Between the Lines: An early welcome for the Gray Lady

I'd rate the departing Steven Erlanger as one of the New York Times's better reporters here.

erlanger 88 (photo credit: )
erlanger 88
(photo credit: )
Last week, I dropped by the press room at the Dan Panorama Hotel, set up to accommodate the White House reporters traveling with US President George W. Bush. An old friend who works in Washington pointed out, among the journalists present, the noted New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, who sat there busily typing away. I expressed surprise at seeing her here in Jerusalem - especially since just an hour earlier I had read her latest piece on the New Hampshire primary, which described firsthand the scene just the previous night at Hillary Clinton's campaign headquarters, and was datelined Derry, N.H. I'm not the only one who noticed the discrepancy - within hours, the blogosphere was buzzing about Dowd's miraculous ability to be in two places at once. The Times sprang to her defense, pointing out she had been in Derry earlier in the week, had used an assistant to provide the color at the Clinton HQ, and brushed off her use of a New Hampshire dateline. "This is a complete invention, this controversy," Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal told The New York Observer, adding: "Datelines are kind of an anachronism. It's a little bit of an affectation." If that's the case, though, why use a dateline at all, especially on a column where it's not really necessary? The problem with Dowd's piece was not that she wrote it in Jerusalem, but that it was deliberately written and presented in a manner to deceive the reader into believing that she had been present in New Hampshire on primary night. (An interesting postscript: Dowd later fell ill during the president's Mideast trip, and commented: "I'm not sure if it was a New Hampshire fever or the Jerusalem food." Maybe it was the judgment of the journalism gods.) Frankly, I'm amazed the Times would take this breach of journalistic ethics so lightly - especially since, after the Jayson Blair scandal a few years ago, reporter Rick Bragg left the paper under a cloud, after questions were raised about his use of datelines. Surely the paper should know that it has no shortage of detractors ready to pounce on it in every circumstance such as this, and if anything, should bend over backward to avoid leaving itself open to such criticism. Of course, if there is one area in particular where the Times has drawn fire over the years, it's been its Israel coverage. It's safe to say that no foreign journalist based here is subject to greater scrutiny than the Times correspondent, with both supporters and detractors of Israel ready to jump at what they discern as bias in either direction in the paper's articles dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before we go any further, let me declare my own bias toward the Times, as a native New Yorker who grew up with the paper and used to line up on Saturday nights in Manhattan to get one of the very first copies of the massive Sunday edition at my local newsstand. Indeed, I suffered several withdrawal pains during my first decade in Israel, when it was almost impossible to get your hands on a copy of the print edition (praise God for the American Cultural Center). Today, thanks to the Internet, it is almost always my second morning read (after the Post, of course). As a family-owned concern still dedicated to its motto: "All the news that's fit to print," the "Gray Lady" is practically an anachronistic monument to an entire vanishing world of quality print journalism. All that being said, there's no question that many areas of its reporting are influenced by the paper's liberal editorial outlook, which falls somewhere between The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. This especially applies to its Mideast coverage and, within that framework, there have been those Jerusalem correspondents who have done their jobs either better or worse than their colleagues. Personally, even though I certainly have taken issue with some of his reportage, I'd rate the departing Steven Erlanger as one of the Times's better reporters here. Erlanger has also admirably shown himself willing to directly engage his (and the paper's critics), having appeared in several local public forums discussing his work before what were sometimes far-from-friendly audiences. NOW, A changing of the guard is in order, with Erlanger scheduled to shift to Paris next month (perhaps as a reward for having put up with Jews and Palestinians the past few years). Although usually we have to wait for the new Times correspondent to actually begin working here before getting on his/her case, this time around we can get an early start, because Erlanger's replacement, Ethan Bronner, is not a new face in these parts. Many of us remember him as The Boston Globe's Jerusalem correspondent during the early 1990s, before he joined the Times. During the past few years, he's been working as the paper's deputy foreign editor, and Israel's clearly been on his mind, as he's penned at least a dozen pieces over the past five years that touch on it in some way. During that period, Bronner's gotten it from both sides. A few years ago, the right-wing blog, Israpundit, taking issue with his explanation of the causes of the First Lebanon War, declared that it was yet another example of his "spreading disinformation for The New York Times." More recently, though, Bronner has come under fire from Israel's critics for his negative review of Jimmy Carter's Palestine, Not Apartheid in The New York Times Book Review. While staying firmly within Times editorial territory - "Most of what Carter focuses on is well worth reading about... His chapter on the endless humiliation of daily life for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation paints a devastating and largely accurate picture of confiscated farm produce, unfair competition from Israeli goods, withheld foreign donations, leveled houses and legal dead ends" - Bronner rightly criticized this "strange little book" that "simply offers a narrative that is largely unsympathetic to Israel. Israeli bad faith fills the pages. Hollow statements by Israel's enemies are presented without comment. Broader regional developments go largely unexamined. In other words, whether or not Carter is right that most Americans have a distorted view of the conflict, his contribution is to offer a distortion of his own." The pro-Palestinian ZNet's Patrick O'Connor responded: "If Carter is 'tone deaf,' Bronner's review provides yet more evidence that The New York Times is willfully blind to Palestinians. New research detailed below shows that Times news reports from Israel/Palestine, which Bronner supervises, privilege the Israeli narrative of terrorism, while marginalizing the Palestinian narratives of occupation and denial of rights." The claim that the Times is marginalizing the Palestinian narratives of occupation is, of course, laughable; if anything, it's the opposite. One need only read Erlanger's extensive coverage of the hardships inside Gaza over the past year, the greatest flaw of which is that it sometimes lacks the necessary broader political and historical context to explain just how its residents ended up in such a situation. No doubt, though, from the Times's perspective, it takes some vindication in being criticized from both sides of the conflict, and Bronner will surely be on the receiving end of much more of the same in the coming years. Let's not feel too sympathetic for him, though; the Jerusalem bureau has long been one of the paper's top foreign postings, especially since David Shipler and Thomas Friedman were able to spin their time here into best-selling books. And, of course, afterward, one presumes, he can always have Paris.