Opinion columnists perform an important public service when providing cogent arguments supported by factual information. This is true regardless of where the columnist falls out on the spectrum of opinion.
But when a columnist regularly demonizes one side of the Arab-Israeli conflict ¯ while resorting to outlandish conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated allegations ¯ the columnist has crossed the bounds of ethical journalism.
Case in point: HonestReporting Canada reports that the Toronto Sun's Eric Margolis, who has a long record of Israel-bashing, recently accused Israel of poisoning Yassir Arafat:
Arafat's convenient death removed a major obstacle to U.S.-Israeli plans. This writer continues to suspect Arafat was murdered by an untraceable nerve or blood toxin. He was being held prisoner by Israel in his Ramallah compound. (Feb. 13)
And this week (Feb. 20), Margolis likewise implied with no substantiation whatsoever that Israel may have murdered former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Observing that 'the professional expertise of the bombing strongly suggests a state intelligence agency,' Margolis names only one such likely agency in his column: 'Israel's Mossad.'
In a 1998 column, Margolis even propagated allegations (originally published in the Times of London) that Israeli scientists were working on an 'ethnic bomb' that would kill Arabs ¯ while sparing Jews. Western scientists dismissed this claim ¯ embraced by the Arab media and lunatic-fringe ideologues ¯ as utter nonsense. Yet Margolis's column, which appeared in the Edmonton Sun and Ottawa Sun, quoted 'numerous reliable sources' who claimed, 'Israeli scientists are attempting to engineer deadly micro-organisms that only attack DNA within the cells of victims with distinctive Arab genes.'
Margolis, who appears often on Canadian TV, has also claimed 'a group of Likudniks' brought the US to war in Iraq, and that 'bloodthirsty neo-conservatives' with Israeli allegiance drive Washington policy.
ETHICS OF THE OPINION COLUMN
Columnists such as Margolis whose material is clearly labeled as opinion do enjoy greater journalistic license than news reporters, but to responsible columnists and papers this license has real limits. The Gannett Corporation, which operates the largest newspaper group in North America, states in its Code of Ethics that
We will hold factual information in opinion columns and editorials to the same standards of accuracy as news stories.
And as James Hill, managing editor of the Washington Post Writers Group, has stated:
You have to hold columnists to the same standard as anyone at the newspaper. If a column writer is making egregious errors in the process of stating his or her opinion, eventually it's not the columnist who's doing that, it's the paper that's doing that.
Eric Margolis has established a pattern of violating this standard, promoting wholly unsubstantiated accusations against the State of Israel for allegedly perpetrating illegal, unethical and diabolical acts. Margolis has crossed the line of journalistic standards, and calls into question the credibility of his primary platform, the Toronto Sun.
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