EDITOR’S NOTE: The following appeared in the July 26, 2004, issue of National Review, a special issue made possible by the Media Research Center.
Many people still think of Reuters as the Rolls-Royce of news agencies. Just as the House of Morgan was once synonymous with good banking, Reuters has long been synonymous with good news-gathering. In 1940, there was even a Hollywood film about Paul Julius Reuter, the German-Jewish immigrant to London who as early as 1851 began transmitting stock-market quotes between London and Paris via the new Calais-Dover cable.
His agency quickly established a reputation in Europe for being the first to report scoops from abroad, such as of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Today, almost every major news outlet in the world subscribes. Operating in 200 cities in 94 countries, Reuters produces text in 19 languages, as well as photos and television footage from around the world.
Though it may report in a largely neutral way on many issues, Reuters’s coverage of the Middle East is deeply flawed. It is symptomatic, for instance, that Reuters’s global head of news, Stephen Jukes, banned the use of the word “terrorist” to describe the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. Even so, such is the aura still surrounding Reuters that news editors from Los Angeles to Auckland automatically assume that text, photos, and film footage provided by Reuters will be fair and objective. Reuters and Associated Press copy is simply inserted into many correspondents’ reports — even in the New York Times and Washington Post — without, it often seems, so much as a second thought given to its accuracy.
This has led to some misleading reporting from Iraq, and still worse coverage of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The newswires are much more influential in setting the news (and hence diplomatic) agenda of that struggle than most people realize.
One veteran American newspaper correspondent in Jerusalem, eager to maintain anonymity so as not to jeopardize relations with his anti-Israel colleagues, points out that “whereas foreign correspondents still write features, they rarely cover the actual breaking news that dominates the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In terms of written copy on the conflict, I would estimate that 50 percent of all reporting, and 90 percent of the attitude, is formed by these news agencies. The important thing about Reuters is that it sets the tone, and here spin is everything.”
In a study last year, the media watchdog HonestReporting found that in “100 percent of headlines” when Reuters wrote about Israeli acts of violence, Israel was emphasized as the first word; also, an active voice was used, often without explaining that the “victim” may have been a gunman. A typical headline was: “Israeli Troops Shoot Dead Palestinian in W. Bank” (July 3, 2003). By contrast, when Palestinians attacked Israelis (almost always civilians), Reuters usually avoided naming the perpetrator. For example: “New West Bank Shooting Mars Truce” (July 1, 2003). In many cases, the headline was couched in a passive voice.
Often it is a question of emphasis: Important and relevant information is actually contained in Reuters text, but buried deep down in the story. Many newspaper readers, however, never get beyond the headlines, and for space reasons many papers carry only the first few paragraphs of a report — often inserted into their own correspondents’ stories. When the TV networks run only brief headlines, or Reuters news ribbon at the foot of the screen, the full text is never shown.
Sometimes, Reuters presents unreliable information as though it were undoubtedly true. Most people are unlikely to notice this. For example, Reuters will note that “a doctor at the hospital said the injured Palestinian was unarmed” — when in fact the doctor couldn’t possibly have known this, since he wasn’t present at the gunfight. But because he is a doctor, Reuters is suggesting to readers that his word is necessarily authoritative. Unfortunately, Reuters headlines and text are used unchanged by newspaper editors because they assume it is professional, balanced copy, which doesn’t need any further editing.
Reporters of course can’t be everywhere at once. The increased speed of the Internet and the demand for instant, 24-hour TV news coverage means that the world’s news outlets rely heavily on Reuters and the AP, which in turn rely on a network of local Palestinian “stringers.” Virtually all breaking news (and much of the non-breaking news) on CNN, the BBC, Fox, and other networks comes from these stringers.
Such stringers are hired for speed, to save money (there is no need to pay drivers and translators), and for their local knowledge. But in many cases, in hiring them, their connections to Arafat’s regime and Hamas count for more than their journalistic abilities. All too often the information they provide, and the supposed eyewitnesses they interview, are undependable. Yet, because of Reuters’s prestige, American and international news outlets simply take their copy as fact. Thus non-massacres become massacres; death tolls are exaggerated; and gunmen are written about as if they were civilians.
As Ehud Ya’ari, Israeli television’s foremost expert on Palestinian affairs, put it: “The vast majority of information of every type coming out of the area is being filtered through Palestinian eyes. Cameras are angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army’s actions and never focus on Palestinian gunmen. Written reports focus on the Palestinian version of events. And even those Palestinians who don’t support the intifada dare not show or describe anything embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority, for fear they may provoke the wrath of Arafat’s security forces.”
One Palestinian journalist told me that “the worst the Israelis can do is take away our press cards. But if we irritate Arafat, or Hamas, you don’t know who might be waiting in your kitchen when you come home at night.”
Some of Reuters’s Palestinian stringers are honest and courageous. But, according to several ex-Reuters staffers, they feel the intimidating presence of Wafa Amr, Reuters’s “Senior Palestinian Correspondent.” Amr — who is a cousin of former Palestinian minister Nabil Amr, and whose father is said to be close to Arafat — had this title specially created for her (there is no “Senior Israeli Correspondent,” or the equivalent in any other Arab country) so that her close ties to the Palestinian Authority could be exploited.
As one former Reuters journalist put it: “She occupies this position in spite of lacking a basic command of English grammar. The information passed through her is controlled, orchestrated. Reuters would never allow Israeli government propaganda to be fed into its reports in this way. Indeed, stories exposing Israeli misdeeds are a favorite of Reuters. Amr has never had an exposé on Arafat, or his Al-Aqsa Brigades terror group.”
But things may well be improving. Lately, with a new Jerusalem bureau chief, Reuters has taken some steps to ensure greater balance. For example, it no longer claims Hamas’s goal is merely “to set up an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza” (which it is not), but instead writes that Hamas is “sworn to Israel’s destruction” (which it is).
Reuters no longer carries the highly misleading “death tolls” at the end of each story that lumped together Palestinian civilians, gunmen, and suicide bombers. (Agence France-Presse continues to do this.) And, apparently, there are plans to relocate Wafa Amr by next year. Is it too much to hope that one day soon Reuters might actually call terrorism terrorism?
– Tom Gross is a former Jerusalem correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph of London.