Guest Post (Richard Behar): The AP And New York Times Gaza Staff Swap

With Matti Friedman’s recent second exposé about Associated Press and its Israel-hostile coverage, and an exposé in The Jewish Press a few days ago, the world’s largest news agency is coming under much-warranted criticism. Also, as revealed by the New York Times’ public editor two weeks ago, we learn that the Times’ top reporter in Gaza – Fares Akram – has gone to work for AP.

If anybody needed yet more evidence of AP’s bias, perhaps this is it. Akram, as some of you know, was exposed by me in my Forbes blog in August. I had discovered that he once put PLO leader Yasir Arafat as his Facebook profile picture. The Times’ public editor (Margaret Sullivan) notes that “some readers have objected” to the newspaper’s employment of Fares Akram as a “contributor” because of that Arafat photo. A few thoughts:

So we now learn for the first time that the Times only utilized Akram as a “contributor.” However, readers would only have known that he received bylines (and co-bylines with Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren). Thus, readers would have had every reason to conclude that he was a staffer. He certainly was their #1 reporter in Gaza. Sullivan also decided to equate Akram with a second Times reporter (Isabel Kershner), who Sullivan notes has also been criticized because her son is starting Israeli military training.

This is, as we know, the kind of classic ‘moral equivalency’ that the paper has long practiced in its coverage of the conflict. But what Sullivan fails to note is that Kershner herself seems to bend over backwards to slant many of her stories against Israel. What Sullivan does slip into her column is that Kershner “writes on contract.” Again, that’s news for readers. Is that Sullivan’s way of suggesting that she is somehow less important than staffers? Not noted by her is that Kershner is a senior Times reporter who has worked for them since 2007.

Perhaps its high time that the newspaper publish a staff list, so that readers can know who are considered mere contributors, contract writers, freelancers, etc.—since Sullivan herself seems to be suggesting that these are important things for readers to know. Or maybe footnote each article with their titles and relationships to the paper. As I’ve written in the past, I love the Times and have always considered it a global and necessary treasure (apart from its Mideast and certain other foreign coverage)–the best paper in the world. I’d like to see some sunlight from them on the arrangements they have with their reporters and writers.

Getting back to the moral equivalency suggestion in Sullivan’s column, here is what she doesn’t note about Akram. As I wrote in my Forbes blog, Akram did not only use Arafat as his Facebook profile photo, he had a second photo in his album, along with a caption where he waxed poetic about Arafat in the context of “heights by great men.” Also, in 2009, following an Israeli air strike that tragically killed his father and a cousin, Akram wrote that “I am finding it hard to distinguish between what the Israelis call terrorists and the Israeli pilots and tank crews who are invading Gaza.” Akram, a Palestinian resident of Gaza, had also published more than a dozen dispatches for Al Jazeera, parallel to his Times reporting, since the recent war began in August.

No, Sullivan didn’t cite all of that.

Sullivan noted at the top of her column that “THIS is the column I never wanted to write.” But she then goes on to say that for many months she’s received hundreds of emails from readers on both sides of the conflict, complaining about the paper’s coverage. If that’s the case, wouldn’t Sullivan have wanted more than anything to write the column—and perhaps even do it while the Israel-Hamas war coverage was unfolding?

I’m now starting to wonder: The Times may not only need investigative reporters based in Israel (those with a deep knowledge of history), but perhaps the public editor also should be an investigative reporter—when it comes to critiquing the paper’s coverage on this topic.

It’s high time for an independent, trusted media institute (perhaps Brooks Jackson’s FactCheck at the Univ of Penna?) to dissect the Times’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for readers. (If so, one would hope they’d have an open submission period, so that readers could bring matters to their attention that the researchers might otherwise miss.)

Getting back to Fares Akram, why did AP hire him, given what we now know? Of all places, why AP, a wire service cooperative whose customers (thousands of media outlets) are also the owners of it? Is this their way of laughing off the criticism they’ve received? I can’t answer that question, in part because a request for a comment that I made months ago to both their spokesperson and their top international editor has still gone unanswered.

Richard Behar is the Contributing Editor, Investigations, for Forbes Magazine, and is writing a book about Bernie Madoff. He’s not doing cartwheels over the current state of investigative journalism, but is an eternal optimist. Twitter: @beharjournalist


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