The Times of Israel and the Israeli government went GetReligion on two networks -- BBC and Al-Jazeera -- for their mishandling of an attack on Jews in Jerusalem and the counterattack by Israeli police.
The drama began on Saturday evening, when a teen stabbed three people in Jerusalem, killing two and wounding the third. Police shot the attacker at the scene. BBC then outraged many Israelis, including Israeli media, with its headline: "Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two." Sounded like the shooting had nothing to do with the attack. And that it mattered that the shooting victim was Palestinian but not that the stabbing victims were Jews.
After a public outcry, the news network changed its headline several times, but only drew more ire. The headlines weren’t cited in the Times, but they were by a group called BBC Watch, to which the article gave a link.
BBC's second headline was better but still tone deaf: "Jerusalem attack: Israelis killed in Old City 'by Palestinian.' " Looked like sarcasm quotes, meant to cast doubt.
Third try: "Jerusalem attack: Israelis killed in Old City by Palestinian," no quote marks.
Fourth try was the charm: "Jerusalem: Palestinian kills two Israelis in Old City."
BBC Watch still expressed ire: "In other words, professional journalists supposedly fluent in the English language had to make three changes to the article’s headline in not much more than an hour." The organization also faults BBC for not reporting that Hamas and Fatah praised the dead stabber, Mahannad Halabi. (Then again, neither does the Times of Israel in the story above.)
At least the article appears to get the facts straight:
Israel is barring some Palestinians from entering the Old City of Jerusalem after two knife attacks, one fatal, on Israelis.
The restrictions are for two days and will stop Palestinians from entering the area unless they live there.
On Saturday, a Palestinian stabbed two Israelis to death. Another stabbed and wounded an Israeli teenager. Police shot dead both attackers.
The story adds another Palestinian stabbing of an Israeli on Sunday morning, with police shooting that attacker dead, too. BBC also offers helpful context: "Violence has increased recently, with rising tensions over the flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque compound and violent confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinian youths, says the BBC's Yolande Knell in Jerusalem."
That statement mirrors a follow-up in the Times today, saying the stabbings were part of a wave of violence over the weekend, around the West Bank as well as the Jerusalem area. BBC ran its own update today, adding that an Israeli couple was "shot dead by suspected Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank on Thursday."
But the Israeli Government Press Office sounds like it's playing hardball with BBC, and the Times is joining in:
Officials in both the GPO and the Israeli Embassy in London asked the network to change the headline and it was changed at least three times, but each time to a phrase that did not accurately reflect the events of Saturday’s attack, the Hebrew language NRG website reported.
The network, which has a long history of alleged anti-Israel bias, claimed in its defense that the headline in question was written by a junior editor and was not the result of an anti-Israel agenda.
In response, the BBC acknowledged that "the headline didn’t accurately reflect the events," nor its own article. The network said they "changed it of our own accord."
Not good enough for the Israeli government, says the Times:
According to a GPO official, Israel expects an official apology from the network, and said the office was considering annulling the press cards of BBC journalists, a decision that if implemented would not allow the network to continue operating in Israel.
Pretty much a "Yeowtch" section, for a few reasons. For one, the Israeli government called out the BBC in an apparent lie. The network tried to blame it on one headline by one desk grunt, but the government says it asked three times -- and got three unacceptable heads.
The second "Yeowtch" is the government threat to throw BBC out of Israel. That's a serious matter and, rightly or wrongly, amounts to an attempt to manage the news.
The third "Yeowtch" is the Times' accusation that BBC "has a long history of alleged anti-Israel bias." No evidence is offered for this. The network may indeed have biased past coverage, but the newspaper offers no numbers or anecdotes, or even an quote from some authority. So it amounts to a mini-editorial by the reporter.
Contrast the BBC's tap-dancing with the quick and unsparing apology by Al-Jazeera. First the offending head, according to the Times:
The Qatar-based network al-Jazeera also came under fire for publishing a similarly misleading headline on social media to its story of Saturday’s stabbing.
"Palestinian shot dead after fatal stabbing in Jerusalem; 2 Israeli victims also killed," the tweet read.
While it did not prompt an official response from the GPO, social media users expressed outrage at the network for failing to mention the Palestinian was the perpetrator of the attack.
As one Twitter user wrote: "A couple of people got stabbed in Israel and then the cops went out and shot some other guy." You could even misread the headline to say the Palestinian was shot, then stabbed.
But what followed was totally different from BBC: an eloquent, 180-word apology, which even linked to the original article and the tweet promoting it. As the Times story notes:
Following the outcry, the network apologized and revised the headline to read, "Two Israelis killed in stabbing attack; Palestinian suspect shot dead."
An al-Jazeera editor on Sunday wrote that the network "regretted" the wording of its headline and tweet of the attack, saying it appeared "to minimize the killings of the Israeli victims and leaves out the context that the Palestinian man was their attacker."
The editor said al-Jazeera was alerted to the post after "many people in our audience pointed out" its problematic nature. It said the post was written "under the pressure of breaking news."
But the mea culpa went even further, saying Al-Jazeera was "grateful for this feedback" and asked its audience to continue to report its errors.
However, the Times and BBC Watch still fault both BBC and Al-Jazeera for not calling the attacker a terrorist. This may sound like a bit of guilt-mongering -- except that if the attacks were part of a new wave of violence, we may be seeing the birth of another intifada, or Arab uprising -- as some articles are already suggesting.
In fairness, the articles themselves got it right. Al-Jazeera's piece starts with, "Two Israeli men have been killed and a woman and her son injured in a stabbing attack by a Palestinian man in Jerusalem's Old City. The group was attacked on Saturday night by a man who was later shot and killed by the Israeli border police near the Lions' Gate in Jerusalem."
And in the much-maligned BBC story, even the first version ledes with: "Israeli police say they have shot dead a Palestinian man in Jerusalem after he attacked four people, two of whom have now died." That's not terribly different from the rewrite a half-hour later: "Two Israelis have been killed and another two injured in an attack in the Old City of Jerusalem, police say." You can see both versions side by side here, in a link supplied by BBC Watch itself.
But of course, the critics have a more than valid point: A headline is meant to summarize a story, and it influences how it is read. If you direct a reader's attention elsewhere, he may well glean a distorted view of what happened. Or he'll lash out at the news agency, as readers did at BBC.
My remaining concern here is the threat to punish BBC by snuffing out its coverage in Israel. From the criticism and network responses, the system looks like it worked. Threats only make the Israeli government look brutal -- the very impression that everyone was criticizing BBC and Al-Jazeera for conveying.
Picture: Screenshot of BBC headline, via BBC Watch.