adopts Palestinian claims without verifying facts, and also that newspapers do not apply the same standards in coverage of Palestinians and Israelis. They also object to fragmentary coverage of terror strikes against Israelis, and about the newspapers' greater willingness to run human interest stories about Palestinian, as opposed to Israeli, suffering.

The common denominator in these boycott efforts is their independent, spontaneous character. They are run virtually in defiance of the established organizations which represent Jewish communities. While the organizations are reluctant to endorse formal sanctions such as boycotts, members of the communities are willing to do so independently, using synagogues, newspapers advertisements, and e-mail connections. Information compiled by Camera, a media watchdog group, regarding media bias against Israel supplies these local efforts with ammunition for protest actions against the newspapers.

Israeli officials refrain from endorsing these boycott campaigns. A diplomat in the Israel Embassy in Washington said that Israel often has criticism about media coverage, but does not encourage boycott campaigns.

Radio also draws fire

Accompanying complaints about bias in the print media, protests have been made against National Public Radio. Jewish groups in the U.S. argue that NPR's coverage of Middle East events is blatantly pro-Palestinian; the Camera organization has even demanded that NPR's foreign affairs editor be dismissed because of his anti-Israel bias.

As a public radio station, NPR depends upon government funds and listener donations. There have been reports about decreased donations for NPR in various areas since these protest actions were started. Some believe that several long-standing Jewish NPR donors have withheld money of late.

Source: Ha'aretz




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