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Media Myopia

Some Booby Prizes for Myths, Mistakes, Misplacement, and More

By John Law, May/June 1991, Page 35

Most Casual Myth-Dropper: To Veteran New York Times Correspondent Henry Kamm

On April 21, writing from Jerusalem, he led a story with the following sentence: "Israel, having made the desert bloom, a proud early achievement, is now counting the costs of its remarkable development in agriculture."

The myth that Israelis "made the desert bloom" obviously lives on, despite overwhelming and still accumulating documentary evidence that long before Jewish settlers began arriving in any significant numbers early in this century, Palestinian farmers had already been making the desert bloom, with a flourishing agriculture and a substantial export of fruits and vegetables.

The aquifer to which Kamm refers happens to run beneath the West Bank.

Usually, this myth surfaces when supporters of Israel, in or out of the media, try to justify the historic immigration of millions of Jews into someone else's country on the specious grounds that the country was "barren" and "unpopulated." However, seldom, if ever, in recent memory, has a foreign correspondent on the scene for a major newspaper brought up the myth as a "given" in the first paragraph of a news story, in order to set the stage for a discussion of Israel's current water shortage.

But Kamm's misleading reporting is not confined to the first paragraph. Later on in the story, he writes that one of Israel's major sources of water is an underground aquifer that is situated "in the mountainous stretch from the Galilee in the north, south to Beersheba."

Surely, most Times readers would appreciate a little further guidance to alert them to the fact that the aquifer to which Kamm refers happens to run beneath the West Bank. Nor does Kamm inform them, when he discusses the hardships of Israeli farmers resulting from the scarcity of water, that Israel supplements its own needs by drawing water out of the West Bank aquifer, while prohibiting West Bank farmers from digging any new wells or deepening old ones as the water table falls.

Sloppiest Handling of a Paid Political Advertisement: The Washington Post

On March 11, it published a map of the Middle East, submitted by a public relations firm working for the Kuwaiti government. The map was full of very obvious mistakes. Lebanon was not identified, and its border with Syria not shown, making the whole area appear to be Syria. The occupied territories were not identified, making the West Bank and Gaza look like an integral part of Israel. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were not shown. Two different Yemens were on the map, even though North and South Yemen merged, into one country well over a year ago. Yemen was misspelled "Yeman"; Qatar came out as -Qatr. "

Although the errors were perpetrated by the group that submitted the ad, the buck doesn't stop there, because of the Post's own policy. In the past it has rejected some political ads with a pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel twist on the grounds that something in the ads was "not factual. " Such commendable standards are commendable only when applied impartially.

Deepest Burial of an Important News Item: The New York Times

On March 26, in the very last paragraph of a 1,000-word story published on page 13, mention was made of an interview that Yasser Arafat gave in Tunis to The Toronto Star, which was carried by Reuters on its wires. According to Reuters, Arafat said "the PLO would accept a United Nations buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. " Although it was not startling news, it was important in the context of a renewed "peace process" in which Israeli officials are continually bringing up the point that Palestinians would attack them if they were given an independent state. It seems, therefore, that the item would have been worth putting more prominently into the record, rather than at the bottom of a long story that starts on page 13. It's likely that few American readers are aware that Arafat has ever made a statement that the Palestine Liberation Organization would allow its hands to be tied by international security agreements, even though he's made such statements before. As far as can be ascertained from a scanning of many newspapers other than the Times, US readers didn't learn it this time either.

Creative Euphemisms: To Jackson Diehl, Washington Post Correspondent in Jerusalem

In the Post of March 19, 1991, he described Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, former leader of the Lehi (Stern Gang) as "a former fighter in the most uncompromising of Israel's pre-state underground insurrectionist groups. " How's that for having managed twice to avoid the use of the word "terrorist" (for "fighter" and "underground insurrectionist"), once to avoid "extremist" ("uncompromising") and once even to avoid the word "Jewish" ("pre-state")? Ironically, in the very same edition of the newspaper there was a Washington story by George Lardner, Jr., about the arrest of a Palestinian involved with a hijacking in which the word "terrorist" or "terrorism" was used six times, in describing the Palestinian or his activities.

Mangling Arabic Names: To Jim Lehrer, of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour

We hate to give him a booby for anything, because he is a superb journalist and a very fair human being. But we cannot think of anyone more deserving of an award for mangling Arabic names, because he almost never fails to. For example, lots of people say Eye-ran and Eye-rack, but I cannot remember hearing anyone except Lehrer say Tie-ran (rhyming "tie" with "eye"). He also talks of Jee-dah, in Saudi Arabia, and pronounces Kirkuk as though it rhymes with "sir-cluck." I have heard other people pronounce Ahmed without pronouncing the heavily aspirated -h " at all (making it come out as "Aamed"), just as almost everybody leaves out the lightly aspirated "h" in Fahd (King "Fodd"). But the only person on national television I have ever heard regularly call someone Akined is Jim Lehrer. So it really came as no surprise when he addressed an Arab guest whose last name was Amr as Mr. A-mour. I'm not sure if the guest understood any French.

John Law, chief editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs from 1982 to 1984, was for 22 years the chief Middle East correspondent for US News and World Report.

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