Reuters fails

ReutersPicThe contrast couldn't be greater. An August 5 article in the Los Angeles Times brought to our attention that Jews and Muslims are not the only ones caught up in Middle East conflict. Christians live there too.

Hezbollah is a pervasive influence in the society and will readily accept Christians' support for propaganda purposes, but its radical ideology puts Christians in a position that would be unworkable, to say the least.

Times staffers Kim Murphy and Laura King do a superb job of describing the conflict for the Christians:

However, the strikes also alienated a group that largely has been hostile to Hezbollah. Christians make up an estimated 39% of Lebanon's population, the highest percentage of any country in the Middle East. Over the years, they have often sympathized with Israel, even briefly collaborating in battling Palestinians during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon in the midst of the country's 15-year civil war.

Although some prominent Christian leaders have formed political alliances with Hezbollah in recent years, many ordinary Christians have been wary of the rise of radical Shiite Muslim power, and of Hezbollah's alliances with Syria and Iran. In the early days of the current conflict, they tended to blame Hezbollah for starting it with a cross-border raid in which it captured two Israeli soldiers.

Much of that sentiment has waned as Israel's attacks have widened, and Friday's strikes in the Christian heartland prompted Christian political leaders to respond with anger.

"People don't see eye to eye with Hezbollah on all things, but this is a question of an attack on Lebanon," said Farid Khazen, a Christian member of parliament.

Earlier, The New York Times did an equally impressive job in profiling Christians who are exiting the country for their own safety:

TYRE, Lebanon, July 27 -- The refugees from southern Lebanon spilled out of packed cars into the dark street here Thursday evening, gulping bottles of water and squinting in the glare of the headlights to find family members and friends. Many had not eaten in days. Most had not had clean drinking water for some time. There were wounded swathed in makeshift dressings, and a baby just 16 days old.

But for some of the Christians who had made it out in this convoy, it was not just privations they wanted to talk about, but their ordeal at the hands of Hezbollah -- a contrast to the Shiites, who make up a vast majority of the population in southern Lebanon and broadly support the militia.

"Hezbollah came to Ain Ebel to shoot its rockets," said Fayad Hanna Amar, a young Christian man, referring to his village. "They are shooting from between our houses."

"Please," he added, "write that in your newspaper."

This is good solid reporting in a tough situation with thousands of years of history and many factions pushing their agendas.

Now take a look at this August 4 Reuters story by Khaled Yacoub Oweis on the Christians who comprise 10 percent of the population in Syria:

DAMASCUS (Reuters) -- Seventy-seven-year-old Mona Muzaber lights a candle for Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at the Orthodox Church of the Cross in the centre of Damascus.

"I love him. I never felt Nasrallah was a religious zealot. He is a patriot who doesn't seek personal gain," she said. "I light a candle daily for him to remain under God's protection."

Israel's offensive against Lebanon has brought Christians in neighbouring Syria closer to Nasrallah, a Shi'ite Muslim, reviving Arab nationalist feelings and blurring sectarian divisions.

Bishops and priests say Syria's Christians, a devout community of around three million out of a population of 18 million, identify strongly with Nasrallah's battle with Israel, which has occupied Syria's Golan Heights since 1967.

"Pray for the resistance, pray for Hassan Nasrallah. He is defending justice," Father Elias Zahlawi told the congregation at special mass held at the Lady of Damascus, a Catholic church.

Across Damascus Christians, like Muslims, sit glued to Nasrallah's al-Manar television, receptive to his portrayal of the war as one in defence of all Arabs, as well as Muslims.

The article reads as a press release. It's spewing out pure propaganda. And it's not because I favor what the Israelis are doing, or dislike Syria. It's because the article, in the words of a friend, is "absolutely devoid of any historical and religious context." For starters, the article fails to acknowledge that Christians and Jews living under Islamic law are given a special protected status and are essentially second-class citizens.

The article also fails to mention that, while Syria has the appearance of a democracy, the Sunni-dominated country is essentially an authoritarian regime and it would be quite difficult for a Christian, or anyone for that matter, to speak freely on religion without risking the wrath of the majority. This type of conditioning has been going on for hundreds of years.

Contrast the statements of the Christians in Lebanon and the Christians in Syria. How could they be different? Perhaps it is because the Lebanese Christians have lived under the Hezbollah militias? To make things even more complicated for reporters, but not impossible, is recognizing that there are different Christian sects in the two countries, including everything from Maronite Catholics to Greek Orthodox to Armenian Orthodox to Roman Catholics, Coptics and Protestants.

Now, the level of embarrassment that this article brings to Reuters pales in comparison to the utter disaster caused by a freelance Lebanese photographer who altered two images to make the bombings of Lebanon seem worse than they really were.

Things like this don't happen in a vacuum. Based on my experience covering goofs in large organizations, it is my guess that this is only the tip of the iceberg. What other distortions and poor journalism has Reuters put before its readers in covering the Middle East conflict? Or as Matt Drudge would say, what is real and what is altered?

There is a bigger story here about the coverage of this conflict and it will be interesting to see if The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz or National Public Radio's On the Media will take it on during what is usually prime August vacation time.

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