Pro-Israel groups, angry at how the media are portraying their country
in the Mideast conflict, are battling back with boycotts and e-mail campaigns.
In the past few weeks, subscriptions have been canceled or suspended at
several of the country's largest newspapers -- including The Chronicle, the
New York Times and the Los Angeles Times -- in protest of what some readers
perceive as an anti-Israel bias.
I wonder if a lot of people who are upset about bias at the New York Times
and the San Francisco Chronicle aren't really upset with the news. It's not that they're biased, it's that the images tell an accurate
story, and they don't like that story being told.
The groups are most upset when the large newspapers do not cover their
protests but report on pro-Palestinian demonstrations. For their part,
newspaper editors say issues of bias arise whenever news organizations tackle
a polarizing topic.
More than 1,000 people suspended their subscriptions to the Los Angeles
Times last month, the paper reported, and another e-mail campaign attempted to
make Wednesday "Cancel your subscription to the New York Times Day."
Reader complaints are pouring in to other metropolitan papers, as well.
Last fall, pro-Israel demonstrators picketed the Chicago Tribune on two
occasions and a handful of people protested outside the Miami Herald.
At The Chronicle, roughly 70 people have canceled their subscriptions in
protest, including five Tuesday who objected to a four-page special guide to
the conflict. A 14-member delegation of local Jewish groups met with Chronicle
editors Wednesday to discuss their grievances. Hundreds of others, on both
sides of the Mideast conflict, have written to the paper to complain about
"In the mainstream Jewish community, there's been simmering disappointment
and anger over The Chronicle's Mideast coverage," said Michael Futterman, who
chairs the Middle East strategy committee of the Jewish Community Relations
Council, a coalition of 80 Bay Area synagogues and Jewish organizations.
Futterman said that the anger hit a "boiling point" when the Chronicle did not
cover a pro-Israel rally in San Francisco on April 14.
The San Francisco Examiner covered the event on its front page, estimating
that 5,000 people participated. That same week, Futterman noted, The Chronicle
covered a far smaller pro-Palestinian rally.
"It was astounding to people," he said. "It confirmed a lot of the worst
Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein said the paper erred in not
covering the rally, echoing an assertion that the paper's reader
representative, Dick Rogers, made in a column April 21: "We should have
"We're fallible -- absolutely fallible," Bronstein said. "We make mistakes.
But it does not equate to bias."
Adding fuel to the fire, on the same day Rogers' remarks appeared, the
paper had a page one story on a pro-Palestinian rally that attracted 20,000
people to the Civic Center.
Bronstein said the complaints and canceled subscriptions constitute "a
useful and instructive period for us."
The absence of a story on the rally provided a touchstone for debate, but
supporters of both Israel and the Palestinians have found other coverage to
complain about. A headline on April 28 referred to the Palestinians' "bold
attack on Israelis," drawing ire from those who saw "bold" as a positive
Other papers' failure to cover similar rallies also provoked reactions. In
New York, an April 21 prayer vigil attracted what the New York Post reported
was an estimated 50,000 Jews, but the New York Times did not cover it.
Likewise, the Los Angeles Times did not cover a rally in its home city on
April 6, inciting protest.
Editors at the New York Times were not available for comment, but company
spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said in an e-mail, "Our staff is instructed to
cover all sides of the story thoroughly and with scrupulous impartiality."
Mathis did not comment Wednesday on how many people suspended or canceled
subscriptions, but organizers of the protest said they hoped for thousands.
Rabbi Avi Weiss at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx and the
national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, one of the organizers
of the boycott, said he's going after New York Times advertisers as well.
The Times is "virtually unaccountable," said Weiss, who organized the large
pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. last month. "The unevenhandedness is
It's not just pro-Israel readers who scrutinize coverage.
"I've seen some bad reporting towards the Palestinians, from the pro-
Israeli side," said Hanan Rasheed of Danville, national executive secretary of
the Palestinian National Congress. "The whole story is not coming out."
Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or
FAIR, a media watchdog organization in New York, said the media has long
showed a pro-Israel bias.
"I wonder if a lot of people who are upset about bias at the New York Times
and the San Francisco Chronicle aren't really upset with the news," Rendall
said. "It's not that they're biased, it's that the images tell an accurate
story, and they don't like that story being told."
Scrutiny can be good for coverage, according to Steven Brill, a Newsweek
columnist who founded Brill's Content, a now defunct magazine that monitored
the media. If it makes editors more careful, "I don't think that's bad," Brill
said. "As long as 'be careful' doesn't mean 'be cautious.' "
Juan Vasquez, world editor of the Miami Herald, agreed.
"We can't afford to be sloppy on the most minute detail," Vasquez said.
"For example, if we do a story in which a suicide bomber kills 10 people and
himself or herself, we can't say he killed 11. Our readers will catch that. We
make a separate statement, 'killing himself and 10 victims.' That's fair
enough, although I don't think that's going to change anyone's mind."
Some media watchers and journalists say the press can't win when it comes
to the Mideast.
Peter Waldman, a reporter in the Wall Street Journal's San Francisco bureau,
who covered the Middle East for the paper from 1990 to 1996, said he spent 10
percent of his time dealing with complaints of bias.
"It's a perennial problem for people writing about the Middle East,"
Waldman said. "I was always deluged with mail."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle