This article was originally printed at Jewish
Ideas Daily and is reprinted with its permission.
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
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.
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 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 3,000 Times articles from 1948 to 2007. His conclusions match the
conventional wisdom about the paper’s increasing hostility to
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
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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 deemphasizes 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
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
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
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
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.