Coverage of border deaths in Israel, US, Spain beyond the pale

On Monday, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent arrived at the Jordanian-Israeli border, attacked an Israeli soldier, and tried to steal his gun before being fatally shot, according to a preliminary Israeli investigation into the clash.

The attacker worked as a judge in Jordan, a fact that’s well-known because, at least judging by a New York Times headline about the incident, his profession is more important to the story than his alleged assault on the border guard. “Jordanian Judge Killed by Israeli Soldiers at Border Crossing,” the newspaper titled its 582-word, page 7 story.

Regardless of the man’s line of work and its peculiar prominence in the New York Times headline, the story is certainly newsworthy. But is it more important than the story of a 16-year-old Mexican boy shot repeatedly in the back by a US border agent? Is it more compelling than the story of 15 Africans swimming toward the Spanish border who drowned as border guards fired in their direction with rubber bullets?

In Mexico

José Antonio Elena Rodriguez was on the Mexican side of his country’s northern border when he was shot about 10 times, with most of the bullets hitting him in the back. The boy was killed when US authorities opened fire on a group of Mexicans hurling rocks at them. There is no clear evidence that Rodriguez was involved in the stone-throwing.

The New York Times barely covered the story two days later, on Oct. 12, 2012, with a 198-word AP story buried on page 18 of the newspaper. Its headline, “One Is Dead After Clash At Border,” didn’t mention the boy’s age, said nothing about his line of work or whether he was a student, and, in contrast with the newspaper’s headline about the incident in Israel, did not even mention whom the boy was “killed by.”

If the news brief on page 18 made it appear that the newspaper was relatively uninterested in the killing of Rodriguez, and if the handful of words published a few days later on page 15 also seemed insignificant compared to The Times’ attention to a Jordanian judge, the boy’s family might take comfort in the fact that the incident was mentioned again several months later, in a pair of stories about US-Mexican border tensions. And perhaps they can take comfort, too, in the fact that Rodriguez was not one of the Africans who drowned in a hail of bullets last month, a story that was even less important to the newspaper.

In Morocco

The Spanish town of Ceuta is not in mainland Spain, or even in Europe at all. It is a tiny circle of land cut out the north coast of Africa, entirely surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean Sea. It’s location, and the European standard of living that it represents, makes it a tempting target for economic migrants, including a large group of sub-Saharan Africans who on Feb. 6 tried to swim around the fence separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave.

As Spanish border guards shot rubber bullets into the waters surrounding the swimmers, about 15 of the Africans drowned while still in Moroccan territory.

The New York Times didn’t cover the story when it happened. It didn’t cover the story after Spain admitted to firing rubber bullets after initially denying the use of force. And it didn’t cover the story when the European Union launched an inquiry into the incident. In fact, the death of 15 Africans looking for a better life in Europe’s borders was ignored for over two weeks, until the newspaper finally found space on page nine to run a 217-word AP brief.

The headline of that story, “Spain: Rubber Bullets Fired at Migrants,” didn’t mention who fired the bullets, nor did it point out that anyone was killed in the incident.

Although subsequent stories about Spain’s attempt to combat illegal immigration also mentioned the deaths, the there was no real equivalent to “Jordanian Judge Killed by Israeli Soldiers at Border Crossing.” That story was over twice as long as the articles breaking the news of the death of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez and the 15 African migrants; it appeared in the earlier pages of the newspaper; and it had a clear headline that humanized the attacker and named the party responsible for killing him.

Why the discrepancy? And more importantly, what effect does it have on those who rely on New York Times coverage when the newspaper is so drawn to Israeli use of force, justified or not, that it downplays or ignores more disturbing news out of Spain and even the US?

The old axiom “Jews are news” does not cut it anymore, at least not for a newspaper that wants to be seen as providing complete, contextual and proportional understanding of the world. News is news. And it is time that the The Times stop downplaying important tragedies elsewhere in the world for the sake of its obsession with Israel.

About the Author
Gilead Ini is a senior research analyst at CAMERA, where his writing on media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict highlights how one-sided and inaccurate reporting can distort understanding of the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter at @GileadIni.