For the second time in 13 months Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a substantive, in-depth report that faults Israel for various violations of international law that created massive civilian casualties in last summer’s invasion of Lebanon. And for the second time in 13 months the New York Times has barely noticed.The report (“Why They Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon during the 2006 War”) released September 6, reported that ” the conflict resulted in at least 1,109 Lebanese deaths, the vast majority of whom were civilians, 4,399 injured, and an estimated 1 million displaced ” and placed blame for the high civilian casualty count “squarely with Israeli policies.”
Human Rights Watch concluded that “the primary reason for the high Lebanese civilian death toll was Israel’s frequent failure to abide by a fundamental obligation of the laws of war” and that “Israel conducted the war with reckless indifference to the fate of Lebanese civilians.” It also stated, contrary to the repeated claims by the Israeli government, that “Hezbollah’s practices does not support the Israeli contention that Hezbollah violations were the principal cause of Lebanese civilian casualties.”
One might hope that such searing account of war crimes committed by a US ally that receives massive military aid from the United States, would be worthy of serious analysis from the paper of record. But to the contrary, the Times barely covered the story and only dedicated 139 words to the issue, all taken from a much longer AP article, and buried it on page A12.
When I asked Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth what he thought of the Times’ meager coverage he said: “[T]he Times is ordinarily one of the most conscientious about publishing on HRW’s major reports. Israel is an exception, not the rule.”
And indeed this isn’t a new phenomenon. Last summer when HRW released a report that had similar conclusions in the middle of the conflict (Aug 3 2006, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon”) the Times did not even dedicate an entire article to the report and instead buried a mere 121 words 16 paragraphs deep into a story called “Civilians Lose As Fighters Slip Into Fog of War.”
The Times also gave no coverage to a July 20, 2006 report from B’Tselem (Israeli Soldiers use civilians as Human Shields in Beit Hanun) indicating “that, during an incursion by Israeli forces into Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip, on 17 July 2006, soldiers seized control of two buildings in the town and used residents as human shield.” So even as the Israeli government was accusing Hezbollah of using civilians as human shields, the Times ignored reports which showed that Israel was doing just that in the occupied territories.
But as Roth rightly notes, the Times does report substantively on other human rights reports that are not critical of Israel. For example, when the American Jewish Congress published a report by the Center for Special Studies, chaired by Efraim Halevy, former Head of the Israeli Mossad and other former Israeli intelligence officials, the Times devoted a front page story with 42 paragraphs and 1500 words to the report. That is more than 10 times the amount of words used to cover HRW’s “Fatal Strikes” report and 12 times as many as last week’s “Why they Died” report.
Moreover, just last week Human Rights Watch released a report (“Civilians under Assault: Hezbollah’s Rocket Attacks on Israel in the 2006 War”) which faulted Hezbollah for violations of International Law during the same conflict. Despite the fact that Hezbollah was only deemed complicit in 43 civilian deaths, the Times dedicated more than five times the amount of words to that report, as they did on the more recent one, which outlines far more egregious and rampant violations of international law. “[W]hile HRW’s report on Hezbollah become more newsworthy than usual because Hezbollah effectively shut down our press conference in Beirut to release it, the report on Israel was much more analytically interesting,” said Roth of the disproportionate coverage. “That is to say it was a much more complex task to determine why Lebanese civilians died than Israeli civilians, so judging by the reports standing alone and not the parties’ reactions to them, the one on Israel deserved more prominent play. “
It is true that a recent diplomatic controversy where Syria accused Israel of flying over its airspace did eat of some of the news hole. But that is true for all media outlets that cover foreign affairs, yet, to give just some examples of many, Haaretz, the Daily Star, the Guardian, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Washington Post and the Independent all gave substantially more coverage to the HRW report than did the Times.
“Other newspapers managed to deal with the two stories, but the Times didn’t in any meaningful way,” said Roth.
“I think its part of a patter that overall is fairly pervasive in the US mass media in general and certainly in the A section of the New York Times,” said media critic Norman Solomon reached by phone. ““What we need is for the media to have a single standard on covering human rights and international law.”
But, as the Times’ deputy foreign editor Ethan Bronner told Asharq Al-Awsat, an English-language Arabic newspaper based in London, “we stay away from assertions of legality on most international issues, because law is less clear about international affairs than about national affairs."
This trend is not relegated to Times’ international section, either. As Richard Falk and Howard Friel note in their book, Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East the editorial page has completely ignored Human Rights Reports that have been critical of Israel. “[T]he New York Times editorial page in its coverage of the Lebanon war from July 12, to August 31, 2006, never mentioned Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International [who released a report accusing Israel of violating international law on Aug 23, 2006] despite numerous press releases and reports by these two organizations.”
The Times inattention to this HRW report is not the first time that important intuitions have ignored or downplayed information in matters of war and peace. The atrocious reporting leading up to the War in Iraq—which the Times later apologized for—fits a pattern as well. As case studies have shown again and again, the reporting of information that reflects poorly on the US and its allies—not just Israel—is fairly rare; while information that reflects poorly on nations with poor relations with the US garners massive media attention, and, by extension, a place in the national dialogue. And seen in this light, says MIT professor Noam Chomsky who was reached by e-mail, “you’ll find that Israel is the rule and not the exception.”
A vibrant press is essential for any functioning democracy. When the media fails to report adequately on important matters, democracy is weakened. And given the United States close relationship with Israel—the US provides Israel around $3 billion in direct US aid annually—readers of the Times deserve to know what is happening with the weapons their tax dollars help pay for, especially when they have been landing on innocent civilians.