Mercury News blasted over photo of bombers mom

The managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News admitted her paper made a "poor choice" in illustrating its account of Sunday's Netanya suicide bombing solely with a photograph of the bomber's grieving mother.

"That was a decision made on Sunday night. I think it was a poor choice. I don't think it was an appropriate way to represent a suicide bombing," said Susan Goldberg.

"In this case, this was just a poor choice by us. I don't think there's any question about it, and I can't defend it."

Rami Ghanem, a 20-year-old Islamic Jihad terrorist, blew himself up outside a Netanya cafe, injuring 49 Israelis.

The article appeared on page 16A of Monday's paper, and also contained an account of Secretary of State Colin Powell's "road map to peace" speech at the annual conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. By Tuesday, Goldberg, who is Jewish, confirmed that she had already received more than 100 critical e-mails, "which is a lot."

Mercury News editors opted not to use available photos of the actual bombing as they were "extremely gruesome and graphic and went way beyond what we'd ever put in the newspaper," according to Goldberg.

"Unfortunately, rather than just saying, 'OK, we'll run the story without a photo or maybe just with a map,' the search continued, and they landed on this photo."

The photo depicts Ghanem's weeping mother surrounded by consoling female friends and relatives.

"The picture in today's Mercury accompanying the story of Bush's Middle East plan is outrageous and offensive," wrote Janet Berg, the acting executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, in an e-mail to Goldberg and Dan Sneider, the paper's foreign and national editor.

"Where was the picture of the mothers of those…innocent, civilian Israelis?"

Letter writers also complained about the photo caption, which described Ghanem as a "militant" and not as a terrorist.

"I don't think we should have used the term 'militant.' I think blowing yourself up in a group of civilians is a terrorist act," said Goldberg.

"I do not think this was a good choice of words. I think the best route is for us to avoid labeling people and let actions speak for themselves. I think this action is pretty clear. This is something we've talked about and is something we've asked people to be careful on, but in this case, we were not as careful as we should have been."

Goldberg noted that she has "sent a few notes to the staff, to small groups of the staff," over the matter. She said she did not feel the need to run an apology or clarification in the paper but would respond to those who had contacted her.

Mideast coverage is far and away the most sensitive issue for Mercury News readers, according to Goldberg. Arab and pro-Palestinian groups have dubbed the paper the "Tel Aviv News," while Jewish groups have accused the newpaper of being pro-Palestinian, especially in the last few days.

Yitzhak Santis, the Jewish Community Relations Council's director of Mideast affairs, said the paper was handling matters properly in the wake of a barrage of complaints from the Jewish community.

"They're honest, and we appreciate their candor," he said. "They are responsive to community concerns and willing to admit mistakes, and that's always a good thing for a newspaper."

The JCRC ran a five-week survey of the Mercury News last summer, which concluded that some aspects of the paper's Mideast coverage "were quite balanced while others were less so."

Santis noted, however, that one of the JCRC's biggest beefs was with the paper's choice of photographs. The survey claimed that the Mercury News ran seven times more photos of Palestinian victims than of Palestinian combatants yet only twice as many photos of Israeli victims than of Israeli soldiers. Also, according to the JCRC, the newspaper printed a third more photos of Palestinian victims than of Israeli ones.

Yet, in a dig at the San Francisco Chronicle, Santis surmised that the Mercury News is "more balanced in its news coverage than other newspapers and one particular Bay Area newspaper, according to our studies."

Berg said the San Jose federation has a positive relationship with the Mercury News, and added that she received an e-mail reply from both Goldberg and Sneider.

"When we do criticize them, they are always very open to our criticism and always leave the door open for dialogue," Berg said.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.