Signs of the Times
A new report from the watchdog group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) presents a detailed look at the New York Times’ reporting on Israel in 2011. It follows a long line of such reports—none of which have made much of an impact on the newspaper. Why?
The new CAMERA study, which focuses mainly on the second half of 2011, shows the Times’ pattern of criticizing Israel far more than Palestinians, in both reporting and editorials. The Times’ coverage of the peace process and the Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence presented Palestinian views twice as frequently as Israeli ones. Its coverage of the Turkish Gaza blockade-running ship Mavi Marmara dramatically emphasized Israeli actions and downplayed “activist violence.” Palestinian violence, including the horrific slaughter of five members of the Fogel family in March, was buried on page five, and Palestinian incitement was almost completely ignored.
CAMERA’s critique is damning but not entirely new. The organization put out a similar study in 2002. In the 1980s, two books, The Media’s War Against Israel and The Media’s Coverage of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, addressed the 1982 Lebanon War and the First Intifada, respectively; both featured critiques of the Times.
Beyond the Times, the anti-Israel biases of the BBC, the London Review of Books, and the Guardian are well known, as are those of news services like Reuters. Journalist Marvin Kalb meticulously dissected coverage of the 2006 Lebanon war and the ways in which media manipulation was central to the Hezbollah’s strategy—and alarmingly successful. Organizations like CAMERA, Honest Reporting, the Huffington Post Monitor, as well as the greatly missed Just Journalism in the United Kingdom, have kept watch on ever-changing media. But to what changes, if any, has all of this led?
In a recent study, former Times reporter Neil Lewis tracked more than 3000 Times articles from 1948 to 2007. His conclusions match the conventional wisdom about the paper’s increasing hostility to Israel. Reporters like underdog stories, and Israel is no longer the underdog; the 1977 election of the Begin government and the 1982 Lebanon War were watersheds that alienated the Times’ writers and editors, as did the settlement enterprise. Moreover, in recent decades Israeli and Palestinian NGOs have become major sources of information; and “assorted acts of horrifying terrorism committed by various Palestinian groups,” says Lewis, “produced a dividend of greater attention to their cause.”
Lewis’ portrayal of the insiders’ logic is disheartening. The Times thinks of itself as occupying responsible middle ground, but it fails to “cover fully the range of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel invective that is depressingly common in parts of the Arab media and clergy.” It treats all of this discourse as nothing more than “background noise.” Only when it rises above this level does the Times feel compelled to notice it. It paid attention most recently when videos of surfaced of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi calling on Egyptians “to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them—for Zionists, for Jews,” whom he characterized as “these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”
The Times was careful to note that Morsi was speaking about Zionists, which he regrettably conflated with Jews. In an editorial the newspaper condemned such language and plaintively asked, “Does Mr. Morsi really believe what he said in 2010? Has becoming president made him think differently about the need to respect and work with all people?” It also reported with a straight face Morsi’s ludicrous claim that his remarks had been taken out of context. The Times’ disapproval is indexed to its investment in Morsi and Egyptian democracy, not his anti-Semitism.
To some extent the Times’ treatment of Israel has no doubt been the result of the complex attitude toward Judaism and Jewish nationalism on the part of its owners, the Sulzberger family. This explains the stance of the Times editorialists who in 1947 expressed “doubts concerning the wisdom of erecting a political state on a basis of religious faith.” The Sulzbergers’ unwillingness to be seen supporting other Jews, as Laurie Leff detailed in her powerful book Buried by the Times, shaped the newspaper’s coverage of the Holocaust. The genocide of European Jews was too parochial an issue on which to expend ink and influence.
But the Times’ treatment of Israel over the past 40 years must also be seen as an example of journalism’s growing issue-orientation, which de-emphasizes the reporting of facts and events in the present and concentrates on shaping public understanding for the future, in furtherance of progressive politics and specific political positions. This points to journalism’s largest problem, its self-conception as a co-equal branch of government, not merely an external observer and sometime check but a full-fledged policy development and consensus-manufacturing entity.
Then-outgoing Times “public editor” Arthur Brisbane confessed this utterly obvious fact in 2012, saying, “Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism—for lack of a better term—that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times.” He was quickly rebutted by executive editor Jill Abramson, who disagreed with Brisbane’s “sweeping conclusions” but conceded that “in covering some social and cultural issues, the Times sometimes reflects its urban and cosmopolitan base.”
The irony is that this cosmopolitan arrogation of power has peaked just as news-gathering and information dissemination have become massively decentralized thanks to the Internet. Informed citizens no longer need newspapers, unless they prefer to obtain their viewpoints predigested. And newspapers themselves are in various states of collapse. The Times is as mismanaged as any; Abramson recently announced that the voluntary buyout period for newsroom employees was ending and that layoffs might be necessary. It may be that viewpoints are all that newspapers have to sell. For leading institutions like the Times, this may lead to the even more strident promotion of opinions as a means of survival in a shrinking marketplace.
The Times’ hostility toward Israel, its sparse coverage of anti-Semitism, and its anthropological remoteness from Jewish issues except for culture evoke only occasional protest. Its repeated condemnations of Israel and whitewashing of the Palestinian national project are post-modern morality tales. Its indulgent and apologetic coverage of most things Islamic is equally uninformative. And, as CAMERA’s new report reminds us, the newspaper has not been on the road to improvement. Let us hope that shifting business imperatives do not make it even worse.
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