Israel Resource Review 15th June, 2002


Minn Star Tribune Admits Errors in Coverage of Alleged Massacre in Jenin

MINNEAPOLIS, MN, - After weeks of controversy over its Middle East coverage, the Minneapolis Star Tribune has acknowledged that its handling of May news reports about a Jenin "massacre" was, in the words of Star Tribune editors, "awful," an "editorial disaster," an "egregious stumble," and an "embarrassing wart."

The newspaper has been under fire for weeks by Minnesotans Against Terrorism for systematically deleting references to terrorism directed at Israeli civilians and doctoring national wire service copy to distort its news reports about Israel.

Responding to questions raised by Minnesotans Against Terrorism, Star Tribune editors publicly admitted in a May 12 column that the newspaper was wrong when on May 3 it re-wrote wire service stories combined from the New York Times and Associated Press (AP) in a manner which radically distorted the meaning of a Human Rights Watch report on casualties in the Jenin refugee camp.

Both the New York Times and AP stories told readers in their very first paragraph that Human Rights Watch found "no evidence" of the alleged Jenin "massacre." But when the story was re-published in the Star Tribune, its editors fundamentally altered the story, deleting the New York Times headline -- "Rights Group Doubts Mass Deaths in Jenin . . . " - - and moving Human Rights Watch's dismissal of the claimed Jenin "massacre" from the first to the 21st paragraph of the Star Tribune story.

This particular doctoring of wire copy by the Star Tribune led Wall Street Journal Online to say "the Star Tribune committed an act of bias so blatant that (its reader representative Lou) Gelfand was forced, this past Sunday, to 'own up to a mistake.'"

In his May 12 column revealing what he called the Star Tribune's "egregious stumble" and "embarrassing wart", Gelfand quoted Star Tribune assistant managing editor Roger Buoen saying that these distortions were " absolutely not" good journalism. "The top of (the Star Tribune) story did not reflect a key finding of the report by the Human Rights Watch," confessed Buoen. "The report's finding that there was no evidence that Israeli troops carried out a massacre at Jenin was far too deep in the story. It should have been reported in the first sentence of the article."

Minnesotans Against Terrorism, which had been in discussions with Star Tribune managing editor Pam Fine about the Jenin "massacre" hoax and other incidents of distorted news coverage, welcomed the Minneapolis newspaper's acknowledgement of its errors.

"We're very gratified that the Star Tribune's managing editor candidly acknowledged that the paper's coverage of the Jenin story was 'awful,'" says Marc Grossfield, a co-founder of the group. "She has said that there have been 'editorial disasters' in their reporting on the Middle East, and that steps are being taken to make sure these mistakes don't continue to occur."

"The people most betrayed by the Star Tribune's bias are the newspaper's readers," adds Grossfield. "Incredibly, when the Star Tribune received word from trusted news sources -- the New York Times and the Associated Press -- that the "Massacre in Jenin" story had been investigated and proven false, rather than a front page pronouncement of "No Massacre", the Star Tribune instead buried that news."

"If a lie makes the front page headline of the Minneapolis paper, then so too should the truth," concludes Grossfield. Fortunately, we have other sources from which we can get unbiased and accurate news on the Middle East. But for those alternatives to the Star Tribune, Minnesotans might still believe the hoax that a massacre occurred in Jenin."

One promising sign of reform at the Star Tribune, says Mark Rotenberg, co-founder of Minnesotans Against Terrorism, is the newspaper's increased use of the word "terrorism" to describe the targeted killing of Israeli civilians. Rotenberg noted that since Minnesotans Against Terrorism's April 2 advertisement decrying the newspaper's refusal to call these killings "terrorism," Star Tribune readers finally have begun seeing dozens of references to "terrorism" incidents and "terrorist" groups operating against Israel.

"Clearly, Minnesotans Against Terrorism has had an impact in improving the fairness of the Star Tribune's coverage," observes Rotenberg. We look forward to working constructively with the Star Tribune's new Editor and Managing Editor to continue improvement in the news coverage of terrorism against Israelis. However, we will also continue to scrutinize the newspaper to be sure they don't slide back into their shameful past practice of censoring and distorting wire copy. The public interest is not served when Star Tribune editors indulge in a private agenda that skews their coverage of the Middle East."

Rotenberg noted that Star Tribune Vice President Ben Taylor acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times on April 28 that his newspaper's decision to censor the words "terrorism" and "terrorists" in an April 3 New York Times wire story was a mistake by an editor who "misinterpreted" the newspaper's policy. "We were very embarrassed," the Star Tribune's Taylor told the Los Angeles Times.

Last April 2, Minnesotans Against Terrorism took out a full-page advertisement signed by Gov. Jesse Ventura, U.S. Senators Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton, and more than 350 other Minnesota leaders of multiple faiths condemning the Star Tribune's refusal to identify groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade as terrorist organizations, and their targeted killing of civilians as terrorism. Minnesotans Against Terrorism's critique of the Star Tribune -- including its mid-April revelation that the paper systematically cleansed New York Times wire copy of all references to the word "terrorism" on the very day that the Star Tribune managing editor assured readers that it "will continue to publish the word terrorist when . . . it appears in wire stories" -- generated national and international attention. More than 40 articles, and as many TV and radio stories, have covered Minnesotans Against Terrorism's efforts, including Fox TV News with Brit Hume, the Wall Street Journal, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC-TV, the Washington Times, the Washington Post the Jerusalem Post, the Denver Post and the Chicago Tribune. "We are proud to be part of an emerging national dialogue about fairness and accuracy in news coverage of terrorism against Israelis," observed Grossfield.

The non-profit Minnesotans Against Terrorism was founded by attorney Mark Rotenberg and marketing executive Marc Grossfield, two Minnesotans who were eyewitnesses to a terrorist suicide bombing in Jerusalem. In addition to calling attention to the Star Tribune's biased news coverage, the group has expanded its activities to include sponsoring speeches by counter-terrorism experts, coordinating rallies, and other educational activities that focus attention on the terrorist threat faced by Israelis and Americans alike.

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UJC Reverses Policy Over the Green Line
Gary Rosenblatt
Editor and Publisher, the Jewish Week

After 35 years of confining its Israel-designated funds to within the Green Line, the primary fund-raising arm for the American Jewish community has changed its policy. In an historic move, the board of trustees of the United Jewish Communities, meeting Monday in Chicago, unanimously "adopted a broad interpretation of the UJC charter to permit the organization to provide assistance to Jews around the world, irrespective of where they live," according to an official statement.

"We are changing the process," said UJC president and CEO Steve Hoffman in an interview Tuesday, though the group is not changing the wording of its charter, which dates back to 1960.

Acknowledging "the environment has changed" since the outbreak of the Palestinian violence in September 2000, with the need for human services growing in the Jewish communities of the West Bank and Gaza, Hoffman said his group felt the need to "re-examine our charter and our practice."

He said he consulted with attorneys recently who concluded "it would be within our charter to provide relief and rehabilitative services to Jews anywhere."

The board action came in response to increasing criticism from some quarters that UJC was providing social services and humanitarian relief for Jews all over the world - except for those 200,000 or so living in Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders in the Holy Land.

The disapproval has increased over the last 20 months as more than 100 Jews living in those areas have been killed by Palestinian terrorists and hundreds more wounded. Critics charged that some of the Jews most in need of relief services were not being provided for because of the politics of the situation.

UJC launched an Israel Emergency Campaign in October that has raised more than $265 million, the largest campaign for Israel since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But the fact that the emergency campaign did not provide armored buses, bulletproof vests or medical or psychological services directly to communities in the disputed territories, though many have been under attack, raised troubling questions within the Jewish communal world.

There was also uncertainty because some individual Jewish federations provide funding beyond the Green Line and others do not. Adding to the confusion, UJC maintained that even though its services did not cross the Green Line, it was open to all, as long as people came into Israel proper to avail themselves of the help offered.

All that should change now, according to Hoffman.

"I don't want people to have to think who is worthy [of receiving social services] and who isn't, depending on where they live," he said. "And I don't want our campaign used for political purposes. What we want is for services to be determined by need."

Until now many felt that UJC was hostage to liberal politics for several decades, and some major donors opposed to the settlements had threatened to withdraw or decrease their donations if funds were distributed, through the United Israel Appeal, beyond the Green Line. But a UJC official noted Tuesday that the mood of the American Jewish community has shifted rightward as a result of the terror attacks on Israel and the U.S.

"The Jewish community is less liberal now, particularly after September 11, and we don't think there will be a significant backlash to our decision," the official said, adding: "We are going to deliver services where they are needed. We simply feel it's the right thing to do."

UJA-Federation of New York, long resistant to funding or sending missions across the Green Line, played a key role in the UJC shift this week.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the local charity, said that in recent months "there was increasing recognition" that regardless of where terror incidents took place, "we wanted to reach out to those Jews and their families and provide support, wherever they live."

Toby Klein Greenwald, a journalist living in Efrat, a settlement south of Jerusalem, wrote an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post last week highly critical of the UJC's longstanding policy. The article recounted her "disturbing" conversation with Hoffman in which she questioned him closely about not giving money directly to communities in need.

Hoffman countered with several arguments, including one about concern for the organization's IRS tax status, though that was proven to be a red herring 14 years ago.

Contacted after hearing of the UJC statement this week, Greenwald welcomed it as "wonderful," though she cautioned "the proof will be in the tachlis [practicality]" in whether there is "a positive response to requests for services in a timely and forthcoming way."

Greenwald said "the whole country is traumatized" and there is a great need for psychological counseling. Just last Friday night a substitute teacher in her 12-year-old son's school was murdered, she said, and when she spoke with the youngster about his feelings, he said, "it's not the first time."

The original funding policy came when UJC's predecessor, the United Jewish Appeal, interpreted its mandate of providing dollars for Israel to mean within internationally recognized, pre-1967 Israel. That is how the matter remained until now. Over the years there were times the policy was questioned internally, but there were concerns about angering the State Department, which is opposed to settlements, and perhaps prompting a challenge to the organization's tax status.

In hindsight, officials acknowledge that the ideal time to have made a change would have been when the UJA was reconstituted as UJC several years ago and the charter could have substituted the phrase "the Jewish people" instead of "Israel" as the beneficiary of funds.

"That would have solved the problem quietly," a UJC official noted, "and avoided all this controversy."

This ran as a front page article in the Jewish Week of NYC on June 14, 2002

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