Reuters, the 152-year-old, London-based global-news service, prides itself on what it calls “independence, integrity and freedom from bias in the gathering and dissemination of news and information.” These values, central to the company’s ethos, are enshrined in its underlying “trust principles,” established in 1941.
Reuters executives have gone to extreme lengths to portray their company as neutral. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when people around the world expressed solidarity with the United States by flying American flags, Tom Glocer, the first American CEO of Reuters and a New Yorker himself, ordered his New York staff to remove the digital American flag they had displayed on the outside wall of the company’s Times Square office. The reason? It violated Reuters editorial principles of impartiality. Reuters, its editors claimed, was not an extension of any country.
While this infuriated many as an absurdly overzealous interpretation of “neutrality,” what came next was even more disturbing. Reuters decided, in effect, to sacrifice accuracy for what it deemed to be objectivity. In a now-infamous internal memo, the news service’s global head of news, Stephen Jukes, affirmed a complete ban on using the word “terrorist” to describe the perpetrators of one of the worst acts of international terrorism: “We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word ‘terrorist.’”
Reuters’s much-touted commitment to accuracy and neutrality, however, is anything but that. It has become evermore apparent that the company is not impartial at all, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Take, for example, the terminology Reuters uses to describe Palestinian terrorism. The news service routinely characterizes Palestinian suicide bombings and terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as an “uprising for independence,” an “uprising for statehood,” an “uprising for an independent state,” or an “uprising against occupation.” Such wording is not only partisan, mimicking Palestinian rhetoric, but is completely deceptive. It distorts the facts in two ways.
First, it falsely implies that Israel has denied Palestinians statehood. In fact, in 2000 Israel offered a Palestinian state on the entire Gaza Strip and over 95 percent of the West Bank, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected the unprecedented proposal without even a counter-offer and opted instead to launch a campaign of terror and violence. If the Palestinians–nearly all of whom were not under “occupation” but living under their own governance–refused an unprecedented opportunity for statehood so recently, how can Reuters define their current mass killing of Israeli civilians as a desire for statehood?
Second, it utterly discounts the avowed goal of Palestinian terrorists: to annihilate the Jewish state. The wording of Reuters reports whitewashes the terrorists’ illegitimate mission, casting it in universally acceptable tones of “statehood” and “independence.” The Hamas charter mandates, and its leaders repeatedly vow, to “purify” Palestine “from the Jews” (Ismail Abu Shanab, New York Times, October 28, 2000); to “kill Jews everywhere” (Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Chicago Tribune, July 23, 2002); and to continue “martyrdom operations until the full liberation of Palestine” (Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Boston Globe, Dec. 28, 2002).
Put into Reuterspeak, their mission reads, “Hamas has spearheaded a 28-month-old Palestinian militant uprising against Israel for a state in Gaza and the West Bank” (“Israeli Tank in Flames After Hitting Bomb in Gaza,” Shahdi al-Kashif, February 15, 2003). Suicide bombings are presented as part and parcel of that supposedly limited and reasonable goal: “Israel says the barrier . . . is needed to keep out suicide bombers who have killed hundreds of Israelis as part of a three-year-old uprising for statehood” (“Hamas Says Israeli Barrier Will Not Stop Attacks,” Nidal al-Mughrabi, Oct. 3, 2003).
The sanitized “uprising for independence” language is used even when the rest of the same article clearly contradicts its use. For example, a story about the closure by Israeli authorities of an Israeli-Arab summer camp promoting armed struggle against the state of Israel (“Israel Shuts Pro-Palestinian Summer Camp,” July 31, 2003) referred to the camp’s violent message as “supporting a Palestinian uprising for independence.” Yet the article described TV-film footage that showed campers marching to chants such as “don’t want flour, don’t want sardines–we want bombs.” It also quoted from an interview with a camp instructor, who proclaimed: “This is all Palestine from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea. We will continue the struggle to victory in liberating Palestine.” A teenager was quoted insisting that Jews leave and “go back where they came from, Poland, Russia.” Unmistakably, the rhetoric of the camp called for the destruction of the Jewish state–it did not advocate Palestinian independence alongside Israel.
By inserting sanitized editorial language belied by the facts presented in the article, Reuters is not being neutral; it is acting overtly partisan, muting the extremist agenda of the Arab position and deflecting potential international criticism. “Uprising for statehood” is used not only in articles originating from the region but in every Reuters story that mentions Palestinian violence. An article about the space-shuttle explosion that referred to Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon included the following statement:
The launch of Ramon’s space flight had virtually erased news of the country’s woes, spreading space fever among Israelis embittered by a Palestinian uprising for statehood, a scandal-plagued national election and a domestic recession. (“Stunned World Grieves Over Shuttle Disaster,” February 2, 2003)
Needless to say, Israelis were embittered, not because Palestinians want a state, but because Arafat chose the path of violence over peaceful negotiations, leading to terrible losses of innocent lives.
Why does Reuters resort to a generalized use of erroneous terms rather than to specific and factual language to describe each event as it happens? Why disseminate a Palestinian propaganda line that effectively justifies terrorist violence?
These questions were put to Stephen Jukes, the man who established the editorial guidelines meant to safeguard the “trust principles” of Reuters. The guidelines include, among other things, avoiding the use of emotive terms, not taking sides, not glorifying one side or another, attempting to reflect the views of all sides, not disseminating propaganda, and not offering journalists’ own opinions or views.
Mr. Jukes’s response was as deceptive as the language his news organization employs. Although he acknowledged that “some militant groups, such as Hamas, have said they want to destroy the state of Israel,” he felt that “it would be misleading to imply in [the] choice of words that all, or even the majority of, Palestinians consider the uprising to be a rebellion to destroy Israel.” Phrases like “uprising for an independent state” and “uprising against occupation” are goals that are “clearly stated by Palestinian political leaders and by most Palestinians.” And so, Jukes concluded, Reuters is “pretty much in order on this one.”
Reuters journalists, however, do not qualify the terminology in question as “the stated aims” of certain Palestinian leaders. They use it as a blanket excuse for all Palestinian violence, including by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose leaders publicly advocate the destruction of Israel.
While Mr. Jukes concedes that these groups seek to destroy Israel, he cannot–or will not–explain why Reuters continues to use language that downplays these goals. Nor does he address the overriding matter of Palestinian rejection of statehood at Camp David and Taba talks.
What Jukes admitted to, in effect, is an outright compliance with the preferences of the Palestinians–the use of phrases conforming to those “clearly stated by . . . Palestinians.” (Otherwise, the phrasing would refer to “violence against Israel” or “uprising against Israel”–which would avoid slant of any kind.)
Using similarly opinion-laden terminology, Reuters has also begun routinely to equate Palestinian terrorist attacks with Israeli defensive actions. In one particularly perverse case, the news service reported what it considered an occurrence of “tit-for-tat bloodshed” to characterize events at a Rosh Hashanah meal in the Jewish settlement of Negohot. A Palestinian terrorist broke in to a home, murdering two people, including a seven-month-old baby, and wounding several others. He was killed by an Israeli guard who rushed to the scene–hence, the “tit-for-tat” scenario. The news story described the circumstances as follows:
But the tit-for-tat bloodshed continues. Shortly after [senior representatives of the “Quartet”] issued their appeal [to implement the road map], a Palestinian gunman shot dead an Israeli settler and a baby at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank before he was shot dead himself. (“Palestinians Mark Anniversary with Vow to Fight On,” September 29, 2003)
There was yet more editorializing on behalf of the Palestinians. Unwilling to characterize this attack against Israeli civilians as terrorism, Reuters injected a possible rationale in another article about the same attack: “Palestinians regard Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as major obstacles to peace and have regularly attacked them” (“Palestinians Kill Two Israelis on Jewish New Year,” September 26, 2003).
The continuous insertion of editorial language to cover up the annihilationist aims of Palestinian groups is troubling indeed. So is the moral confusion implicit in the blanket refusal by Reuters to label as “terrorists” those who kill innocents. Most alarming is that all of this is amplified by the news service’s global reach. Unfortunately, the vaunted “trust principles” of Reuters are nothing more than empty rhetoric.