Between 2001 and 2004 I worked as a reporter for Reuters, the global news agency that is embroiled in a scandal for running doctored photos of Israeli military operations in Lebanon.
Though I don’t have specific knowledge of what went on at the photo desk when Reuters ran the altered images, my three plus years of experience at the wire service leads me to believe the following: there is an institutional bias against Israel at Reuters, but the photo desk did not knowingly run doctored images.
When discussing bias at Reuters, the first thing to keep in mind is that the organization is headquartered in London. While there is a clear anti-Israel slant to Reuters’ reporting (documented here, here and here), editors in London honestly believe that the agency is being objective, because its dispatches are in the mainstream when compared to other British and European news outlets. The difference is, here in America, we aren’t as exposed to overseas newspapers as we are to Reuters’ news articles, which are republished in American newspapers and on websites such as Yahoo!.
I was often a lone voice of dissent in the New York newsroom when I tried to point out to my colleagues the blatant bias in our reporting on Israel’s struggle against Palestinian terrorism. My case was bolstered one day when the front page of Reuters’ internal website featured a picture of our editor-in-chief, Geert Linnebank, meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Accompanying the photograph was an item boasting about how glowingly Assad spoke of Reuters, which he viewed as a great source of news on the Middle East. After that, I joked that our brochures should include the tagline, “endorsed by a Syrian dictator.”
Whatever its editors’ political inclinations are, there is also a practical reason why Reuters is biased against Israel. As a global news provider, Reuters has to operate in more places than just about any other news organization, with 189 bureaus serving 128 countries. Because Israel is a free society, Reuters is able to run articles critical of the government without endangering the lives of its journalists or losing its ability to work in the country. Were Reuters to start striking a critical tone against the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Arab governments, its reporters’ lives would be at risk as would its ability to operate in those parts of the world. Pretty soon, it would cease to be a “global” news provider and it would struggle for a raison d’etre.
In a visit to the New York office shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Linnebank used essentially the same argument to explain the Reuters policy of barring the word “terrorist” from its lexicon. He said that Reuters had a long-standing policy of not using the word and that, over the years, it had been pressured by many governments to use the word to describe their adversaries (such as Turkey with regard to the Kurds). If Reuters reversed-course just because the United States was attacked, Linnebank explained, it could imperil Reuters journalists overseas.
While Reuters’ mission to be a global news provider affects how it writes and reports the news, it also affects who reports the news. Because of the agency’s need to be everywhere, it often relies on local freelancers for news and pictures, especially in trouble spots. Such was the case with Adnan Hajj, the Lebanese freelance photographer who was responsible for manipulating at least two photos. One photo was altered to make it appear that more smoke was rising from an area of Lebanon that had been hit by an Israeli air strike, and another photo was altered to increase the number of flares dropped by an Israeli F-16 fighter. (Reuters has since withdrawn all 920 of his photographs.)
Many of Reuters’ critics have questioned how a trained photo editor at a major news organization could have failed to recognize that the photos were digitally altered, while bloggers easily noticed that they were manipulated. Despite being convinced that there is a clear anti-Israel bias at Reuters, I do not believe that the photo editors at the wire service ran the images knowing that they had been manipulated. In my view, the culprit was a phenomenon I call the Fog of Reuters.
As a wire service, Reuters imposes deadlines so tight that when I worked on the New York news desk, the publication time of our stories was measured down to the second. On any given day, the agency asks its journalists to churn out such a massive amount of news, information, and images that it’s as if they were working on an assembly line.
While we were always told that accuracy was paramount (I know that’s hard to believe now), I can attest to witnessing many highly qualified people make some of the most bone-headed errors you could imagine. There were times when I wrote stories in which I even got the day of the week wrong. As a colleague of mine once remarked, “There’s no better place than Reuters to make you feel like a knucklehead.” Reuters’ policy requires reporters to issue a correction whenever an error is discovered, and a Google search of the terms “Reuters corrected” delivers more than 1 million hits, most of which have nothing to do with Israel.
Perhaps I am being naive, but given my knowledge of what goes on in a Reuters’ newsroom on a busy day, it is completely plausible to me that a photo editor would not have noticed that Hajj’s photos were doctored.
The irony of the situation is that Reuters expects us to give it the benefit of the doubt that the mistake was unintentional, yet its editors would never give the same benefit of doubt to Israel when it accidentally kills innocent bystanders when fighting an enemy that deliberately hides among civilians. In war, the stakes may be higher, and the consequences of errors far graver, but both instances are examples of human beings messing up when they are forced to make quick decisions under tremendous pressure.
Of course, there is a crucial difference. Reuters is fighting for its reputation, but Israelis are fighting for their lives.
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