Robot-Like Smear

Dear Friend,

Early this week, HonestReporting sent a communique about a headline on The Washington Post’s website which downplayed the abominable murder of 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass in Hebron.

The Washington Post ombudsman, Mike Getler, unhappy by the flood of HonestReporting e-mails, complained at having been “smeared by your robot-like members.”

Below is an e-mail sent to us by Mike Getler, interspersed with HonestReporting’s reply.


From: “Mike Getler” –
Subject: Your attacks against The Washington Post
Date sent: Wed, 28 Mar 2001 15:32:00 -0500

> In the past two days, I have received approximately 800 e-
> mails inspired by you and your organization criticizing The
> Washington Post and its online Web site for running an
> Associated Press news story with the headline: “Jewish
> Toddler Dies in West Bank.” The e-mails are still coming.
> Fortunately, one of your “action” recipients sent me your
> “action” message to inform me that I, and the paper, were
> the victims of an organized campaign by “some pro-Israel-
> biased organization,” as he put it.

You are the victims? The only “victim” here is a 10-month-old baby. As for your objection to the volume of e-mails, I thought the free flow of opinions is a foundation of freedom of the press.

> As is the case with most such campaigns, your members
> responded in knee-jerk fashion and wrote what you told them
> to write, whether or not they had seen the story or the
> headline themselves or whether or not they had ever seen
> The Washington Post.

Knee-jerk? I don’t appreciate the name-calling. HonestReporting is comprised of thousands of intelligent individuals, using their own sense of logic and fairness to determine whether or not an article is biased. We specifically referred people to the original Washington Post headline online, and then if they felt the headline was biased, they could compose their own letter of complaint.

> Many of your members, so concerned with what they view as
> the outrageous and anti-semetic behavior of the media,
> also injected their own views and slandered the newspaper
> with anti-semitic charges.

HonestReporting does not believe that the Washington Post is anti-Semitic. And we specifically advise our readers to keep their comments respectful. It is indeed unfortunate if some letters were inappropriately worded.

But let’s keep it in perspective. As the editor of HonestReporting, I was CC’d copies of 43 letters sent to the Post. I have read them all, and 41 contain no mention whatsoever of anti-Semitism. In fact, many of the letters are complimentary, as this one sent to the Post from an HonestReporting reader:


    “I commend you for changing the headline. I assume, absent additional evidence to the contrary, that the editorial modification of AP was an “innocent” action and did not reveal a bias of the editor or the Post. This assumption will, no doubt, be tested in the days and weeks ahead as violence in the Middle East unfortunately continues to escalate. We look forward to reading unbiased, insightful coverage from the Washington Post in line with its historic reputation for excellent reporting.”

> The message you sent out is wrong in several respects. I
> checked with the editor of The Post’s Website — something
> you should have done — and he told me that the Web site
> had used the original AP story AND headline and that he had
> the logs to prove it. I called the AP in New York and the
> Director of Corporate Communications, Jake Stokes (212-621-
> 1730), checked and told me the original AP headline on the
> story was “Jewish Toddler Dies in West Bank.” The Post
> changed nothing, as your letters assert.

HonestReporting originally spoke with the Associated Press representative manning the desk of International Editor Sally Jacobsen, who checked the logs and said that there was never any AP story with the headline “Toddler Dies.” In a subsequent conversation with Jack Stokes, he said, “We went back and checked, and yes, we did send out the headline, ‘Toddler Dies.'” The words “went back and checked” does suggest an admission that AP originally said something different.

But really the salient point is what you mention next:

> The Post Web site, as do many others, updates its site from
> time to time with autofeeds of news agency wires and
> headlines onto their site during the day. They don’t have
> time to edit many of them and one doesn’t expect poor
> stories or headlines from AP, especially.

Thank you for the admission that the Post’s headline was “poor.” But why do you attempt to shift the blame to AP? Isn’t the Washington Post responsible for what you publish on your website? Shouldn’t you have checked out the faulty headline before posting it?

> The headline, technically, was not incorrect and so there
> would be still less reason for the wire story to attract
> attention. Obviously, once the story is read, then the
> headline would be seen as extremely inappropriate with
> respect to what actually took place.

As we all know, the purpose of headlines is to convey the essence of the article, both for those who continue to read the full article, and for those who don’t. So the damage was done either way.

> The Post Web site director says the AP changed the headline
> sometime later, apparently realizing it wasn’t a good one.
> (AP says the second headline was: “Jewish Baby Shot Dead on
> West Bank.”) There was no call to me by your organization
> which produced a changed headline, as your message to your
> members reports.

We never claimed to have “produced a changed headline.” We merely said (and I quote): “Ninety minutes later, an updated headline appeared on the Post’s website.”

> The Washington Post newspaper, which you caused to be
> smeared by your robot-like members, never used that
> headline. The newspaper’s headline for all editions was:
> “Killing of Israeli Baby Sets Off New Violence”…
> “Sniper Fired Into Jewish Area of Hebron.”

“Smeared by your robot-like members”?? If this had been a mass-mail software program or a hacker device, then the Post would have a legitimate point. But HonestReporting is individuals who are sending individual emails — not a mass of media morons!

> You should be ashamed of your behavior, and your
> inaccuracies. You turned what seems, at worst, to have been
> a poor headline and 90-minute slip-up in what has become a
> 24-hour news cycle into a widely-distributed, undeserved
> smear of a newspaper and its Website.
> Please turn off your letter-writing machine and tell your
> loyal followers that you were wrong in your description of
> what took place, and that the people who work here are not
> anti-Israel or anti-semites.

We understand the pressure that the media operates under, and certainly everyone is entitled to a mistake. But the name-calling and refusal to accept responsibility is, ironically, the greatest lack of journalistic objectivity.

Now let’s get back to the original topi
c: Was anyone at the Post reprimanded for the publication of this biased headline? And how does the Post intend to rectify the fact that this headline was seen online by thousands of people worldwide?

Looking forward to your reply,

John Wiggins


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