For every upper, a downer.
Comes now a long, lugubrious one in the form of another survey of American news coverage of the Israeli/PLO war in Lebanon last summer. Around Thanksgiving, the Columbia Journalism Review produced an upper, concluding that, for the most part, news reporting was accurate and fair: "For performance under fire, readers and viewers could have asked for little more."
Assessing virtually the same organizations--The Washington Post, The New York Times, ABC, CBS, NBC, Time and Newsweek--Policy Review, quarterly publication of the Heritage Foundation, enters a verdict on the down side. "Far below the highest standards of American journalism," declares Joshua Muravchik, who was commissioned by Heritage to do the report.
His report is tough, which is why around here and, I suspect, in the other newsrooms, CJR has been more widely read than Policy Review. All organizations are accused of inaccuracy, exaggeration and "tendentious" reporting. NBC and The Post are judged more guilty than the rest.
The report is unrelenting in its criticism of The Post. Mr. Muravchik, who is a sometime researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at Georgetown University, doesn't enter a redeeming word in some 15 pages of specific examination.
Post staff writers and outside contributors of analysis and commentary are quoted supporting a contention that, throughout the war, The Post read "like a newspaper on crusade"--an anti-Israeli one. In the same melodramatic tendency, the author concluded that anyone reading a New York Times portrait of Yasser Arafat ("with nary a critical word") "could not but yearn wistfully for a day when our ill-starred country might be blessed with such a leader."
Surveying the organizations one by one, Mr. Muravchik covers the controversy about casualty figures. He seems aware all were vulnerable using unconfirmed numbers from prejudiced sources, but appears unaware that the Israeli government at times contradicted its own figures. He is right that The Post's tendency to use unverified tolls in headlines was questionable judgment. He is wrong, I believe, to imply it was one with anti-Israeli intent. He is right that all casualty estimates should have been met with greater reserve.
"Sympathy" for the PLO is charged as compromising The Post's daily coverage. Two specifics: use of what turned out to be a misleading picture of an infant first reported as having lost both arms in an Israeli bombing raid, and a feature piece about a Fatah commander killed at Tyre. The caption, which ran in many newspapers, was later corrected when Israel produced evidence that the child suffered burns, not loss of its arms.
The front-page "eulogy" characterized the PLO officer as "honorable" while acknowledging that he had been involved in an earlier civilian massacre. The Post reporter allowed "you can admire a man even when he is part of deeds you cannot admire," and equated those deeds with "Ariel Sharon's bombardment of civilian neighborhoods in Beirut."
Mr. Muravchik makes a pass at tarring the paper with the "Israel/Nazi" analogy, beginning with guest articles last summer by John LeCarr,e and Milton Viorst. Then he calls in an Outlook essay by a Post reporter who quoted an Israeli professor likening "good Israelis who keep quiet about injustices against the Palestinians to good Germans (who) did not stand up to the incipient stages of the persecution of the Jews." Mr. Muravchik steps across a gap to state an implication that the journalist was sympathetic to the analogy. All of which amounts more to eyewash than insight.
There is some solid evidence in this 66-page survey of flaws and imbalances in the coverage of all organizations, and editors would do well to read about them. Nevertheless, the author's propensity for assuming ulterior motives flaws his own product. In a summing up, he asks: "Why was the prevailing opinion in the news media so critical of Israel, despite the large numbers of Jews in the media?" That's revealing. His answer enumerates a bill of particulars that to my knowledge even the most emotional and extreme critic has not summoned:
* massive propaganda from communist and Arab oil countries was brought to bear on the media;
* Israeli censorship, which made the press "suspicious and angry."
This piece fails because it seems to proceed on the questionable advice once offered by Oscar Wilde: "Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess."