It was no surprise when last Wednesday's front-page story headlined "U.S. Reports Indicate Israeli Abuse of Palestinians" brought a flood of protest to editors of The Washington Post and to me as this newspaper's ombudsman and internal critic. Stories that reflect on Israel rank up there with stories about abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment as generators of charges of bias and worse.
The Post sensationalized a flimsy story, some readers said. Others said the paper accepted slander against Israel from a questionable source. Many charged that information casting doubt on the validity of the charges of Israeli brutality was buried deep in the story.
"Shoddy," "bigoted," "irresponsible," "cheap" were among the words used.
Because this story set of the biggest wave of protest I had experienced in over four years as Post ombudsman, I undertook what might be called an ombudical exercise. I studied everything that appeared in The Post and in several other newspapers. I examined the documents on which the story was based, and I interviewed, at length, the editors who were responsible for the decision to publish the story and for the form it took. What follows is the result of that investigation.
First, a brief recap of the story. It was prominently displayed on page one. The continuation took most of an inside page. A side story took about a third of another page. The page with the continuation contained the boxed text of a short oficial Israeli statement.
The story was based on a series of cables to the State Department from the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. They raised the possibility that Israel was following a "systematic practice" of brutality, up to and including sadistic torture, in the interrogation of Arab political prisoners in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
The story noted, on the front page, that Israel had consistently denied such charges and specifically denied the charges on which The Post's story was based. Nevertheless, it said, the cables, which it called the first "U.S. diplomatic reporting suggesting systematic Israeli abuse of Arab prisoners," were said by State Department officials to have resulted in "sharpened language" in the Israel section of the department's 1979 report on human rights.
The body of the story dealt mainly with two cables -- Jerusalem 1500 and Jerusalem 3239 -- written by Alexandria U. Johnson. Johnson was a foreign service officer on the Jerusalem consulate staff assigned to interview Arab applicants for U.S. visas.
In the course of her work, Johnson assembled a number of accounts of severe mistreatment of Palestinians during interrogations by Israeli authorities. She summarized her findings this way in Jerusalem 1500, cabled last May: "During the period between March 1977 and April 1978 the post [meaning the consulate] has assembled a body of first-hand testimony indicating that Israeli torture of Arab prisoners in the occupied territory may be a widespread and even common practice."
The story pointed out that Johnson's cables bore the signature of consul-general William Newlin, in accordance with diplomatic practice. Jerusalem 3239, sent last November, carried an introduction by Donald A. Kruse, deputy principal officer at the consulate, stating that while the consulate did not necessarily agree with all of Johnson's deductions and conclusions, "the weight of evidence points to the validity of her general conclusion that physical mistreatment is systematically used on many Arab security suspects interrogated in the West Bank."
The cables, The Post said, were considered at high State Department levels and were brought to the attention of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.
After discussing the cables and State Department reaction to them, the story concluded with some information the story concluded with some information about Johnson and how The Post got copies of her cables.
It reported that on Jan. 31 Johnson was formally dropped from the Foreign Service, having been passed over for promotion. Praise by her superiors was briefly noted as was their assertion that her cables on mistreatment of prisoners had nothing to do with her severance.
The second-to-last paragraph of the story noted that she had been "briefly engaged" to one of the Palestinians cited in Jerusalem 1500. (He had been granted a visa and the engagement was entered into -- and later broken -- after he arrived in this country.)
The last paragraph of the story disclosed that the cables were given to The Post by representatives of The London Sunday Times, which is closed because of a labor dispute. In 1977 The Times published charges of mistreatment of Arab prisoners. The Post story said that Times reporters were "anxious to publicize material supporting their 1977 stories."
Many of the complaints about the story were broad charges that The Post was anti-Israeli and that it gave prominence and generous space to the story in order to injure Israel and Jews.
Others were more specific. Most of those that went beyond a general complaint singled out the second-to-last paragraph -- the one about Johnson's engagement to a Palestinian who figured in her cables. That information cast doubt on her credibility, they said, and it should have influenced the editors in their decision to publish the story. Once the decision was made to publish, they said, the information should have been given to the readers early on.
Several readers felt The Post slighted the text of the Israeli statement on the Johnson cables by putting it in the bottom corner of the page carrying the continuation of the front-page story.
A number felt that information about Johnson's separation from the Foreign Service and the reasons for it should have been presented more prominently and in more detail.
Some readers complained that the material purporting to show that the cables resulted in tougher language in the State Department's human rights report was incomplete and out of context and therefore distorted.
And several criticized the Post's apparent failure to discuss the Johnson charges with International Red Cross representatives, who have the right to visit Arab prisoners under certain conditions, and its refusal to accept an Israeli offer to cooperate in an investigation of the Johnson allegations.
Now, my reactions as The Post's ombudsman and internal critic.
I think that the Johnson cables were a legitimate subject for a news story. I have gone through them -- they run to many thousands of words -- and am satisfied that their transmission and their consideration at the State Department was of public interest.
I do not for one moment believe that the decision to publish the story or the way it was handled reflected bias on the part of the editors. As this paper's "inside outsider" -- that is, as one who has nothing to do with The Post's operation but who does observe that operation closely and from the perspective of more than 30 years in journalism -- I am certain that such bias does not exist either in the paper as an institution or in its editors.
My interviews were principally with Benjamin C. Bradlee, the executive editor, who made the decision to publish the story, and Laurence Stern, the assistant managing editor for national news, who was responsible for the story's final form.
All involved were aware from the start that the story would set off a storm of protest, from Israelis and from the American Jewish community. They went to great lengths to satisfy themselves that Johnson was a responsible source and that the material in her cables was authentic.
Bradlee says he spent three hours with Johnson, subjecting her to intensive interrogation about her background, her relations with associates, her relations with the Palestinians who figured in her cables, and, of course, her engagement to one of them. He said he came out of that session and an examination of the cables themselves convinced The Post had to pursue the story.
As a check on the authenticity of the cables, an Arabic-speaking Post reporter was sent to Chicago where he interviewed three of the Palestinians who figured in the cables.
Those interviews, which were the subject of the side story published last Wednesday, could not, of course, establish the truth of the allegations. But they did satisfy the reporter and his editors that Johnson had accurately reported in her cables what the Palestinians had told her.
The Post story, it should be pointed out, did not purport to pass on the truth of the charges relayed in the Johnson cables; it reported on the cables themselves. Nevertheless, it is a fact of life in the news business that when a story of this nature is given such prominence by a paper of The Post's standing, there is an inevitable assumption that the paper is vouching for the authenticity of the charges.
A story on Israeli reaction by a reporter for The Guardian, a highly respected British newspaper, makes that point. In the first paragraph, he wrote that the Israeli Justice Minister "condemned Washington Post charges" that Israel systematically tortured prisoners.
Having said all that, I must also say that I felt The Post's story was seriously flawed in several respects.
I agree with the many readers who complained about delaying disclosure of Johnson's engagement until the end of the story. Readers should have been told about that earlier.
Stern and Bradlee disagree. Stern told me that if the engagement had been mentioned early in the story, "we would have impeached [her] before setting forth the entire story in context. We felt it was essential to include that information, but to do it in the context of the entire article."
That seems to me to be at least as effective an argument for providing the information early as it is for subordinating it.
Although none of the callers raised this point, I feel that the source of the cables and the motivation for the leak -- The London Sunday Times' desire to support its own expose -- should also have appeared higher in the story.
I agree with the readers who felt that the discussion of the effect of the Johnson cables on the State Department's human rights report was confusing and misleading. By use of partial quotations, The Post gave the impression that the new report, the one written in the wake of the Johnson cables, differed from the 1978 report much more than it actually did.
Early in the story, The Post quoted the 1978 report as saying that the State Department had no evidence that Israel followed "a consistent practice or policy of using torture during interrogations." This sentence, repeated later, was contrasted with a brief quotation from the 1979 report, which was due to be made public in a day or two. That quotation noted that Arabs "continue to allege... that mistreatment of detainees is a systematic practice" and added: "The accumulation of reports, some from credible sources, makes it appear that instances of mistreatment have occurred."
Taken alone, those quotations from the two reports indicate a sharp difference. But they are both out of context.
The 1978 sentence quoted was followed in that report by: "However, there are documented reports of the use of extreme physical and psychological pressures during interrogation, and instances of brutality by individual interrogators cannot be ruled out."
So, contrary to the implication of The Post's story, the 1978 report, as well as the new one, recognized "instances" of mistreatment.
At the time Wednesday's story was written, The Post did not have access to the full text of the 1979 report. But it did have this sentence, which immediately followed the sentences it quoted: "In repeated discussions with Israeli authorities we have been assured that such practices are forbidden by Israeli law and that any violations are punished."
That sentence was not in The Post's story. Since it not only followed the quoted material but was part of the same paragraph, it should have been.
The two reports are different in one significant detail. The 1978 report said specifically that the State Department knew of no evidence of a "consistent practice" of mistreatment. The 1979 report does not make that statement. But they are not as different as The Post's treatment would indicate.
This matter of the reports is important because one of the justifications offered for The Post's story is that the Johnson cables had an influence on the State Department's official position.
The day after The Post's story appeared, The New York Times published the full text of the Israel section of the 1979 report. It included not only the paragraph partly quoted by The Post, but succeeding paragraphs making two points: (a) Israel has agreed to permit International Red Cross representatives to visit detainees no later than the 14th day after arrest and to conduct physical examinations without witnesses; (b) in several instances Israeli soldiers or border police were jailed for using excessive force in quelling demonstrations and the West Bank military governor was fired after an incident involving excessive force.
I have been told that this text was also available to The Post the day the story appeared. Certainly it was available after it appeared in The Times. I think The Post owed it to readers to print it as soon as it become available. As of this writing it hasn't. The Post printed excerpts of the State Department report in its Sunday editions on page A24.)
In view of the Red Cross agreement, several readers asked why there is no indication in the story that The Post interviewed or attempted to interview Red Cross representatives.
One of the reporters who worked on the story told me that no such attempt was made, explaining that the Red Cross makes a firm practice of not commenting on such matters of not commenting on such matters in order to preserve its nonpolitical position.
However, Stern told me that "we have evidence that Red Cross representatives in Jerusalem were acquainted with the content [of the Johnson cables] and shared the concern expressed in those cables." He said The Post also understands that despite the 14-day rule the Red Cross has had difficulty in getting access to Arab prisoners.
While the reluctance of Red Cross officials to comment is understandable, I think The Post should pursue this avenue. I believe it will.
Some readers wanted to know why The Post did not accept an Israeli offer to make officials available to "discuss and explain any specific case" involved in the Johnson cables. The response of the editors is that the offer of cooperation included a condition that the story could not be published until after such discussions; they could not agree to that, they said.
Finally, on the question of overplay. Unquestionably a factor here was the special impetus newspapers give to stories that are exclusively theirs. It is part of the intense competition of daily journalism -- a hangover from the days when newspapers were in bitter head-to-head competition.
Although it doesn't make as much sense today as it did then, I am enough of an old newspaper hand to feel that the enterprise and commitment this competitive spirit fosters more than outweighs the occasional excesses and distortions it sometimes causes. In this instance, I agree with readers who said the handling of the story was more sensational than was warranted.
To sum up, I think The Post's editors were right in deciding that the Johnson cables were legitimate material for a news story. I think they were careful and responsible in arriving at that decision. Except for the handling of the human rights reports, I think the information in the story was accurate. Nevertheless the product -- what was put before the reader -- was not as free of defects as it could have been and should have been.