The Columbia Journalism Review is out with welcome news for editors who had been reading a lot and enjoying nothing of what was written about their organizations' coverage of the war in Lebanon last summer.
A well-documented and not altogether uncritical appraisal by press observer Roger Morris concludes that "American journalism came to a bloody new war in the Middle East, reported what it saw for the most part fairly and accurately and sometimes brilliantly provided balanced comment and provoked and absorbed controversy. For performance under fire, readers and viewers could have asked for little more."
This is how you spell relief for news managers who, until now, knew little but Shakespearean "grim and comfortless despair" from months of criticism. At least those at ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post, whose broadcasts and pages were emphasized in the survey, will savor the judgment. To a lesser extent, coverage by the Los Angeles Times and The Christian Science Monitor was reviewed.
Allegations of bias in Post reporting have been weighed in this space on several occasions. Like others, this newspaper took fire from both sides, the volume and intensity at a more sustained pitch from the Jewish community. In Israel, Mr. Morris notes, The Jerusalem Post characterized American news reporting of the war as "political pornography." More explicit comments registered here are deemed not fit to print.
For all who have tracked this controversy, I commend the CJR article. Mr. Morris addresses the fairness of reportage on four fronts: the historical context and the rationale for Israel's invasion; the extent of Lebanese "welcome" to the Israelis; accuracy in describing "human and physical cost"; and overall balance.
He's a tad more generous to The Post than I was on its coverage of the PLO's status in Lebanon. It wasn't until Aug. 19, more than two months after the invasion, and almost a month after I had recommended it, that the paper gave its readers a comprehensive account. I found the Aug. 19 piece "informative . . . on the organization and its antecedents," but inadequate on how it was regarded by the Lebanese. Earlier, as is observed by CJR, The Christian Science Monitor and Los Angeles Times had filed "insightful" and "graphic" accounts of "oppression" and "hate" felt by Lebanese toward the PLO.
Mr. Morris' evaluation of the controversies provoked by civilian casualty figures parallels the experience here. Demands to know how many were being killed drove journalists to accept numbers when they became available. Initial high estimates--500,000 homeless, 10,000 casualties--came variously from the International Committee of the Red Cross, PLO and Lebanese "authorities" and were attributed as such. Here, the issue was aggravated by acceptance of an advertisement in June from the "Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Palestinian and Lebanese Peoples," claiming without attribution 40,000 killed and 700,000 homeless. Critics read this as eagerness by the paper to pillory Israel. Post reporters, meanwhile, were noting carefully Israeli government charges that figures were inflated, also that "there was no independent confirmation of casualty tolls."
The extended siege of Beirut produced what Mr. Morris characterizes as "some of the most provocative segments of the war." He refers to televsion correspondents particularly. Print reporters were being criticized for misleading and exaggerated reporting about the damage to nonmilitary targets in the city. Mr. Morris details an angry exchange between New York Times reporter Thomas L. Friedman and his editors, who removed the word "indiscriminate" in a story to describe Israeli bombing.
Of little notice elsewhere, Mr. Morris marks "the silence of Capitol Hill politicians on both sides, not to mention the impact of the invasion on close election campaigns starting up as the fighting and media coverage grew most controversial . . . ." Then he says that "most home-front journalists tended to dive for cover along with the politicians."
I know some who might object to those conclusions. For all the rest, news editors will give thanks.
On Nov. 10, it was said in this space that "all networks" called the Illinois gubernatorial race for incumbent Gov. James R. Thompson midway on election night. A network spokeswoman says this was not so at ABC.