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December 28, 2017 3:46 pm

Dishonest Reporter of the Year Award 2017: ‘The Independent’

avatar by Pesach Benson

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A view of Jerusalem. Photo: Berthold Werner / Wikimedia Commons.

The biggest surprise of this year’s Dishonest Reporter Award is that the winner has never been given the accolade in the past. However, The Independent has a long and distinguished record of anti-Israel coverage.

Who can forget “classics” such as 2003’s appalling and demonizing cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby, which drew upon recognizable antisemitic tropes?

And what about the utterly false 2006 front page story by Robert Fisk accusing Israel of using “secret uranium weapons” against the Lebanese? To this day, Fisk and The Independent have failed to retract that libel — even after the claim was debunked by UN and Lebanese officials.

While The Independent has not sullied itself quite as dramatically this year, its failure relates to the fundamentals of ethical journalism.

Where’s your correspondent?

While journalists covering the Mideast can base themselves wherever they and their editors choose, correspondents still have a responsibility to “make the rounds” and spend time in the countries that are part of their beat. Seeing the situation first-hand, meeting the people face-to-face and sharing the experiences of individuals on both sides of the conflict is possible only by physically being there, even if only periodically.

That’s why stories have datelines. A dateline is a standard measure of media transparency, letting readers know where the story was written. Specifically, a dateline can shed light on the circumstances that the reporter works in, and sometimes the methodology behind the correspondent’s work. When several journalists in multiple locations are credited, an editor’s note should disclose who worked where.

In short, this often-overlooked disclosure allows readers to better judge the coverage for themselves.

The Independent relies heavily on “laptop journalists” — reporters covering stories remotely — for many of its articles about Israel. Some articles are written from London by writers collecting info online, typically rehashing information originally reported in Israeli and Palestinian media outlets, wire services, social media sites and press releases. Laptop journalists can literally write articles from anywhere in the world. With just a laptop and reasonable Internet connection, reporters can write from the home or office, an internet cafe, airport lounge, bus or even a park bench.

This raises the question: How can a writer sitting at home, whether in Beirut or London, possibly get the full picture using a computer or a telephone for his or her information?

The Independent’s Mideast correspondent, Bethan McKernan, is based in Beirut. The overwhelming majority of her articles about Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, Libya and the Gulf states in 2017 had Beirut datelines.

McKernan filed a few reports from places like Raqqa and Yemen. We also found a handful of October reports with New York datelines (on issues like Palestinian unity talks, the Kurdish referendum,) and one with no dateline at all (an update on a police investigation of possible corruption by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).

In July, Palestinians clashed with police in Jerusalem over the installation of security cameras at the Temple Mount, following the murder of two Israeli police officers. Jerusalem became ground zero for the foreign press. We’d like to believe that McKernan was in Israel, but it’s not clear. For the period of time of July 19-27, the height of the Jerusalem tensions, none of McKernan’s reports had any dateline at all. (See articles onetwothreefourfivesix and seven. McKernan’s non-Jerusalem stories during that time also had no datelines in reports onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelvethirteenfourteenfifteensixteen and seventeen).

And in mid-February, eight other reports had no datelines (articles onetwothreefourfivesixseven and eight) — meaning we don’t know if the reporters was in Israel. There’s nothing ulterior about writing up a story from a Starbucks minutes away from Rio’s famed Copacabana beach — as long as reporters don’t misrepresent themselves by claiming or implying that they were elsewhere, and that other reporters who helped out are also duly acknowledged.

Not being physically present in Israel would explain why McKernan relied on non-credible Palestinian sources in a November report about a cross-border terror tunnel destroyed by the IDF. According to McKernan, the tunnel’s reach into Israeli territory was just “an Israeli claim.” She also incorrectly reported that the tunnel was destroyed by jets firing missiles, which gave false credence to allegations that Israeli fire had hampered Palestinian search and rescue efforts.

Any reporter working in Israel would have been far less likely to make such a mistake.

So why were there no datelines?

Omitting datelines would have required the approval of McKernan’s editors. And the likely reason that they approved this was that she works in Beirut. Any sign of an Israeli stamp in her passport, any selfie from Israel posted on social media, any indication in her writing that she passed through Israel would put her at risk.

In a country where screenings of “Wonder Woman” were banned, no journalist wants to be summoned for questioning about why they were in Israel, who they met with and what they did. The story of Neda Amin — an Iranian feminist who blogged for The Times of Israel from Turkey and narrowly avoided being deported to Iran in August — is a cautionary tale for lots of writers who have personal or professional contacts with Israel.

And datelines are a damning footprint.

We’re not accusing Bethan McKernan of doing anything malicious. She’s probably not the only journalist doing this. And her editors would likely argue that it’s the “done” thing, and it’s a small price to pay for access.

But here’s the rub: Israel faced a lot of high-profile snubs in 2017.

UNESCO passed resolutions erasing historic Israeli ties to Jerusalem and Hebron. At a judo tournament in the United Arab Emirates, organizers barred Israeli judokas from wearing anything with Israel’s name or flag, and refused to display the Israeli flag or play the Israeli national anthem as is customarily done for medal winners. Israeli chess players were barred from an international chess tournament because it was hosted by Saudi Arabia. And 128 members of the UN General Assembly denounced US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

And in 2017, The Independent scrubbed Israel from its datelines.

It’s time to open a conversation on this policy.

Correcting the Errors

If the Dishonest Reporter Award was given based solely on the number of corrections prompted by HonestReporting, The Independent would be the hands-down winner also.

We got The Independent to make changes 16 times during 2017 — and that doesn’t include instances where editors dug their heels in or errors that were corrected before HonestReporting became involved.

To be fair, The Independent’s editors were relatively quick to make fixes when HonestReporting brought irrefutable evidence to the table. But the fact that so many errors slipped through the net and were published at all is cause for serious concern.

Of course, the chances of getting it wrong are that much higher if your media outlet is pumping out Israel-related content.

The steady drip-drip of The Independent’s skewed news included:

deceptive headline about 2016 being the “deadliest year for West Bank children in a decade.”

An op-ed diatribe based on fake facts.

A report misrepresenting Israeli support for controversial Knesset legislation (which editors corrected in response to HonestReporting complaints).

An overly simplistic graphic using casualty figures as moral barometer.

An inappropriately opinionated reference to Israel’s Likud Party (which editors corrected in response to HonestReporting complaints).

rose-colored headline heralding Hamas’ moderation, which looks odd in hindsight.

A column falsely claiming Israeli “dirty” weapons are responsible for causing cancer. The facts didn’t bear out the claim. Editors revised the sub-headline in a way that didn’t address the issue.

Embedding a tweet calling for Israel’s destruction (which editors removed in response to HonestReporting complaints).

An inappropriately opinionated reference to Israel’s security barrier (which editors removed in response to HonestReporting complaints).

An inaccurate reference to the Western Wall as Judaism’s holiest site (which editors corrected in response to HonestReporting complaints).

A report whitewashing Iranian extremism (which editors revised in response to HonestReporting complaints).

A malicious photo slideshow lacking captions (which editors removed in response to HonestReporting complaints).

factually inaccurate reference to Gaza’s Rafah crossing (which editors revised in response to HonestReporting complaints).

report using the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar to unfairly bash Israel based on dubious sources.

An article inaccurately portraying the Balfour Declaration as the root of Palestinian victimhood. (Editors corrected a factual error in response to HonestReporting complaints, but didn’t address its larger problems.)

factually inaccurate reference to the Palestinian Authority’s envoy to Britain. Not only did editors not revise the article, but The Independent went on to repeat the error.

While we appreciate the corrections that the editors made, the paper’s responsiveness leaves room for improvement.

We’d be remiss not point out that The Independent also gives a soapbox to Ben White, a “journalist” so committed to his niche Israel-bashing agenda, that he disregards reality to make his dubious points.

In 2017, readers of The Independent were treated to White’s shrill invective on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Labor Party, the security barrier, Britain’s definition of antisemitism, the “Israeli apartheid” slur and the British BDS movement.

White has also authored a number of books, whose titles make his views on the Mideast conflict all too clear, including Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, and Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy. In May, White will release his next book, Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel. No doubt, he’ll also bash Israel from his soapbox at The Independent.

With such a body of work, what does it say about The Independent that he’s such a frequent contributor?

Will this Dishonest Reporting award open a discussion about newspaper policies on datelines? Will The Independent cut down on its mistakes? Will editors bring more balance to the paper’s opinion section?

We can only see what unfolds in 2018.

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