Jewish groups singled out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for rebuke, calling the daily newspaper out for purported anti-Israel bias in its editorials.
In a letter addressed to Post-Gazette publisher and editor-in-chief John R. Block, executive editor David Shribman and Allan J. Block, chairman of Block Communications, which owns the paper, the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) — a media watchdog group headquartered in Boston — expressed “concern with a recurring pattern of factual errors and bias” in editorials addressing the Middle East conflict and the State of Israel.
The letter pointed to eight specific examples of editorials, a political cartoon and two articles published between June 2014 and March 2015, mostly authored by the paper’s editorial board and associate editor Dan Simpson, as consistently portraying “Israel as the cause of Middle East problems” and failing to meet “standards of fair and accurate reporting.”
The full text of the letter can be found on zoa.org, but examples of alleged anti-Israel bias include: an Aug. 27, 2014 column by Simpson, a former foreign service officer, charging without substantiation that “the Israel lobby” on Capitol Hill was prodding the United States to go to war with Syria in order to distract the American public from the war in Gaza; a Feb. 11, 2015 Simpson column in which he classifies Israel as a potential enemy of the United States; and a July 22, 2014 Rob Rogers’ cartoon portraying Israelis as intentionally targeting Gazan civilians during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
Other examples of purported anti-Israel bias cited in the letter include editorials that omit key facts, such as a July 18, 2014 piece criticizing Israel for failing to embrace the Hamas/Fatah unity government while omitting the fact that “Hamas is sworn to the destruction of Israel, and that is the reason Israel responded harshly to the proposed unity government,” the letter charged.
Stuart Pavilack, executive director of ZOA-Pittsburgh, began monitoring the Post-Gazette’s coverage of Israel with the assistance of Steve Stotsky, CAMERA senior analyst, about a year ago, he said. He spoke to Shribman by telephone after he sent the letter. He has not yet heard back from John or Allan Block, he said, and so far, representatives from the paper have declined to meet with him in person to discuss the concerns of his constituency.
“David Shribman said he’s not involved with what is published on the opinion pages, but he thinks people are entitled to their opinions,” Pavilack said. “I don’t disagree, but when the facts are blatantly false, that’s where I have a problem. The point of the letter was to point out in an analytical fashion the errors. I thought they would be interested in the journalism and want to address the issues and make the pieces credible.”
In an interview, Shribman, who unlike John Block, does not sit on the editorial board and has no control over the content of the editorial pages, defended the policies of his paper.
“Reporting and selecting wire stories on a controversial topic such as this inevitably raises charges one way or another,” Shribman said. “I have full confidence in the Post-Gazette’s sense of fairness on this and other matters.”
Numerous members of ZOA-Pittsburgh have “expressed concern about the poor treatment Israel gets in the Post-Gazette,” Pavilack said.
One of those ZOA members is Dr. Cyril Wecht, who has written several letters to the Post-Gazette charging that the paper’s coverage of Israel and the Middle East is frequently biased and inaccurate.
“This is not new with the Post-Gazette, or with Dan Simpson,” Wecht said. “He does not miss an opportunity to criticize Israel, even when the subject is not really Israel. Some of his comments are outright, unvarnished and completely horrific attacks on Israel. Others are just slipped in.”
Wecht pointed to Simpson’s Feb. 11, 2015 column, in which he lists the Jewish state as among potential “enemies” of the United States, categorizing the sovereign state of Israel among “harder-to-defeat non-state organizations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, with Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Zaydis, Houthis, Gazans, Copts … and Palestinians stirred in.”
Wecht said he found it “astounding” that the Post-Gazette has not agreed to meet with the ZOA to discuss its concerns and believes it is crucial for readers who are troubled by the paper’s coverage of Israel to speak up.
“If we have learned anything in the 20th century, it’s that sticking our heads in the sand doesn’t make it go away,” Wecht said. “That’s not the answer. For me, I want to fight back. I want to make Jews in the greater Pittsburgh area understand what’s going on.
“Freedom of the press is wonderful, if you own the newspaper,” he continued. “I can understand freedom of the press. But it’s not an impregnable defense that you dare not even think of attacking.”
Several members of the Jewish community have expressed their dissatisfaction with the newspaper’s coverage of Israel by canceling their subscriptions to the paper.
The line in the sand for Mark Frank, founder and chair of the Northern Israel Center for Arts and Technology — an Israeli/Arab coexistence project — was a Jan. 1, 2014 column by Simpson, which predicted that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would break down in the coming year because of “the ability of the Israelis to keep Sunni and Shiite Muslims fighting each other rather than concentrating on acquiring a homeland for the Palestinians.”
“That was as outrageous as it is ridiculous,” Frank said, accusing Simpson of harboring an “ingrained bias.” “I found the Post-Gazette giving him a platform with which to exhibit this bias disturbing.”
While Frank is a proponent of critical discourse concerning Israel, he found preposterous Simpson’s assertion that the failure to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian accord was somehow due to Israel’s “ability” to keep Muslims fighting each other.
Frank wrote a letter to the paper, explaining why he was canceling his subscription.
“No one from the paper ever explained to me the ‘ability’ of Israel to keep Sunni and Shiite Muslims fighting each other,” he said. “It’s so obviously impossible, and yet Dan Simpson can just say it and get away with it.”
Another former reader of the Post-Gazette, Sue Berman, takes issue with the paper’s sense of fairness. She canceled her subscription to the paper following the publication last summer of a political cartoon by Rogers that portrayed Israelis intentionally killing civilians in Gaza.
“The cartoon seemed anti-Semitic to me,” Berman said. “The cartoon itself contained stereotypes of Jews from decades ago.
“It was so clearly biased that I couldn’t continue to support the paper. I immediately canceled my subscription. It was a blatant last straw,” she added.
While it is uncommon for newspapers in the 21st century to fact-check opinion pieces, “employees of news organizations do have a responsibility to make sure what they are writing is factually accurate,” according to Nicholas Lemann, a professor and dean emeritus of the Columbia Journalism School who focuses on ethics and trends in journalism.
Had he been editing Simpson’s Jan. 1, 2014 piece, Lemann said in an email, he would have edited out the sentence about Israel keeping Muslims engaged in sectarian warfare.
“That’s because it’s a very big assertion that isn’t widely agreed upon, presented with no supporting evidence,” Lemann explained. “Though Simpson uses the word ‘fact,’ terms like ‘fact-checking’ and ‘accuracy’ do not to my mind capture what’s called for editorially here. It’s more not letting writers say something this broad and dramatic with no detail or support.
“And of course in this case the writer is, probably unconsciously, calling to mind the venerable anti-Semitic trope that Jews somehow have an extraordinary power to shape the course of events in a malign way,” Lemann added. “It’s good editing to be sensitive to that kind of problematic remark, even if your author is not.”
The Post-Gazette, and particularly Simpson, have “crossed a line,” charged CAMERA’s Stotsky. “Simpson is insinuating things he can’t prove and saying things he can’t justify.”
In an April 8, 2015 opinion piece on the Iran deal, Simpson pointed the finger at those he labeled “Jewish-American extremists” for allegedly making campaign contributions to Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
“I would say Simpson has gone beyond what we deal with in The New York Times,” Stotsky said. “There are certainly undertones suggesting an animus against Jews and their support for Israel. And there is no substantiation. What way are these people ‘extremists?’ He doesn’t say.”
Tom Waseleski, the editorial page editor of the Post-Gazette, defended the pieces criticized in the ZOA/CAMERA letter in an email to The Chronicle, stating that he had had an “extensive conversation” with Pavilack, and that the “Post-Gazette’s editorials are fair, researched and speak for themselves.”
Waseleski did not respond to an inquiry as to whether editorials are fact-checked prior to publication.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.