Caveat Lector…. Let the reader beware.

By David Harris

Say you’re a newspaper editor.

You have articles and analyses that merit inclusion in the next day’s edition.

They include: “At Least 56 Killed as Islamist Groups Fight Over a Somali Town”, from Reuters; “New Focus on Settlements,” a news analysis from your Jerusalem correspondent; “Iran Has Centrifuge Capacity for Nuclear Arms,” based on a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and “U.S. Charges Ex-State Department Official and Wife With Spying for Cuba.”

Do any of the four warrant front-page placement? If so, above the fold, where they are sure to be noticed, or below, where they are less certain to catch the eye? If not, where should they be placed?

Should any have accompanying photos, which help draw attention and stimulate reaction?

And how many column inches should each piece get, as space is always at a premium?

None of this is an exact science. It’s about human judgment. And different editors will take into account different factors before making decisions. But let’s be clear. Those decisions can have far-reaching consequences.

They tell readers what are deemed the most consequential stories of the day. In doing so, at times they reflect national priorities; at other times, they seek to create them. They shape outlook. They affect moods.

I don’t pretend to be an impartial reader, any more than any other reader is. I bring with me my interests and biases. There are certain stories I read with more care than others. At the same time, I’ve always sought to understand the enormous challenge a serious newspaper faces in presenting the news.

All that said, I read the June 6th issue of the New York Times with particular interest. In just one edition, it triggered many vexing questions.

The four pieces mentioned above were all in the paper’s news section.

But the only one that made it to the front page – and above the fold – was the news analysis on settlements.

Moreover, it was the only one with an accompanying photo, and a sizable one at that – ten inches by six inches.

And to complete the Triple Crown, it had far more column inches than any of the others.

The analysis itself covered thirty column inches, whereas the Somali carnage, at the top of page five, got fourteen inches of text; the Iran nuclear story, at the bottom of page six, eighteen inches; and the Cuba spy revelation, at the top of page eleven, twenty inches.

If the deadly battles had been reported not from Mogadishu but, say, Gaza or the West Bank and had involved Israeli troops, would the story have been on the front page, accompanied by photos? No doubt. The record amply proves the point.

But then again, the sad truth is that Muslim-on-Muslim violence doesn’t always have the same media appeal. This neglect inevitably diminishes the intrinsic value of the human lives lost.

More, we are often told, is “expected” of Israel, hence its greater newsworthiness, as if it could successfully wage battle by the Marquess of Queensberry rules alone while its adversaries embrace gutter methods.

And if there had been a spying charge involving Israel, would a place have been found on the front page?

In this case, a Justice Department official called the accused American spies’ activity for Cuba, over a span of three decades, “incredibly serious,” yet it didn’t make the cut for top billing.

Of course, had it been Israel, we would have been told, it involved a friendly country acting in an unfriendly way, hence its heightened media appeal. Yet, without for a single moment justifying espionage by any friendly country, surely the danger to American security is far greater still when a hostile country gets access to our national security secrets.

But the biggest puzzle in the June 6th issue was the treatment of the Iran issue.

Yes, the Israeli settlements issue is now on the table, front and center. Yes, the Obama Administration has made clear its aim to put a halt to all Israeli settlement-building. Yes, this is a source of bilateral friction. All true.

Still, in the scheme of things, I’d say the Iranian news easily trumped the paper’s now nearly daily treatment of the settlements issue.

Consider these stunning excerpts from the account on Iran:

# “Atomic inspectors reported Friday that the country [Iran] has sped up its production of nuclear fuel and increased its number of installed centrifuges to 7,200 – more than enough, weapons experts said, to make fuel for up to two nuclear weapons a year, if the country decided to use its facilities for that purpose.”

# The total number of centrifuges “represents an increase of 30 percent in the total number of installed centrifuges since a February report.”

# The IAEA report “noted that Iran is refusing not only to let inspectors visit a heavy-water reactor that Tehran has under construction, but also to let them verify design information about the sprawling project, as the agency’s statutes require.”

# And it said that “Tehran had refused to give access to ‘relevant Iranian authorities’ who could address allegations surrounding Iran’s research on the design of nuclear warheads,” meaning that the IAEA “will not be in a position to provide credible assurance about nuclear materials and activities.”

In other words, Iran is expanding its enrichment capacity on President Obama’s watch and – despite recent U.S. overtures to Tehran – reaching the capability to produce sufficient fuel for nuclear weapons.

In my book, that’s the stuff of a banner headline – and the stepped-up public discussion that accompanies it.

After all, on the scale of Middle East foreign policy challenges, I’d argue that the Iranian nuclear issue easily comes out on top. And I’d be in good company. Not only would Israel agree, but so would many Arab nations who are no less frightened about the prospect of a nuclear Iran and its dire implications for the region.

So why didn’t the Iranian story make the front page, but instead was relegated to the bottom of page six, while the settlements analysis got pride of place in the paper’s most highly-prized real estate – the upper right-hand quadrant of the front page? Has the world become so accustomed to Iran’s nuclear advances that they don’t even warrant sustained high-profile treatment in the media?

It’s worth asking the Times.

Oh, and while you’re at it, you might raise one other matter.

In an article on the Lebanese elections in the same edition, the reporter notes: “If Hezbollah and its allies win a majority for the first time – and the race is likely to be very close – there will be concern in Washington and Tel Aviv.”

Hmm, last time I looked, Washington was America’s capital and Jerusalem was Israel’s.

Sloppy reporting and editing, or deliberate decision?

Either way, caveat lector. Let the reader beware.

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