One of the most persistent and perplexing reactions from some Post readers is the charge that the paper is tilted against Israel. The allegation is made regularly by meticulous readers who believe that an anti-Israeli bias appears in the paper's news coverage either intentionally or by misperception.
Simple straightforward denials of any such idiotic policy, plan, directive or other management device fail to dissuade the protestors. They see a pattern that confirms their convictions.
Nevertheless, it is time to say it again.
The latest round of charges came over the last two weeks as a result of a story that appeared on the front page Jan. 3. The story reported that a U.N. official said Israeli soldiers had blown up the dead bodies of five Palestinian guerrillas in southern Lebanon on Christmas Day. In the second paragraph of the story, Israel denied the charge. Later in the story, The Post's correspondent reported the denial in more detail.
Since then, the Israelis have been proved right. In a story that appeared on The Post's front page this week, the U.N. said the Dutch soldiers who had seen the incident were mistaken -- although the U.N. was not quite that blunt about it. Israelis did not mutilate the bodies. Instead, they blew up the guerrillas' ammunition. The Dutch soldiers, so the U.N. said, had been misled by their line of sight.
Post readers who believe the paper slants its news about Israel protested heatedly that the prominent display of the story and the fact that it appeared at all in the paper indicted again that The Post is intentionally damaging Israel's reputation.
The original in this series of stories arrived at The Post's foreign desk via wire services at about 2 p.m. on Jan. 2. Reuters was first with the story; others followed. The U.N. charges had been made in an official, written press statement. The Post's foreign desk took note of the story and immediately cabled its correspondent in Jerusalem for comments from the Israelis. The correspondent started a series of phone calls. Meanwhile, the foreign staff discussed the story. Among the questions asked was the relative news value of the item if, say, Palestinians had been accused of similar atrocities against Israelis. There was agreement that the story would have been equally compelling.
The correspondent called back. Israelis had vehemently denied the charges. News service reports and the Israeli statement were assembled into a cohesive account. It was not an unusual sequence of events in the development of a story. Pro-or anti-Israel sentiment was not a consideration. Nor should it have been. The news value of the story was the sole criterion.
It is fair enough for readers to argue with the news judgment that is exercised by the paper's writers and editors, and the fact that they do so daily strikes this writer as an extraordinarily healthy relationship between the paper and those who read it. The Post should be held accountable for the accuracy, fairness and thoroughness of its coverage, and it is. Letters that appear on this page attest to that. Reader reaction is taken very seriously. Only yesterday, an editorial apologized for a bad news story headline that called Prince George's County an "ugly sister."
But to perceive that the paper slants its stories deliberately is as wrong as those Dutch soldiers whose own eyes apparently deceived them.
All of which is not to say that the paper is free of mistakes. Corrections run regularly, attempting to set right the errors that are printed. Nor is it to maintain that news is objective. Geometry is objective. News cannot be. News is almost always incomplete. Events don't wait for coverage. The principle of this paper and any other responsible news medium is to be subjective fairly. That is the directive by which the newsroom operates. No other. And that is precisely the effort that is made in coverage of Israel.