I know that explaining can make things worse, but I intend to try. The Israeli ambassador presented me with a chart the other morning. It featured two peaks-and-valleys lines, one in black and one in red, on graph paper, plus an accompanying table of numbers taken to the first decimal place. Ambassador Arens said this chart, which looked like an EKG to me, in fact revealed that The Post's editorial and op-ed pages, for which I am responsible, were the most "anti-Israel" in the country.
Amicably, I hope, because he and I are friends, I protested the validity of both the chart and the charge. I will tell you why.
First for the idea of the numbers themselves. Several months' worth of analysis, commentary and intermittent exhortation were reduced to a couple of jagged lines and a bunch of supporting figures on the basis of the designation of each article as either positive, negative or neutral. You don't have to believe you are putting out two pages of deathless prose every day or that your editorial or op-ed articles have some exquisite, unparaphraseable, Henry James-like subtlety to them to believe that numbers -- pro and con counts -- don't tell the story. Worse yet, in my view, they not only don't tell the story, they actually distort it.
The numbers are, above all, crude. The argument has been going on sporadically since early summer as to whether the criticism of the Begin government's policies and actions that has appeared on both these pages should be characterized as being "anti-Israel" and whether its various authors should, likewise, be so described. I insist the answer to both questions is, no. To me, "anti-Israel" connotes several things: wishing the country ill, for instance, or deploring and hoping for an end to its existence, or disliking its people or any of a whole range of comparable sentiments that have nothing to do with the attitude of The Washington Post or the vast majority of people whose articles it prints, even those currently critical of the Israeli government.
Using this general definition, I would say that we certainly have printed some commentary that can be characterized as "anti-Israel," for example, a few pieces written by Palestinians and Arabs. These have been written either in response and objection to our own editorial views or other views printed on our pages or as a result of our invitation to the authors to present their side of the controversy, especially those who are participants in Middle East events. This summer we made an effort to get as many of the important Arab and Israeli players as we could to speak for themselves on our op-ed page. Whatever havoc this may have wreaked with our count on the chart, I still consider publication of such pieces to have been an obligation of fairness -- not just to those presenting their views, but also, importantly, to our readers, who were trying to figure out what was going on.
Even here, among the Arab antagonists of Israel, it seems to me there are shadings as to what could be properly called "anti-Israel" and what, though very tough on Israeli policy, should be characterized as anti-Begin's actions -- Hosni Mubarak's piece would have been among the latter. But what about the Israeli critics? How do we characterize them? In the period which, as I understand it, the graph represents, we published pieces by Abba Eban and Shimon Peres, as well as two long editorials from respected Israeli newspapers (one generally sympathetic to the Begin government), all highly critical of what was going on. Were these also marked down in the "anti-Israel" column? I asked the question and was told that they were not.
Now, insisting that the heavy load of criticism being leveled in these pages was being leveled against a particular government's particular actions, I readily concede that this load was extra heavy. Some of our syndicated columnists moved back and forth and thither and yon (as we ourselves did editorially) finding fault with or justification for both Arab and Israeli actions on an ad hoc basis. But it is surely true that there was much more thither than yon: those of us who write the editorials for The Post came to believe that the Israeli government was making terrible mistakes, and we said so with an intensity and regularity that reflected the importance we ascribed to the situation. What else should we have done?
Again, the regular syndicated columnists who write for us on fixed schedule--and who ordinarily represent a fairly broad range of attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict -- were unusually harsh on the Israeli government's performance; some of the government's habitual defenders went over the side. This was, in my view, a noteworthy fact. It was something our readers deserved to know about. Any editor of pages largely devoted to political commentary who felt obliged to disguise or neutralize this situation or otherwise to try to levitate it off the page would be incompetent.
I am saying that I don't buy the 50-50, political gridlock idea of balance for pages such as these. I believe such pages should reflect the judgment of a range of regular columnists and editorial writers that the editors see fit to print in ordinary times -- and whom they neither change nor seek to counter, article for article, in extraordinary times with a view to creating some ideal standoff.
Other, outside contributors should be printed -- and are -- as what they say is especially interesting (it was interesting when so committed a partisan of Israeli policies as Alfred Friendly volunteered a piece in which he blew his stack) or when they have a special claim on the reader's attention (Henry Kissinger, whose largely sympathetic piece we solicited, had such a claim) or, above all, when they have something to say that, in fairness, our readers should hear about -- and haven't. This includes, among other things, response to articles that have offended or outraged.
As my friend Ambassador Arens knows, when the going began to get rough this summer and the weight of opinion was moving heavily against the actions of his government, we sought out the best and strongest contributions we could find of the contrary opinion -- ambitiously from Gen. Sharon and Prime Minister Begin, who didn't have time, from Foreign Minister Shamir, who did ("How the Camp David Peace Process Must Be Restored," Aug. 26), and from Ambassador Arens himself ("What We Want in Lebanon," June 11). We solicited and ran other pieces as well from those sympathetic to the Israelis' policy. The point was, and remains, to give every relevant view its strongest spokesman, its best shot--not a certain designated, prearranged number of columns.
I guess I should add, since we took the brass ring on the ambassador's chart, that I respect the other papers he has monitored and am a friend and admirer of many of the editors of the opinion pages surveyed. But I have no interest in trying to keep within a few points of their ratings on a monitoring chart whose very premise I dispute. We are trying to be good journalists here -- and to be fair. Generally speaking, I think they are the same thing.