Amnesty Report Prompts Damage Control at the Times

The New York Times has placed its pro-Israel bias on display today in a clumsy and transparent attempt to play down a report by Amnesty International. In doing so it stands apart from other media worldwide and from its own coverage of former Amnesty reports.

On page 9 of the print edition readers find this headline: “Palestinian Found Dead After Standoff With Israelis.” Above the story is a photo spanning four columns showing an apparently angry crowd of mourners at a funeral. The message is this: Here is the Palestinian street, seething and prone to violence.

But the story by Isabel Kershner devotes only one column to the death of Mutaz Washaha, 25, of Bir Zeit. After saying that troops stormed his home and he was found dead, the article makes a sudden transition: “The killing came as Amnesty International published a report on Thursday accusing Israeli forces of being ‘trigger happy’ and using excessive force in the West Bank.”

This is a strange way to practice journalism, using a headline and photo for one story and devoting three quarters of the article to another. It is also odd (but not a first for the Times) to highlight a report on the victimization of Palestinians with a photo portraying them as a menace.

The Amnesty International report documents a spike in the death of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers in the past year, states that none of the victims posed a threat to the soldiers and describes a number of killings as “willful” and possible war crimes. It notes that soldiers operate with virtual impunity and calls on the international community to stop sending arms to Israel.

The report, “Trigger Happy: Israel’s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank,” covers the past three years and cites several case studies, including that of Samir Awad, 16, who was first shot in the leg and then killed with two bullets to the back as he stumbled toward his home in the village of Budrus, and that of a young woman, Lubna Hanash, 21, shot in the head as she and a relative walked near an agricultural college in Hebron.

The Times story devotes five paragraphs to the report itself and gives two paragraphs to the army’s defense of its conduct. Elsewhere, international media present the report as worthy of an article in itself, not a tag-on to another story, and run their accounts with appropriate photos of Israeli soldiers or wounded Palestinians.

See, for example, The Jewish Daily Forward, where the headline reads, “Amnesty International Warns Israel on West Bank ‘War Crimes’: Rights Group Eyes ‘Reckless’ Soldiers in Killings of Palestinians.” The accompanying photo shows a blindfolded Palestinian surrounded by heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

Times readers can also find more honest reporting in The Guardian, BBC, Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Haaretz, to name a few.

Although the Times hides this Amnesty report under a misleading headline and photo, it has treated other releases by the same organization with different emphasis. In the past year or so, it has found fit to write about several Amnesty International releases, including short briefings on abuses in the Syrian conflict, a report about death penalty trends worldwide and a call for Saudi Arabia to release political prisoners.

Last October it ran a lengthy front page story based on an Amnesty report under the headline “Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report.” The story focused on the Pakistani population affected by the drones and gave little mention to the Obama administration’s defense of the strikes. The Times later ran an editorial praising the report.

The drone report runs to 74 pages and covers some 18 months of data. The West Bank report contains 85 pages and covers three years of incidents. Both of them are serious documents buttressed with facts, but the reports do not weigh the same in the Times’ scale of things. Israel’s image is at risk in the second report, and that makes for a different set of standards altogether. It also calls forth damage control, however obvious and awkward that may be.

Barbara Erickson

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