- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

Hamas’ victory

We always stress to interns and younger reporters the importance of identifying the sources of the information they put into their stories — especially if it is controversial or subject to dispute.

We do this so the reader can judge for him or herself how much weight to give the material. If the supposed information comes from an Osama bin Laden audiotape, that is one thing; if it comes from an internal U.S. military evaluation, that is something else.

But there is another very important reason for citing sources — in case the information turns out to be wrong.

So it was with the Palestinian election on Wednesday. As virtually every other American newspaper, we had a front page story on Thursday saying the ruling Fatah party appeared to have eked out a narrow victory over the militant movement Hamas.

That analysis was based on exit polls released Wednesday evening, and it was only the proper sourcing of the information to those exit polls that saved us from being flat-out wrong.

The polls were consistent and seemingly authoritative. Here is what the Associated Press was reporting until 1:30 a.m. Thursday — an hour after our final deadline:

“An exit poll by Birzeit University in Ramallah showed Fatah winning 63 seats in the 132-member parliament with 46.4 percent of the vote and Hamas taking 58 seats with 39.5 percent. Smaller parties received 11 seats, according to the poll of 8,000 voters in 232 polling stations. The poll had a one-seat margin of error.

“A second survey showed Fatah beating Hamas 42 percent to 35 percent, or 58 seats to 53. Official results are due Thursday.”

The exit polls were additionally persuasive because they fit perfectly with our expectations. Several polls over a period of weeks before the elections had showed a close race but with Fatah narrowly ahead in every survey.

Another day

We can only guess what went wrong. My own theory is that some Palestinians were reluctant to tell the pollsters they were voting for Hamas because of its reputation as a terrorist organization.

But the wonderful thing about the newspaper business is that when you get something wrong, you simply admit it, correct it and try to do better the next day. And we had an amazing story to cover.

Adjectives like “stunning” and “shocking” get thrown around a lot in the news industry, but this was a case where they were entirely appropriate. It seems that no one — including the Hamas leaders themselves — had anticipated the size of the Hamas mandate.

We were well positioned to cover the consequences.

Middle East correspondent Joshua Mitnick was in Ramallah, monitoring developments at the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank headquarters as Fatah leaders announced the resignation of their Cabinet and President Mahmoud Abbas said he would invite Hamas to form a new government.

Staff writer Betsy Pisik and photographer Mary F. Calvert were still in Gaza City, site of the Hamas headquarters, where they were able to get the initial reaction from the Hamas leadership.

And freelance correspondent Paul Martin, who has excellent contacts in the region, also was traveling in the West Bank and Gaza, contributing to us and writing for his own news agency, World News & Features.

We had to have a story with the main news developments, of course, but we always look for ways to give our readers something they will not find anywhere else. In this case it was an interview Mr. Martin had conducted a couple of days earlier with Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas chief in Gaza, discussing the directions in which he hoped to see the Palestinian territories develop.

The interview had not seemed all that pressing when it looked as if Hamas would be at best a junior partner in the next government. But all of a sudden, Mr. Zahar’s views were very relevant.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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