Associated Press Omissions




T

he Associated Press (AP), according to its
website, is the world’s oldest and largest news organization.
It is the behemoth of news reporting, providing what its editors
determine is the news to a billion people each day. Through its
feeds to thousands of newspapers, radio, and television stations,
AP is a major determinant in what Americans read, hear, and see—and
what they don’t.







What they don’t is profoundly important. I investigated one
such omission when I was in the Palestinian Territories last year
working on a documentary.  


On October 17, 2004 Israeli military forces invaded Balata, a dense,
poverty-stricken community deep in Palestine’s West Bank (Israel
frequently invades this area and others). According to witnesses,
the vehicles stayed for about 20 minutes as the military asserted
its power over the Palestinian population. Witnesses state that
there was no Palestinian resistance—no “clash,” no
“crossfire,” no stone throwing. At one point, after most
of the vehicles had driven away, an Israeli soldier stuck his gun
out of his armored vehicle, aimed at a young boy nearby, and pulled
the trigger. 


We went to the hospital and interviewed the boy, Ahmad, his doctors,
family, and others. He said he was afraid of Israeli soldiers and
showed us where he had been shot previously. There was a second
boy in the hospital, this one with a shattered femur. A third boy
was in critical condition with a bullet hole in his lung. A fourth,
not a patient, was visiting a friend. He showed us a scarred lip
and missing teeth from when Israeli soldiers had shot him in the
mouth. 


We discovered that an AP cameraperson had filmed the entire incident.
He had then followed what apparently is the usual routine—he
sent his video to the AP control bureau in Israel. Did AP place
the video in safe-keeping, available for an investigation of this
crime? According to the camera- person, the AP erased it. 


We traveled to AP’s control bureau. With our own camera out
and running, we asked bureau chief Steve Gutkin about this incident.
Did the bureau have the video and had they indeed erased it. If
so, why? Gutkin, visibly flustered, told us that AP did not allow
its journalists to give interviews. He told us that all questions
must go to Corporate Communications in New York. He explained that
they were on deadline and couldn’t talk. I said I understood
deadline pressures and sat down to wait until they were done. When
Gutkin called Israeli police to arrest us, we left. 


Later, I phoned Corporate Communications and reached Jack Stokes,
AP’s public relations spokesperson and director of media relations.
I had conversed with Stokes before. Over the past several years
I had noticed disturbing flaws in AP’s coverage of Israel-
Palestine—newsworthy stories not being covered, reports sent
to international newspapers, but not to U.S. ones, stories omitting
or misreporting significant facts, critical sentences being removed
from updated reports. I would phone AP with the appropriate correction
or news alert. One time this resulted in a flawed news story being
slightly corrected in updates. In a few cases stories were covered
that had been neglected. In many cases, however, I was told that
I needed to speak to Corporate Communications. 


I would phone Corporate Communications, leave a message, and wait
for a response. Most often, none came. Several times, however, I
was able to have long conversations with Stokes. None of these conversations
ever ended with AP taking any action. Some typical responses were: 


  • The omitted story was “not newsworthy” 

  • The story deemed by AP editors to be newsworthy to the rest of
    the world—e.g. Israel’s brutal imprisonment of over
    300 Palestinian youths—was not newsworthy in the U.S. 

  • Burying a report of Israeli forces shooting a four-year-old Palestinian
    girl in the mouth was justified 

  • Misreporting an incident in which an Israeli officer riddled a
    13-year-old girl at close range with bullets was unimportant 


So when I phoned Corporate Communication about the erased footage,
I no longer expected that AP would take any corrective action, but
I did expect to receive some information. I gave Stokes the details
about this incident and asked him the same questions I had asked
Gutkin. He said he would look into this and get back to me. 


After several days he had not gotten back to me, so I phoned him.
He said that he had looked into this incident and that AP had determined
that this was “an internal matter” and that they would
give no response. While I should have known better, I was again
astounded. AP was blatantly violating fundamental journalistic norms
of ethical behavior and clearly felt it had the power to get away
with it. According to the ASJ’s Code of Ethics: “Journalists
are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
 Journalists should: 


  • Clarify
    and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public
    over journalistic conduct 

  • Encourage
    the public to voice grievances against the media 

  • Admit
    mistakes and correct them promptly 

  • Expose
    unethical practices of journalists and the news media 

  • Abide
    by the same high standards to which they hold others” 



Later,
on deadline for a book with a chapter about media coverage of Israel-Palestine,
I again tried to confirm some of my facts with AP. It happened to
be the media’s “Sunshine Week” and as part of the
Sunshine campaign, AP’s CEO and President Tom Curley was traveling
the country giving speeches on the necessity of transparency and
accountability (for government) and emphasizing “the openness
that effective democracy requires.” 



“The trend toward secrecy,” AP’s president had been
pointing out, “is the greatest threat to democracy.” 



I emailed my questions to AP, talked to Stokes by phone, and again
was told he would get back to me. Again, I had to get back to him.
In a surreal exchange, he conveyed AP’s reply: “The official
response is we decline to respond.” As I asked question after
question, many as simple as a confirmation of the number of bureaus
AP has in Israel-Palestine, the response was silence or a repetition
of: “The official response is we decline to respond.” 



The next day I tried phoning Curley directly. I was unable to reach
him since he was still on the road giving his Sunshine Week speeches
(“Secrecy,” Curley says, “is for losers”), but
I left a message for him with an assistant. She said someone would
respond. I am still waiting. 



It is clearly time to go to AP’s superiors. The fact is, AP
is a cooperative. It is not owned by Corporate Communications or
by its CEO or even by its board of directors. It is owned by the
thousands of newspapers and broadcast stations around the United
States that use AP reports. These newspapers, radio and television
stations are the true directors of AP and bear responsibility for
its coverage. 



In the end, it appears, the only way that Americans will receive
full, unbiased reporting from AP on Israel-Palestine will be when
these member-owners demand such coverage from their employees in
the Middle East and in New York. In the final analysis, therefore,
it is up to us—members of the public—to step in. Everyone
who believes that Americans have the right and the need to receive
full, undistorted information on all issue must take action. We
must require our news media to fulfill their profoundly important
obligation and we must ourselves distribute the critical information
these media are leaving out. If we don’t take action, no one
else will. 






Former
journalist Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew
(www.ifamericans knew .org).