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Bias and Distorted Media Coverage

Response to AP Statement About Erasing Video

Foundation for Claims

Alison Weir
If Americans Knew
March 31, 2006

For over a year AP refused to respond to questions about this incident. Now, only a few days after the publication of my article, public outcry has forced AP to issue a statement. Not surprsingly this statement attempts to absolve them of any wrongdoing. More unexpected is their description of the shooting of a child in ways that minimize Israel’s culpability.

It is not surprising that AP, which at first refused to comment, is now denying any misbehavior. When was the last time we heard a powerful institution admit, without immense outside pressure, that it had done something wrong? Almost all criminals cry that they didn’t do it. Some did. Claiming innocence does not make one innocent.

“I hope that people will not equate power with truth and will not automatically or unconsciously favor an institution over an individual.”

So now people have two versions to consider:

  1. My version, based on interviews with the AP cameraman and eyewitnesses (some on film) conducted in Balata and Nablus two weeks after the event, and
  2. The version now advanced by AP through Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, based on we’re-not-told-what evidence acquired over a year after the event, from New York.

The first step is to consider both of these versions carefully, and not automatically accept AP’s version, merely because it is the “establishment” one. I hope that people will not equate power with truth and will not automatically or unconsciously favor an institution over an individual. I hope that people will not automatically believe a corporation over a whistle-blower. I hope that AP’s enormous power and the advantages a journalist may gain from allying with it will not cause commentators to give AP’s assertions greater weight than mine.

In your evaluation, please keep in mind that I had little to gain from writing my article, and no reason to make things up. I have had friends who have been employed by AP and I have long held many AP journalists in high regard. I have no reason to be “anti-AP”, and am not. Moreover, I knew that in writing my article I was taking on a powerful organization with considerable influence and immense resources. Nevertheless, it seemed important to expose the facts I had discovered.

On the other hand, AP now has every reason to put forward an account that will excuse its actions.

I will address AP’s very belated account, point by point sequentially.

(You may also wish to view our short video on this incident.)

1. First of all, AP’s major suggestion – that it never had footage of the incident – is absolutely incorrect.

It is interesting, in fact, that while virtually everyone will read AP’s statement as saying this, they actually do not claim that they never had footage of the incident – perhaps because they are aware that such an assertion would have been an outright falsehood.

“AP actually do not claim that they never had footage of the incident.”

Instead, they use convoluted phraseology, eventually concluding (using the present tense) that they “have no footage of the incident.” Of course they don’t. It has been erased.

Not only do eyewitnesses state that AP’s cameraman had footage of this incident, but the cameraman himself, whose current statements differ in some respects from my conversation with him two weeks after the incident, continues to say that he had footage of the incident, and that it was erased.

What this footage contained, sadly, can never be proven, since it was not kept. However, the cameraman himself shortly after the incident told a witness that he had footage of a bleeding, screaming boy being helped into an ambulance, as well as footage prior to the shooting.

Even if this is all AP’s cameraman had, I suggest that people view the numerous still photos that both AP and Reuters captured of this incident (a few of them on our website), and then picture moving images accompanied by sound. It is hard to believe that this would not have been powerful, newsworthy footage.

“He had footage of a bleeding, screaming boy being helped into an ambulance. It is hard to believe that this would not have been powerful, newsworthy footage.”

Of course, the argument could be made that perhaps the footage was blurry or technically flawed. There is no evidence indicating that this was the case, however, and neither AP nor its cameraman have ever suggested it.

On a side note, I would like to emphasize that these cameramen and other journalists working in the Palestinian territories, often at great risk from Israeli forces, are accomplishing extremely important work. Many have been shot and beaten, some, like James Miller, have been killed. Their work is invaluable and underutilized. Many are Palestinian, some are Israeli, British, American, and of other nationalities. I certainly hope that this particular cameraman does not face a threat to his position with AP for having spoken to me.

2. AP’s description of the incident itself, according to eyewitnesses, is incorrect on a number of key points. On others, the context is incomplete or distorted, resulting in an inaccurate portrayal of what had occurred.

These inaccuracies and omissions are irrelevant to AP’s defense of its own behavior. They do, however, serve to minimize Israeli misbehavior.

Below I will first give AP’s statement, followed by eyewitness accounts from a Briton and an American, as well as by others.

AP states: “Israeli jeeps were patrolling around the outside of Balata camp...”

Three Armored Israeli jeeps invaded Balata, a community deep in Palestine’s West Bank. They drove down the dense main street and then returned to the entrance. Two of the jeeps left because there was very little activity. One stayed behind for an unknown reason.

AP states: “Some boys threw stones at the vehicles.”

Approximately 4 or 5 small boys, aged about 10 or 11, threw stones at armored vehicles invading their neighborhood.

AP states: “An Israeli border guard fired a rubber bullet toward the stone throwers and hit one of the boys in the stomach.”

Both clauses of this sentence are false.

“Witnesses state that there was absolutely no reason to shoot this boy, and that the soldier was in no danger whatsoever.”

The soldier aimed not toward any stone throwers, but in an entirely different direction. He stuck the tip of his gun out of a small window in his armored vehicle, aiming for several minutes, and then firing down Balata’s crowded main street. The soldier randomly aimed at a young boy and shot him. This boy had not been throwing stones. Witnesses state that there was absolutely no reason to shoot this boy, and that the soldier was in no danger whatsoever.

The boy was indeed shot with what is euphemistically called a “rubber bullet;” a steel cylindrical bullet with a thin rubber sheath. Such rubber-coated bullets have often maimed and killed. In this case, the bullet penetrated the boy’s bladder. He was hospitalized for two weeks and underwent several operations. Fortunately, his surgeon predicted no long-term physical disabilities; I cannot speculate about what the long-term psychological effects may be.

“Fortunately, his surgeon predicted no long-term physical disabilities; I cannot speculate about what the long-term psychological effects may be.”

One American witness who lived in Balata for a number of months in 2004 says that in these frequent armored invasions of Balata they almost never left until they had shot someone.

Most people find it inappropriate for soldiers in armored vehicles to shoot children under any circumstances – even when they have been throwing stones. Shooting children is a crime under international law, and (officially) under Israeli statutes.

Regarding my own mention of stone-throwing in my article: I thought I had remembered witnesses telling me that there had been no stone-throwing; however, in going back over the hours of video footage from Balata, I have found that, instead, they had emphasized that there had been “very little.” When I discovered this, I immediately corrected my article on our website, taking out the incorrect phrase. Happily, I didn’t make this error in the far longer and earlier article in which I originally wrote about this incident, that I hope you and others will now read: http://www.ameu.org/page.asp?iid=262&aid=530&pg=1 .

“I don’t blame AP for errors; I blame them for often making so little effort to correct them.”

I am sorry to have made this one error in my recent article, and have done what I believe all journalists should do when we find a mistake in our reports: corrected it. I have never blamed AP or others for simple mistakes. We all make mistakes at times, much as we try not to. The important thing is to correct them. I don’t blame AP for errors; I blame them for often making so little effort to correct them.

AP states: “It happened quickly and we did not get it on film.”

Yes they did; see above. While perhaps by “it” they mean that they did not get footage of some particular moment, they certainly got footage of the invasion and of the incident.

“While it is not surprising that AP would minimize their own mistakes, it is odd to see them describe the incident in ways that also minimize Israel’s culpability.”

While it is, as I stated earlier, not surprising that AP would now describe this incident in a way that minimizes their own mistakes, it is odd to see them describe it in ways that also minimize Israel’s culpability.

This is a particularly troubling aspect of both AP’s statement and of their reporting in general, and probably derives from a number of factors, perhaps including the fact that their control bureau for the region is situated in Israel and staffed largely by journalists living in Israel, many with close ties to that country.

Given how highly charged this issue is, it would seem extremely important for AP to have mechanisms in place to minimize human bias from intruding on its coverage. Such attention, of course, should be directed both to its operations in the region and to those directing coverage of Israel-Palestine on their international desk in New York.

Such oversight should come from within AP itself, and its operations should be as transparent as possible. Where this doesn’t occur, AP’s members should insist on it.

3. There are also several errors in the statement’s description of what occurred immediately following the shooting and at our visit to AP’s Jerusalem bureau.

AP states: “Moments after the incident, a woman began asking for the AP journalists. She then asked for our film, saying that she intended to make a court case against the Israelis. We told her we could not give her anything.
“Ms. Weir’s description of her visit to the AP office in Jerusalem is also distorted.”

When I spoke to AP’s Corporate Communications director Jack Stokes a few days ago, I was astonished to find that he thought I had been present at the boy’s shooting. As I wrote in my article, and as many people can attest, I was not. However, I wonder if AP’s reference in its statement to “a woman asking for the AP journalists” is meant to suggest that I was this woman. If so, this is either an astounding and very careless error, or a defamatory suggestion that I intentionally misled readers. I will choose to assume it was the former. While I have spoken to a number of eyewitnesses, I must reiterate that I myself was not in Balata at the time of the shooting.

Moreover, once again, AP’s statement is worth scrutinizing. In one respect, it is corroborative of my article:

AP states that: “this woman asked for our film... we told her we couldn’t give it to her.”

This confirms that the AP cameraman was there and that he had been filming, which implies that they did, indeed, have film of the incident.

“She asked AP’s cameraman if he had filmed the shooting, and he told her that he had footage of the screaming boy bent over bleeding and being put into an ambulance.”

In another respect, according to the woman herself, AP’s statement is incomplete and incorrect.

Following is this British woman’s account. (She has told me that she is happy to answer questions from the press on any of this.)

She had witnessed the shooting and had called to the soldier not to shoot a child. Afterwards, she approached the group of journalists filming and photographing the incident. She spoke with the cameraman from AP, asking that he keep his footage because she planned to follow up with human rights organizations on this violation of international law. The week before, she had witnessed an Israeli soldier, under no danger to his life, carefully aiming at and killing a seventeen-year-old boy. That incident had not been filmed and she realized the importance of documentary evidence to back up her eyewitness testimony.
She asked AP’s cameraman if he had filmed the shooting, and he told her that he had footage of the screaming boy bent over bleeding and being put into an ambulance. She asked if he could make her a copy of his footage that day, but he said that he had to send it to the bureau right away. He told her that she would be able to get a copy from them later. She phoned him later that day and again the following day to discover how to obtain it. He then told her that his footage had been erased.

“This does not denote a real or serious investigation of what they themselves term ‘extremely serious allegations’ of misconduct within AP operations.”

It is disturbing and indicative that AP made no effort to check their facts with this British eyewitness before issuing their statement. This does not denote a real or serious investigation of what they themselves term “extremely serious allegations” of misconduct within AP operations.

AP’s description of events in the Jerusalem office is similar to my own in many respects, with some distortions that are probably not worth going into. However, it is important to note that AP’s statement that their bureau chief had “started to respond,” but then stopped when he noticed that we were filming is quite false. Our camera was out and obvious from our very entrance into the office, and he glanced at it a number of times while talking to us. More important, he had not “started to respond,” but had already spoken to us extensively. I told him that we were filming a documentary. He stated that “AP’s global policy is that we don’t do these kinds of things.” It is foolish for AP to have falsified what occurred, since we have it on film.

However, since such a policy is so profoundly counter to the whole philosophy of journalism, I can see why AP would not wish to draw attention to it.

AP’s own guidelines state: “Transparency is critical to our credibility with the public and our subscribers.

4. Finally, AP’s statement ignores one of the major points of my recent article: that they stonewalled queries about this incident and about their process during their week of activity, dubbed “Sunshine Week,” dedicated to the people’s “right to know.”

AP consistently violated basic journalistic norms and ethical requirements. While AP President Tom Curley was making speeches around the country about the people’s “right to know,” stating: “Secrecy is the greatest threat to democracy,” AP itself was refusing to answer questions and to provide information – even of the simplest nature – about this incident and its own system of reporting. Secrecy is not only extremely destructive to a democracy, it is the antithesis of journalism. AP’s behavior regarding this incident has been deeply wrong on two fundamental levels:

  1. It violated the foundation of journalism and its own guiding principle: the people’s right to know.
  2. It violated one of the four major pillars of journalistic ethics: Be Accountable.

On multiple occasions AP refused to provide information about a serious incident. Now, forced by public outcry, AP claims to have facts that differ from my report. If so, why did it previously refuse to provide them?

In addition, it refused to answer questions about its own actions. The Society of Professional Journalism Code of Ethics states that “journalists should clarify and explain news coverage... Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media... Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”

With minimal resources, on the other hand, I made every effort to learn the facts as fully as possible on this incident and to discuss it openly and publicly. I interviewed witnesses to the shooting, the victim, his family, the doctor, the Israeli organization to which witnesses had reported this incident, the AP cameraman, and the Reuters photographer. I went to the Jerusalem bureau to attempt to interview AP’s bureau chief and other editors in the bureau. I phoned AP’s corporate headquarters, gave Media Relations Director Jack Stokes all the details I possessed on this incident, asked him to look into AP actions regarding the video, and asked him to tell me what had happened. He said that he would do so and would get back to me.

This was AP’s chance – and it was their obligation – to provide full information and to tell me of any errors in what I had been told. Instead, Stokes told me that this was “an internal matter,” and that they would give me no response. In other words, AP decided to take the fifth.

I again contacted them this year, explaining that I was on deadline with a chapter that included information on this incident and about AP, and again attempted to learn their version of this event as well as to learn other simple facts about AP’s system of reporting. Once again, AP provided no correction, no information, no response. As I wrote in my article, I was instead told, repeatedly, “Our official response is we decline to respond.”

Now AP, having finally issued a statement only when sufficient public embarrassment compelled it, has resumed its previous refusal to answer questions it doesn’t like from those it chooses to disregard.

“Whenever we portray someone in a negative light, we must make a real effort to obtain a response from that person.”

- AP Statement of Principles

AP’s Kathleen Carroll has issued a statement containing negative assertions about me. Yet, she never spoke with me, as journalistic norms obligated her to do (for example, SPJ’s code of ethics states: “Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing”.) AP’s own Statement of Principles holds: “Whenever we portray someone in a negative light, we must make a real effort to obtain a response from that person.”

I have since attempted, again without success, to contact her with the significant foundation for my charges about AP. I hope that Ms. Carroll, whose profession directs her “to seek the truth,” and whose position in AP, I assume, is to oversee its reporting, will meet with me on this in the future. Our goals, I hope, are identical: to provide the American public with accurate, undistorted information on Israel-Palestine and to assist AP in its efforts to provide the excellent journalism that, on other issues, it frequently produces.

AP’s power to inform, or to misinform, the American public is truly gargantuan. It is therefore profoundly important that its practices be transparent, that it be open and responsive when there is evidence that its coverage is flawed, and that it abide by its own statement of principles: “Any time a question is raised about any aspect of our work, it should be taken seriously.”

In 1914, AP’s general manager wrote: “I have no thought of saying The Associated Press is perfect. The frailties of human nature attach to it...the thing it is striving for is a truthful, unbiased report of the world’s happenings ... ethical in the highest degree.”

I applaud this shining statement, and deeply hope that AP’s members will hold AP to it.

The more I look into coverage of Israel-Palestine, the more I begin to wonder whether this relatively small incident (unlike many such shootings, this boy was neither killed nor permanently disabled) may be less important than a far larger pattern of which it may be symptomatic. I hope others will join me in investigating this.

Given that Israeli soldiers have shot thousands of Palestinian children in the last few years, it seems highly likely that AP cameramen and others have filmed many similar incidents. It seems quite possible that it is not rare for such footage to be erased, the video cartridge then reused. This raises a number of questions that I suspect we should all begin asking. Following are some preliminary ones:

  • How often have AP and other cameramen filmed Israeli soldiers shooting children and civilians?
  • How often do these cameramen film Israeli soldiers/Israeli settlers beating children and civilians?
  • What is the process for transmitting this footage to AP members?
  • Do Middle Eastern stations (or other stations around the world) ever receive AP footage not sent to American stations?
  • Who are the individuals who make the decisions on where footage should be sent?
  • How often is such footage not sent out and instead erased?
  • In cases where Israeli soldiers have shot civilians and/or children, and thereby committed crimes, what is AP’s policy on preserving this footage?
  • Are there any patterns of AP screening out certain types of footage?
  • Is there a pattern in the networks of screening out certain types of AP footage?
  • What measures does AP take to minimize bias in its coverage?

After the Balata incident, I briefly looked into another one: This one of Israeli soldiers shooting a 12-year-old boy in the throat, killing him. In this case the boy had been throwing stones toward invading Israeli armored vehicles 300 meters away. I found that AP filed no story on this killing. When I phoned several networks with information on this killing, one person told me that she knew about it, and said she had “seen the footage.”

12-year-old Bashar was shot in the neck and killed by an Israeli soldier. He had been throwing rocks 300 meters away.

On the right is a still photo of this incident, I believe from AP.

Where is the film footage?

It is my simple desire to figure out what is going on with these incidents and others. Having been to the area and seen tragedy quite close, I take news coverage of this issue extremely seriously. Since US citizens provide the financing for Israeli actions, it is essential that the coverage we receive on them be full, accurate, and undistorted. This is of life-and-death urgency.

I would have hoped that the indications I have brought to AP that something is not quite right with their coverage would have provoked interest by a management intent on providing excellent, full, unbiased news reporting. Instead, I have continued to find a defensive, closed institution – at least at the top – far more intent on covering itself and brushing off those that it considers unimportant than in working toward journalistic excellence. The public needs and deserves better.

Several months ago our organization began a statistical analysis of AP’s coverage of deaths among both the Israeli and Palestinian populations, similar to our previous studies of the New York Times, major television networks, and other news outlets. It will be useful to see our results, which I expect within a few weeks.

I believe strongly that just as it requires a vigilant population to maintain a democracy, it requires vigilant citizens and courageous journalists to maintain an open and excellent press.

I have no reason to be biased toward any party in this conflict, and dislike the notion of “taking sides.” I believe, however, that as human beings it is our responsibility to uphold principles of morality and to oppose injustice, and as journalists, to tell the story, at least over time, as correctly as possible. My intense investigation of this issue and its coverage over the past five years has indicated that on Israel-Palestine, Americans are rarely receiving such coverage. As Professors Greg Philo and Mike Berry found in their important book Bad News from Israel, many Americans do not even know who is invading whom. As a result, US policies, I believe, are deeply and tragically misguided for the region, for the world, and for Americans.

I am profoundly disappointed that AP’s management has decided not to answer questions about their extremely important operation, and have instead decided, in their spokesman’s words, that they’re “not going to do a reply.”

***

American and British eyewitnesses to the incident that we interviewed have told me that they are available to speak to the press.

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