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Media Notes Howard Kurtz
The News That Didn't Fit To Print
In the N.Y. Times, No Room for Terror

_____More From Kurtz_____
The Bureaucracy That Ate Washington (The Washington Post, Jun 10, 2002)
White House Takes Back the Spotlight (The Washington Post, Jun 7, 2002)
Shelby Seizes the Spotlight (The Washington Post, Jun 6, 2002)
The Very Public Secret Hearing (The Washington Post, Jun 5, 2002)
Ari Fleischer: Beyond Spin? (The Washington Post, Jun 4, 2002)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 10, 2002; Page C01

Nearly a month before Sept. 11, terrorism analyst Peter Bergen told a New York Times reporter that he should write about an al Qaeda propaganda videotape that Bergen had obtained.

"I think there is a major story to be told," he wrote to Times reporter John Burns, "wrapping around the new bin Laden videotape and the various threats against U.S. facilities in the past months which can paint both a compelling picture of the bin Laden organization today, and responsibly suggest that an al Qaeda attack is in the works. . . . Clearly, al Qaeda was and is planning something."

Burns, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote an article that appeared on the Times's Web site Sept. 8. But Burns's prescient piece about Osama bin Laden never appeared in the newspaper, and the Times quickly expunged it from the electronic archives.

Burns says from London that the piece was held for space reasons. "There was never any substantive problem with the story," he says. "It was, of course, unfortunate that it worked out in the way it did. If the events of September 11 had not been of such catastrophic magnitude, I might have been a lot more chagrined than I was. My personal disappointment became utterly irrelevant. It would be pretty self-indulgent of me to say I was denied a journalistic coup because of this."

Bergen, who recounts the episode in the paperback edition of his book "Holy War, Inc.," says the Times's decision to hold the story (in which he was quoted) "is symptomatic of many American institutions' failure to fully appreciate the scope of the threat posed by al Qaeda."

Bernard Gwertzman, editor of Nytimes.com, calls the incident "a bad screw-up." He says the Burns piece was scheduled for publication Sept. 9, a Sunday, and that the Web site routinely posts such stories on Saturday afternoon.

After Times editors held the story late Saturday, Gwertzman says, "the paper called the next day and complained, and my day producer just pulled the story. The resulting problem was that people who'd seen the story then tried to search for it, and because it was expunged from our system, you couldn't find it." He says the Web site "probably shouldn't have pulled it off."

Snippets of the al Qaeda videotape had been shown on CNN, where Bergen is a terrorism consultant, and Reuters had carried a story.

Reading the piece now is downright eerie. Burns described the "fire-and-brimstone" declarations of bin Laden, who "declares his purpose -- killing Americans and Jews -- more starkly than ever. Proudly, he salutes the suicide bombing of the American destroyer Cole . . . and promises more attacks. . . .

"With his mockery of American power, Mr. bin Laden seems to be almost taunting the United States. Although F.B.I. investigators believe he was behind the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 . . . two bombings in Saudi Arabia . . . and the bombings of two American embassies in east Africa . . . the United States has found no way, so far, of containing him."

Burns used some of the passages in a larger story about al Qaeda -- which ran on Sept. 12.

Protesting The Post

A group of local Israel supporters has organized a one-week boycott of The Washington Post, beginning today.

"It's not just because I'm a supporter of Israel that I am upset with the media," says Laurel Anchors, a Gaithersburg lawyer, adding: "Just in case you think I'm interested in balance, you're wrong. I'm interested in the truth."

The "truth," of course, looks very different to partisans on either side, but outrage among pro-Israel readers has fueled similar boycotts against the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The protesters have set up a BoycottThePost.org Web site; a Post spokesman says only "a few" subscriptions have been canceled.

Michael Berenhaus, a Bethesda optometrist, says that "Jews are wrongly accused of being the problem. I see history repeating itself. . . . I don't want The Post to be pro-Israel. I'm looking for pro-fairness, pro-accuracy and pro-honesty."

Hillel Glazer, a Silver Spring technology consultant, says that the paper has failed to "put everything through the filter that these people" -- the Palestinians -- "want to kill every Jew in town" and that the "vast majority" of Palestinians killed are "what The Post would call militants and what should really be called terrorists."

In April, the group notes, The Post picked up a quote from the Associated Press -- "Sharon 'should expect all doors of hell to break loose,' vowed one masked militant" -- but changed the attribution to "one of the mourners."

Phil Bennett, assistant managing editor for foreign news, says such criticism has prompted the paper to be more careful about language, such as not describing killings as "retaliation" so The Post doesn't seem to "implicitly justify attacks."

But the paper has "no conscious bias," says Bennett, who is struck by "how polarized and polarizing the events in the Middle East are and how personally they're taken by many readers. Much criticism is disconnected from the actual stories and photos that we are publishing. There are perceptions of bias that are themselves shaped by bias."

Anchors says The Post described the Israeli attack on the West Bank town of Jenin in "heart-rending" fashion "totally from the viewpoint of Palestinian Arabs." But a Page 1 story April 16 said that "no evidence has surfaced to support allegations by Palestinian groups and aid organizations of large-scale massacres or executions by Israeli troops."

Berenhaus says that when the Palestinian violence first erupted, "The Washington Post stated that Ariel Sharon started this." A Sept. 29, 2000, story said that rioting began "after Ariel Sharon . . . led a small delegation of hawkish legislators" to a Jerusalem site holy to both Muslims and Jews, but it devoted the fifth and sixth paragraphs to Sharon's view, quoting him as saying: "The provocation was only on the other side. We came with a message of peace."

Berenhaus also calls "disgraceful" Post articles "showing sympathy toward suicide bombers." But Bennett, who has discussed the coverage with such groups as the American Jewish Committee, says that "some readers interpret a profile of a suicide bomber as a glorification of suicide bombing. That's totally without foundation."

Back Home

The American Spectator is returning to Washington, nearly two years after technology guru George Gilder bought it, moved it to Massachusetts and turned it into a for-profit, high-tech-and-economics monthly all but drained of politics.

Now, unable to make money, Gilder is giving the conservative magazine back to its old nonprofit foundation, where founder R. Emmett Tyrrell and longtime managing editor Wlady Pleszczynski will relaunch the venture.

"We want to have more investigative journalism, more politics, more culture, and the whole gang's pretty much together," Tyrrell says. "We're going to continue to do the important pieces we do on economics now. . . . George wants to go on to other things. George is a visionary, more a visionary than a journalist. Pleszczynski and I are journalists."

And will the latest version again be in the red? "Magazines like this never make money," Tyrrell says.

More Fiction?

The Dallas Morning News has placed lifestyles columnist Marilyn Schwartz on permanent leave after discovering that she was writing about people whose identities could not be verified.

Editor Bob Mong says Schwartz admitted to some inaccuracies and attributed them to her deteriorating health, which includes recent treatment for breast cancer and diabetes. "I apologize to the News and to you readers for making these mistakes," Schwartz wrote.

Mong says there were errors and possibly made-up people in most of the 35 columns examined, stretching back over the last two years. "I should have realized earlier that she was having a problem," he says.

This Just In

Everyone knows Fox News Channel has a conservative audience, right? Actually, a Pew Research Center poll puts the viewership at 46 percent conservative, 32 percent moderate and 18 percent liberal -- not much different than the 44 percent conservative audience for CNBC or 40 percent conservative for CNN and MSNBC.

The difference is more apparent on individual shows: Bill O'Reilly's Fox audience is 56 percent conservative and 5 percent liberal, while Larry King's CNN audience is 38 percent conservative and 19 percent liberal.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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