The Israeli ambassador to the United States told editors of The Washington Post last week that columns of opinion and editorials in The Post about the recent Mideast situation have been more negative toward Israel than those in other U.S. newspapers the embassy has monitored.
The ambassador, Moshe Arens, had requested the meeting with Post editors and presented them with a document listing 48 major U.S. newspapers and assigning them both a "number" and a "rating." Thirty-one of the papers received negative numbers and ratings; three received neutral, or zero, numbers and ratings, and 14 received positive numbers and ratings.
The numbers and ratings were tabulated based on editorials, op-ed page columns and other opinion columns appearing in the newspapers from May 31 through Oct. 6, embassy officials told the editors. That period covers the Israeli army's movement into West Beirut and the subsequent diplomatic and military activity, including the massacre by Christian militia of Palestinian refugees.
The number assigned The Post was minus 53. The Chicago Sun-Times was listed at minus 34, the Los Angeles Times at minus 33, The Philadelphia Inquirer at minus 32 and The New York Times at minus 25. The Atlanta Constitution had the most favorable number, a plus 56.
The "rating" -- second in importance to the "number," Israeli embassy spokesman Nachman Shai said in a subsequent telephone interview -- was developed by multiplying the "number" and a circulation factor. On that basis, The Post's rating was minus 31.8; the Sun-Times, minus 23.8; the Los Angeles Times, minus 33; The Inquirer, minus 12.8; The New York Times, minus 22.6, and the Constitution, plus 11.2.
Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee said he was told the ratings and numbers were based on "judgments being made by Israeli citizens -- in consulates and embassies . . . . " Ambassador Arens did not request any specific actions of The Post, Bradlee said.
Meg Greenfield, editor of The Post's editorial page, said she could "not accept the notion" expressed by Arens that "anything we have written is 'anti-Israel.' We believe we can criticize specific actions of its government, and we do, without being 'anti-Israel.' " She also said she could "not accept the assumption that fairness on the op-ed page or in an opinion section requires a 50-50 balance in articles . . . . "
The Boston Globe is the only newspaper besides The Post that has been contacted by embassy officials, according to spokesman Shai. The Globe was 13th on the list with a number of minus 12 and rating of minus 6. Officials of seven newspapers, including the four with the highest negative numbers and ratings behind The Post, said in telephone interviews they were unaware of the Israeli Embassy's list.
Shai said in a telephone interview Monday that the meeting with Post officials "was all off the record and it's going to be so; if we'd like to launch a war against The Washington Post we'll pick out the time and place." The reason for the meeting, he said, "was to draw attention to our findings."
No restrictions on the meeting were requested by Israeli officials or promised by Post editors, Bradlee said, and, in fact, a report of the rating system and the fact that The Post had the highest negative rating was published in the Nov. 4-10 issue of The Jewish Week, a Washington newspaper.
The rating system comes at a time when the Jewish community has been critical of American journalism in general in its coverage of the Mideast. There has been substantial correspondence between Post editors and members of the Jewish community and Bradlee recently invited Michael Berenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, to observe Post newsroom operations from inside, which Berenbaum did for several days.
Editors in cities with large Jewish populations said in interviews that they also hear often from those communities. William F. Thomas, editor of the Los Angeles Times, said, "We're pretty good friends generally. It's been a rough four or five months for them. I imagine that's what this is about."
Jim Hampton, editor of The Miami Herald (which received a number of plus 1 and rating of plus .4) said, "We have an enormous Jewish community here and it's obviously very vocal. Obviously you listen to them, but it doesn't deflect us from honest commentary."
Arens presented two other items at his meeting at The Post:
* A chart which apparently shows a rise in negative commentary in The Post peaking with the massacre of Palestinian refugees. Shai declined to answer questions about methodology or interpretation of the data presented.
* A comparison of New York Times and Washington Post headlines concerning the same Middle East news events. On stories appearing Oct. 19, for example, The Post headline read, "Begin Again Rejects U.S. Plan," while The Times said, "Borders Now Safe, Israelis Are Told . . . Begin Credits His Government in a Speech to Parliament."
In parenthetical notes, the embassy had written under The Post's headline, "focuses on Begin's references to the U.S. plan rather than his thrust on the fact that the borders are now safe."
Under The Times headline, the parenthetical note said, "Distinctly different 'tilt.' Both papers report the same parliamentary meeting."
Ambassador Arens met with Globe Editor Thomas Winship about two weeks ago, Winship said. Arens, Winship said, "started right off going after the American press on what he felt was very much a bias against Israel. He said leading the list of negative papers was The Washington Post and The Globe was well up on the list.
"My feeling is that having such a list smacks of the Nixon enemies list and strikes me as pretty close to harassment of the media . . . . " Winship said Arens did not ask for anything, but that "the implication is obvious."
In a phone call to The Post yesterday, Shai said his comments on Monday were also off the record. "I lost any trust in your people," he said. "The whole story is off the record including our conversations. If I know you are going to quote me, we will take measures against you."
When asked if he was threatening the reporter, Shai said, "I'm not threatening you. I don't want to be quoted on that issue . . . If I regard our conversation as off the record, it is off the record."
Off-the-record status is normally understood to require the concurrence of the reporter and is rarely granted retroactively