In the world's eyes, syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer warned Americans last month, the U.S. bears "co-responsibility" for Israel's conduct in the Middle East. "This uncritical and unthinking acquiescence and even encouragement of every Israeli tendency is disastrous for both countries," she argued. "In fact, it led Prime Minister Sharon to tell his Cabinet recently, 'I control America.'"
Did Ariel Sharon really say that? Did he say something similar but even more offensive? Geyer's most critical readers are certain both answers are no. When her column appeared on May 10 in the Chicago Tribune, the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America promptly protested to Bruce Dold, the Tribune's editorial-page editor, and posted a statement on-line calling Geyer's claim "preposterous on [its] face."
The quote was a "hoax," said CAMERA. If so, it was a virulent hoax that had spread underground for seven months before Geyer brought it to the mass media. CAMERA traced the quote to a press release last October 3 from the Islamic Association for Palestine--which is based in suburban Palos Hills and which CAMERA, citing research by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, describes as "pro-Hamas."
IAP had offered a more odious version of Sharon's boast. Claiming as its source a broadcast on the Israeli radio network Kol Yisrael, it had Sharon snapping to Shimon Peres, his foreign minister, "Don't worry about American pressure on Israel. We the Jewish people control America, and the Americans know it." The difference in language suggested that Geyer had tidied up Sharon's boast so it wouldn't be red meat for anti-Semites.
But according to CAMERA, Kol Yisrael broadcast nothing of the sort. CAMERA E-mailed Dold the cell phone number of the Kol Yisrael political correspondent who would say so and E-mailed its members (it claims 45,000) instructions to write Geyer and her Universal Press Syndicate editor and demand either substantiation or a correction.
CAMERA got neither. At the urging of Dold, Universal Press did release an "editor's note" that the Tribune published on June 14. It said the "I control America" quote had been "widely reported in the Palestinian press but cannot be confirmed in independent sources. Geyer and Universal Press Syndicate regret not having attributed the quote more specifically."
This was too weasel worded for CAMERA. Again it told its members to write Geyer and the syndicate, this time "to protest their refusal to candidly and honestly set the record straight." And if members had time, they should also tell the editors of the handful of papers that had carried Geyer's column that she'd lost her credibility on the Middle East. (CAMERA estimates that "hundreds of letters" criticizing Geyer "were written to a variety of destinations," though public editor Don Wycliff tells me the volume of protest at the Tribune "wasn't all that heavy--not at all compared to stuff I've seen in the past.")
CAMERA wanted Universal Press to "make it clear that Sharon never uttered the words." But hadn't he? Geyer can't prove it, but she says she still thinks that maybe he did. Her original sources sound a little sketchy. "I had that whole story on several different E-mails and faxes," she tells me, and there was something either out of Ha'aretz or at least quoting the liberal Israeli daily. A source she's sure of is the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She was writing literally on the fly--she finished the column in an airplane May 8 on her way to Europe--and when she got back June 2, her column under siege, she couldn't nail down the quote.
"I spent at least two full days checking it out," she says. "I found a number of Israeli diplomats--foreign diplomats in Israel--who said they'd read it in Ha'aretz. But the fact is, I could not pin down the event. I can't get the original sources. I don't have the right kind of inner-sanctum contacts in the cabinet. So that's why we decided to run the clarification."
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs is a glossy magazine established 20 years ago by retired Arabist foreign service officers. To Geyer they're a "very serious, respectable pro-Arab group." To CAMERA's associate director, Alex Safian, they're "very, very anti-Israel," have mixed with the far-right Liberty Lobby, and have carried the odd article questioning the scale of the Holocaust. "What hasn't yet made it into the American media," began the item that the Washington Report put up on-line last November, "is the account on Hebrew-language Israel radio (Kol Yisrael), as relayed Oct. 3 by IAP News, of an 'acrimonious argument' between Sharon and his foreign minister."
The Washington Report was faulting the American media for not reporting something the Washington Report only heard about thirdhand. A spokesperson told me that the Washington Report is normally "awfully careful" never to run such a story without independently confirming it. Had it confirmed this one? She asked around at the office and reported that she couldn't say.
By the time Sharon's "quote" reached the Tribune it had long since spread to some of the darkest crevices of cyberspace. Some sites offered the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs as their authority, others Kol Yisrael, still others no one at all. My Google search of "Jewish people control America" brought up nearly 190 links, and despite that editor's note from Universal Press, they were far from all belonging to the Palestinian press.
The Web site www.longcountyrebel.homestead.com added Sharon's alleged sentiment to a cluster of anti-Semitic quotations including Martin Luther's "How can a nation of vampires exist among themselves?" Sharon was cited by www.davidduke.com as evidence of "the Jewish control of American foreign policy." At americandefenseleague.com/onaleash, the IAP item was posted by a group that declares "Americans of all races and religions join us, Jews hate all of us equally."
This is the sort of vicious stuff that explains why CAMERA fears letting a single falsehood pass.
Ali Abunimah, a University of Chicago researcher, is a prolific essayist who monitors news coverage of the Middle East and runs the Web site www.abunimah.org. He told me he didn't touch Sharon's alleged boast to Peres: "I have not seen a source that has convinced me that quote is legitimate."
To Abunimah, it wasn't an important question. "I don't think these things are worth debating," he said. "Do you make a mistake with a quote? You correct it and move on. I think what [groups like CAMERA] are trying to do is take these occasional mistakes people make and blow them up into evidence of anti-Israeli bias. The question is, is there consistent bias in the media?"
Abunimah began reading to me from a Ha'aretz profile of Alon Pinkas, Israel's consul general in New York and a frequent spokesman for his country on American television. The article quoted leaders of both CAMERA and the Anti-Defamation League mourning the failure of Israel to get its story across. But Pinkas disagreed.
"The criticism in this sphere is emotional, not substantive," he told Ha'aretz. "It reflects an uncomfortable psychological state. I think that in the battle over publicity in the U.S., we are winning." He parroted the Jewish media watchdogs. "'CNN hates Israel. It's well known that Peter Jennings has always hated Israel. The New York Times is no more than a collection of self-hating Jewish liberals.' That is all nonsense. [But] if Israel decides that it has to launch a military campaign against terrorism, it has to take into account that it won't come across well in the media. Entering Jenin is not figure skating. A military operation never looks good, especially when you are ten times stronger than the Palestinians."
Says Abunimah, "If the top paid spokesman for Israel says, 'We're not getting a bad deal from the American media,' that's pretty authoritative. These groups cannot tolerate any image which reflects negatively on Israel. So they take mistakes like this one--a mislabeled photograph, a quote that can't be verified--and try to blow that up into a federal case."
Alex Safian refuses to take Pinkas's remarks at face value. "He's being very diplomatic. Considering the amount of time and effort he spends in trying to get better press coverage, I suspect he is very concerned about press coverage." At CAMERA, the press is the enemy and vigilance is the watchword. Visit its Web site (world.std.com/camera) and you can review files on CNN, Peter Jennings, and the New York Times, as well as on NPR, CBS, NBC, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and any number of other journalists and media outlets.
By comparison with the others, the file on Georgie Anne Geyer is very small and very new. "I don't think I've had a retraction in 27 years," she says. Is this one? "I don't know," says Geyer. "You'd have to ask the syndicate. I certainly have regrets. You never want to say anything you can't prove."
High and Mighty
A case can be made that after last week's column I've made one trip too many to a certain well. The idea that the funky tabloid that markets itself as an "independent newspaper" for Chicago's real people is under the sway of a member of Britain's House of Lords continues to fill me with merriment, but as a point of press criticism it might be tapped out. Conrad Black has invested a good bit of his money here but little of his concern. He reserves that for London, where he rules the Telegraph; for New York, where he's an important backer of the new daily, the Sun; and for Washington, the seat of international power where to his regret he owns nothing. Sun-Times publisher David Radler runs the show for Hollinger International in Chicago, and if the Black-Radler alliance were ever to collapse, Radler would probably go on running it. He likes our city. And he's untitled.
What legitimate connection can be drawn, therefore, between a condescending editorial defending the Sun-Times's decision to turn an allegedly incriminating R. Kelly video over to the authorities and a condescending corporate head across the pond? Yet I drew one. "Once again the Sun-Times--Lord Black of Crossharbour proprietor--has made it clear that when it wishes to demonstrate that it's the paper written by and for Chicago's commoners, contempt is a favorite tool."
But on the other hand again, a flamboyant leader like Black must somehow stamp the product even if he never gives it a thought. Trying to work this out, I revisited the Hollinger International Web site, a monument to the relish Black takes in presenting himself as inimitable and brilliant.
It was a good time to drop in--the annual meeting had been held just last month. Black has a knack for laying off bad news on fate, illusion, and the knaves and fools who cling to his ankles, and his latest letter to shareholders obliged him to summon this gift. "This is the last time we will have to inflict upon our persevering shareholders...financial results that are apparently absurdly unsatisfactory," he promised. "Fortunately, the semblance of a grievous financial setback in 2001 is only an appearance, as a closer look at the numbers reveals. As we have redefined the underlying business in relentless pursuit of shareholder value, it has been necessary to take radical measures in furtherance of our declared, shared goals. Some of these measures have been rather severely treated by the relevant accounting rules."
Black is adept at assuring his investors that he's a man of vision and fortitude--as they are. "I was one of the newspaper industry's more frequent espousers, writing op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal and other important newspapers, including our own, suggesting that the dot-com infatuation was excessive and that quality newspapers retained considerable value. It was a lonely exercise as most newspaper publishers, especially in the United States, continued to be complacent quasi-monopolists as owners while being defeatists opposite television and the Internet.
"Rather than being merely a voice in the wilderness, my associates and I resolved to do the necessary to separate patient, believing shareholders from mere speculators and force recognition of the value we have never doubted is in this company."
Some fairly unexciting news about debts and gains was presented before Black got to sum up. "While this performance is certainly not one we are embarrassed about, it has been very frustrating to build the business, produce results, and suffer the various buffetings described, including the depredations of accounting rules and the sniggering of skeptics proclaiming the imminent demise of our industry."
Of course he doesn't buy that. "Obviously the media are evolving and nobody seems able to predict their future with any precision, apart from numerous media charlatans, most of whom have been impoverished in the collapse of the dot-com bubble....In the atmosphere of relative sobriety that succeeded the 'irrational exuberance' of new media hype, newspapers may even return to the notice of securities analysts and media pundits who had regarded them as hastening to the same graveyard as silent movies and black-and-white television. The industry is not helped by eminent financiers, with some newspaper interests, who disparage the newspaper industry in catchy, hip-shooting epigrams."
The letter was signed by Black in all his splendor: "The Lord Black of Crossharbour, PC (Can), OC, KCSG."
It can't be an accident that Hollinger's important papers all operate in competitive markets. There's no joy to be had making money in a monopoly, where even the stupid succeed and success is no proof of merit. The Sun-Times is a penurious, understaffed Potemkin village of a newspaper, but like Lord Black--so palpably in love with his own voice--it refuses to be meek or dull. It's a writer's paper, and a paper that knows it's fun to be a paper, and I have to believe these are values that descend from on high.
Even though everyone manipulates numbers, it was a little shocking last week to see a Supreme Court justice doing this to make his case. Antonin Scalia wrote in dissent when a six-to-three majority of the court ruled that it's unconstitutionally cruel to execute mentally retarded convicts. The court found that a changing national consensus compelled it under the Eighth Amendment to reverse the position it took on the same question in 1989.
Scalia snickered. The court, he wrote, "miraculously extracts a 'national consensus'...from the fact that 18 states--less than half (47 percent) of the 38 states that permit capital punishment (for whom the issue exists)--have very recently enacted legislation barring execution of the mentally retarded. How is it possible that agreement among 47 percent of the death penalty jurisdictions amounts to 'consensus'?"
Scalia had adroitly dismissed the 12 states that don't permit capital punishment as somehow outside the issue. In fact, the execution of the mentally retarded was barred in 30 of the 50 states.