by Martin H. Miller
Articles and letters to the editor by Martin H. Miller about media treatment of the Middle East have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, The Baltimore Evening Sun, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Jewish Week.
THE OCCASION was the annual meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Association in San Francisco; the date, April 26, 1982; the speaker, James K. Batten, President of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.
“Newspapers,” Mr. Batten declared, “too often come off as arrogant, insensitive, self-righteous, sloppy with the facts, and probably too powerful. The truth is, a lot of the American public doesn’t much like us or trust us….”
Mr. Batten could have been talking about my hometown newspaper, The Washington Post, which has a daily circulation of 770,000 and sells almost a million copies on Sunday. Its news articles are distributed to subscribers of the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service – some 500 newspapers and newspaper syndicates which may give them more circulation. The major newspaper of our nation’s capital, it is read by policy makers and civil servants, by correspondents of other papers and wire services, by columnists, by radio and television commentators, and by other opinion makers. The accuracy, fairness, and balance of what The Post decides to print or decides not to print may be of some significance.
Why I feel Mr. Batten’s description is particularly apt for The Washington Post may be judged by my experience two and a half years ago in trying to get The Post to publish a tally of the shedding of Arab as well as non-Arab blood by the Palestine Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasser Arafat.
Al Fatah, the largest component of the PLO, concluded an 11-day conference in Damascus with a recitation of hatred for the United States, love for Soviet Russia and Khomeini’s Iran, and determination to destroy Israel. This was broadcast to the Arab-speaking world by the PLO’s radio station, Voice of Palestine, on June 1, 1980.
Yet, within a few days, Yasser Arafat and the PLO, the leaders of the international terrorist network, were being pictured by some of our media as “moderates.” The articles by Washington Post Middle East correspondent Edward Cody and by Joseph Fitchett published in The Washington Post July 5 and August 2 seemed to me particularly blatant PLO propaganda.
I decided it was time to confront The Washington Post with the facts. An agency of the U.S. government, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which monitors the Voice of Palestine, provided the conclusive evidence. I wrote an article detailing the PLO’s record of murder and destruction and sent it to Philip Foisie, Assistant Managing Editor in charge of foreign news at The Washington Post, “We welcome criticism of our reports from intelligent and informed readers, and I would welcome your calling to my attention any factual errors that you may note,” Mr. Foisie had written to a friend of mine on July 23.
“I hope very much that you will arrange for the attached article about the PLO to be printed in The Washington Post,” I wrote to Mr. Foisie on August 5, “As you will see, its purpose is to set the record straight, and more, to give your readers facts to which they are entitled.”
I also sent the article to other papers. It was published in The Baltimore Evening Sun and on August 31 in The Jerusalem Post. But I didn’t hear anything from The Washington Post. Six weeks after submitting the article, in late September, I called Mr. Foisie to remind him about his expression of interest in hearing about factual errors in articles about the Middle East. I asked him what had happened to the article.
Mr. Foisie could not recall the article. Would I send him another copy?
In my next telephone call to Assistant Managing Editor Foisie – on October 1 – he explained that he had read the article and had given it to The Washington Post’s new Ombudsman and would be seeing him about it the following week.
“What was your feeling about the article?” I asked Mr. Foise. “As an author I am very much interested in knowing.”
“Well, I don’t accept your arguments – to some extent,” Mr. Foisie replied. “It’s not for me to judge. I can offer it as a Letter to the Editor. I can offer it to Outlook (a special section published Sundays that includes long articles). And I’ll do both. I don’t think either will accept it, but I’ve asked the Ombudsman for his opinion. And you might call him.”
Several phone conversations with Ombudsman William Green established us on a first-name basis. On October 2 he said, “Marty, I’ve read that piece and my questions are two. It is very long and laborious. I question whether we can devote that much space to the piece. The other question is substantive, and I’m going to put it back to Phil. Have we had this before? I simply do not know.”
I told him that I had included extensive evidence because the article presented a much different picture of Arafat and the PLO from that which The Post had presented many times.
Bill’s comment was, “I don’t argue with your perspective or conclusions. It seems to me that the place to reply to a news story is a Letter to the Editor.”
On October 7 Bill told me, “I made my recommendation to Phil, saying I thought it was a Letter to the Editor, assuming we had not had it before. The ball is now with him.”
Two days later I talked again with Assistant Managing Editor Foisie. He explained that he had given the article to the Outlook Section to look at and, if the editors weren’t interested, to give it to Letters to the Editor. This is what happened. “You should call a man by the name of Ken Boyd.” Foisie advised. “He is the man on the Editorial Page who handles Letters to the Editor.”
“Then this would indicate there is merit in the points I made?” I asked.
Foisie replied, “Well, I don’t personally agree with many of them. But it is not for me to say. That’s the purpose of the Letters to the Editor column, to express contrary or opposing points of view.”
On October 10, I talked on the telephone with Ken Boyd. This was the first of many conversations with him, all pleasant. He had not seen the article, which he presumed was in the large pile of letters on his desk. Late the next day he said he had come across it. “I’d be happy to use it if you can get it down,” he explained and then told me I would have to do some “rather brutal cutting.”
With some effort I cut the article to less than a fourth of its original length. I mailed the “Letter to the Editor” to Boyd on October 13.
Good news came on October 23. Boyd had read the letter. “It looks okay to me,” he said, “I have no problems with it.” He would try to work it in the next few days. “I can’t give you a specific day, but I don’t have any problems with it, and assuming nobody else here does…”
I reminded him, “It has already gone through Foisie several times, and Bill Green said it should be run. You have a lot of background in favor of printing the letter.”
Boyd concurred. “Yes. Okay. We do have other editors here, though. I’m not the only one. I don’t think there will be any problem.”
But when I telephoned on October 24 there was what Boyd termed a “real problem.” “It’s embarrassing as hell,” he explained, “but I’ve lost your letter.” Could I send him another copy?
I offered to bring Boyd my carbon copy of the letter, and he agreed to make Xerox copies for me.
At his office Boyd explained that after he sets up his page with the Letters to the Editor, he takes it to his editors for approval. Boyd told me that he expected the letter to appear in Monday’s paper. In parting I called Boyd’s attention to the fact that The Post had again run an article with the same misconceptions about the PLO to which I had been calling attention.
Early Monday morning, as soon as I heard the thud of the paper hitting the door, I hurried to pick it up. There was no letter. I had to go out of town for about a week. When I arrived home on November 3, I called Boyd and learned that the letter had “run into a snag.” When I asked what had happened, Boyd replied, “I’ve run it by a couple of people who have expertise in this field whose opinions I respect, and they both told me they feel the letter goes beyond the bounds of fair comment.”
I tried to learn from Boyd who was responsible for this unhappy reversal, but he wouldn’t provide a clue. I reminded him that the boss of the foreign desk had felt my article had sufficient merit to turn it over to the Ombudsman even though the article took to task the foreign desk operation. I also recalled the Ombudsman’s recommendation that the article be run as a Letter to the Editor.
Boyd relented. “I wouldn’t call it a dead letter yet,” he said. “I would like to run it by someone else whose opinion I also respect.” Then he added, “I want to let you know there is an obstacle, particularly the point attributing the murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon to the PLO.”
“To whom do they attribute the murder of the ambassador?” I asked.
“The point is, they feel that the PLO never claimed it, and all the evidence points to the Right Wing Christians,” Boyd explained.
I promised to check on this. Was there any other point of objection?
“No,” said Boyd, “but I have an objection to the last sentence. You are essentially calling us terrorists.” And then, “I think that is beyond the pale, and I would insist on it coming out. To call us collaborators!”
We talked a bit more. Did “they” have any other points besides the one about the U.S. Ambassador, I wanted to know. “Yes,” he told me. “They felt that the sense of the Fitchett and Cody pieces wasn’t represented accurately, that they were misrepresented, I’m not sure in what detail. But that was a quibble. The main one was the U.S. Ambassador.”
I said I would try to verify the information about our ambassador to Lebanon. The next day I again telephoned Boyd. He hadn’t had a chance to check the letter with the person he had in mind. But I was able to report on my follow up on what had happened to our ambassador to Lebanon: “I talked with the number two man in the State Department’s Office for Combating Terrorism. He said that the question about the PLO murdering our ambassador to Lebanon was never resolved but the suspicion was that it had been done by Palestinians. Then I asked, ‘what about it having been done by Christian Arabs?’ He said that there were no claims to this effect that he was aware of.”
My final conversation with Ken Boyd, the man in charge of Letters to the Editor at The Washington Post, was on November 7. Ken told me, “I’m sorry. I’m just going to have to say ‘No’ on it. It’s got too many problems for me to handle, and it is something on which I am relying on other people’s expertise.”
“I thought we could handle the problems you mentioned by re-phrasing. Were there any more problems?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “It is essentially the same ones. The other factor is the feeling here of the time factor. It deals with news stories that are so far gone it’s just not worth dredging up.”
Here in its entirety is the letter that The Washington Post fumbled for three months:
The world’s most prominent terrorist organization and its chief, Yasser Arafat, are being recycled again as “moderates.”
An example is the interview with Arafat in The Washington Post by Joseph Fitchett. The article begins: “Palestine Liberation Organization Leader Yasser Arafat has denied that his guerrilla group recently called for the destruction of Israel or abandoned its interest in negotiating for a Palestinian state to co-exist with Israel.”
Arafat’s “moderation” was also the theme of an article by Washington Post correspondent Edward Cody. According to Cody, hard-line PLO-ers were pushing Arafat to violence because of the “lack of tangible progress from diplomacy.” We might ask Fitchett and Cody how “moderate” were the PLO murders of the American ambassadors to Lebanon and to the Republic of Sudan. We could also ask how “moderate” were the recent PLO murders of a French policeman and a neighbor of Shahpour Bakhtiar in Paris or the killing on July 27 of a 15-year old Jewish boy and the wounding of 20 of his companions who were on their way to a summer camp in Antwerp.
Especially ridiculous is the attempt to imply that Arafat must take the road of violence because his diplomatic moves have gone unrewarded. The United Nations and its constituent organizations devote themselves to advancing the PLO cause. But the recognition accorded Arafat and the PLO has brought only more violence.
Among the most afflicted have been the people of Arab lands on which the PLO has descended. Lebanon, for example, once the Switzerland of the Middle East, is now a shambles. The PLO was a major contributor, along with the Syrian “peace-keeping forces,” to the killing of 70,000 Lebanese and the physical destruction of their country. Thousands of Arabs killed in other lands are also part of the PLO toll.
Non-Arabs are victims, too. From 1973 until April 1979, Near East Report reveals there were 1575 terrorist attacks across Israel’s borders at a cost of 133 lives. From 1967 to 1978 Arab terrorists in Europe, Asia and Africa killed 1133 people, wounded 2498 and held 2753 hostage.
These facts must be known to Fitchett, Cody, and other Middle East “experts” who glorify Arafat as a “moderate.” Instead they should pay heed to Leonard J. Davis who observes in Near East Report: “When newspapers legitimize terrorists in words, they are no different than those nations which legitimize terrorists in diplomacy. They, too, become collaborators in terror.”
An interesting contrast with the strange odyssey of my “Letter to the Editor” at The Washington Post was an earlier experience with The Washington Star which then had a daily and Sunday circulation of 300,000 to 350,000. When I asked the Editor of The Washington Star whether an article published June 7 about Arafat and the PLO wasn’t an example of “disinformation,” he invited me to state my views in a “Point of View” article. This I did. The editors for “Point of View” suggested that I make my opening references more general. They felt that otherwise what I had written met their standards for their “op ed page” feature. My alternative was to submit the material as a possible “Letter to the Editor.” This could mean shortening it considerably. I preferred to try for the full article and made the recommended changes. The Star published the article on June 27 under a bold headline across four columns: “PLO terrorism: The record is clear.”
I sent a letter of thanks to the editor, Murray J. Gart, for inspiring me to undertake the research for substantiating my case. Gart replied, graciously: “You have presented important points. I am delighted that you could state them so eloquently.”
Handset in Deepdene; display type is News Gothic. Text paper is Warren’s Olde Style, 60-lb., and cover is Tan Hammermill, 65-lb. Ink is Van Son 40904. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 560 copies; the text on an SP-15 Vandercook and the cover on a 10×15 C&P.
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