FAIR -- Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Media analysis, critiques and activism

ACTIVISM UPDATE: New York Times: Same Problem, Different Answers

May 30, 2002

On May 7, the New York Times published an editor's note about the paper's coverage of a large pro-Israel demonstration on May 6. The Times had accompanied the story with a front-page photo with a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the foreground, despite the fact that they were a small minority of those present. As the Times put it, "the effect was disproportionate. In fairness the total picture presentation should have better reflected The Times's reporting on the scope of the event, including the disparity in the turnouts."

This is a commendable principle-- or rather it would be, if the Times used it in every case.

In a similar incident a few months ago, the Times severely underestimated the crowd size of anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C.-- "a few hundred" was the count in their September 29 article, versus the police estimate of 7,000. The following day, the only photograph of the second day of protests was of a lone counter-demonstrator holding a sign that read "Osama thanks fellow cowards for your support."

At the time, FAIR and hundreds of media activists wrote to the Times protesting the photo choice and poor reporting of the march's size. The paper's response was less than positive. Senior editor Bill Borders sent out emails accusing FAIR of spreading misinformation, saying, "I don't know why they did this; you might want to ask them."

The Times did upgrade their crowd estimate in the Final Edition of the September 29 paper, but they never ran a correction informing the readers of the earlier editions that it had misinformed them about the crowd size. And the paper never acknowledged in an editor's note that it was misleading to represent a march of thousands with a photograph of a single counter-demonstrator.

After seeing how the Times handled the problem with the May 6 story on the pro-Israel march, FAIR wrote to the paper inquiring about the different treatment these two very similar errors received-- one was prominently corrected, while in the earlier case the paper responded by attacking FAIR for pointing it out.

The Times' only response to the letter was an angry phone call from Borders to FAIR. Complaining that FAIR chose to dig up such an "old" story, he repeatedly asserted that FAIR's claim that the Times had miscounted the protesters was a "lie," since the final edition of the paper was changed to more accurately reflect the actual crowd size. Of course, the Times often prints corrections to stories that were amended in later editions, so that readers will be aware of an error in an edition of the paper they may have read. Borders added that FAIR's work "over the years" has been based on lies, but he declined to elaborate on the charge.

Interestingly, Borders actually agreed that the photo choice at the anti-war demonstration had been an error: "We covered it wrong," said Borders. Nonetheless, Borders was so hostile to FAIR's inquiries that he at one point suggested that the staffer he was speaking with "get a job at Macy's."

The New York Times returned to the issue of the pro-Israel march in a May 23 article by Felicity Barringer about threats of boycotts by supporters of Israel against several newspapers, including the Times. "Critics of the Times dispatched hundreds of e-mail messages and angry commentary earlier this month when it published a front-page photograph of the Salute to Israel parade in Manhattan that showed a small group of pro-Palestinian counter-demonstrators in the foreground and pro-Israeli marchers and their supporters in the background," Barringer reported. Given the disparity in the size of the marches, she reported, this raised the question of whether the Times was "straining to create a sense of equivalence."

There certainly does not seem to be any sense of equivalence at the Times when the exact same complaint, conveyed in both cases by hundreds of email messages, is treated so disparately.

ACTION: Please write to New York Times executive editor Howell Raines and point out that while it's encouraging that an editor privately acknowledged the paper's error regarding coverage of the September anti-war protests, it's the public record that matters most. Ask Raines if the paper would consider issuing a public statement, as it did in the case of the pro-Israel march, indicating that it was wrong to illustrate a story about an anti-war march with a photo of a lone counter-demonstrator. Encourage the Times to be more consistent in applying its stated policy of prominently correcting errors.

CONTACT: New York Times Howell Raines, Executive Editor mailto:executive-editor@nytimes.com

Source: http://www.FAIR.org

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