When The Paper Becomes The Story
The New York Times has taken a well-deserved beating over the past week, most notably from Commentary‘s Seth Mandel and Camera’s Gilead Ini. Presumably, the Times heard from its readers as well, as its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, spent some time in Saturday’s edition discussing complaints the paper has received over several months.
Ms. Sullivan appears to take seriously complaints from both sides, and admits that the Times’s coverage “has room for improvement.” But when read closely, it becomes apparent that even Ms. Sullivan’s column on problems at the Times is itself problematic.
First, though, the positive: Ms. Sullivan notes that she is “not a believer in the idea that if both sides are upset, The Times must be doing something right. That would be convenient in this case, but sound journalism isn’t a matter of hewing to the middle line.” That is a huge step forward from a misconception that is hardly unique to the Times, and Ms. Sullivan should be applauded for acknowledging it. It is also commendable that she has recommended that the Times hire someone who can actually speak and read Arabic, so that they might be aware of the types of things that are being said in the Palestinian press. I would hope that this will lead to greater coverage of some of the internal problems plaguing West Bank society, as well as, as Ms. Sullivan said, increased coverage of Hamas’s ideology, core beliefs, and operating principles. It’s worth noting, though, that even without that advantage, it is still possible to be far more aware of what is happening in Arabic language media that the Times appears to be.
As she notes in her conclusion, however, Ms. Sullivan has not satisfied everyone (i.e., me) with her column. Although her fourth recommendation was for the Times to “stop straining for symmetry,” that appears to be exactly what she herself has done. It is entirely legitimate to discuss complaints from readers from both sides of the spectrum. But it is naive and inappropriate for her to cast CAMERA, on the one hand, and Electronic Intifada, on the other, as flip sides of the same coin. CAMERA’s mission is to promote accuracy in the media, and it has prompted numerous corrections in a variety of news sources, including the Times. Electronic Intifada, on the other hand, consistently spreads falsehoods. It’s also patently false to call Electronic Intifada “pro-Palestinian.” Electronic Intifada and its editor Ali Abunimah are pro-Hamas. It is not pro-Palestinian people. A group that was genuinely pro-Palestinian would not, could not, support a group that either broke or rejected one ceasefire after another this summer, even as the death toll continued to rise.
A related issue is the fact that the Times assumes that all criticism of it is partisan (and by extension, invalid). Ms. Sullivan includes a conversation with one editor who asserts the bizarre defense that only “people who are very well informed” complain about lack of context. If a reader has no independent knowledge beyond what is it written in the Times, how would that reader possibly know if important facts have been omitted? The fact that so many readers rely mainly (or exclusively) on the Times for their knowledge of the situation is the very reason that its coverage is so disturbing.
Ms. Sullivan also discusses the issue of whether the Times focuses too intently on Israel, in comparison to the level of coverage that it devotes to other areas of conflict around the world. She quotes the Times’s editor as saying that they are merely responding to reader interest. But Ms. Sullivan fails to adequately address why this area is of such interest to readers. There was a time when one could posit that, as a New York-based paper, the Times had many Jewish readers who were concerned with what was happening in Israel. However, many Jewish readers have, by now, abandoned the Times, or read it with the assumption that it is slanted. So it would be worth an inquiry as to why Times readers remain disproportionately interested in this subject compared to others. Ms. Sullivan speculates that it may be because Israel received a great deal of US aid. But so does, for example, Egypt — Egypt is to receive $1.5 billion in US aid for 2014. And while the Times printed a November 16 Op-Ed on the fight against female genital mutilation in Egypt, it does not appear to have reported on the November 21 acquittal of a doctor accused of mutilating a young girl in Egypt. Financial aid, therefore, does not seem to be the decisive factor. My own hypothesis would be that at least some of the Times’s readers who show particular interested in Israel are looking for excuses to justify their own pre-existing anti-Semitism. The Times obliges them, encouraging the view that Israel is recalcitrant in the peace process and an aggressor state, and egging on this prejudice, which in turn, sparks more interest in the Times’s biased coverage.
Which brings up my next point. Ms. Sullivan notes that the Times’s “coverage seems to reflect baseline beliefs that Israel has a right to exist and that Palestinians deserve a state of their own.” This is a tacit admission that the Times has an agenda that its reporting seeks to advance. Looking at the actual reporting, however, it’s obvious that that agenda can’t possibly be the one reflected in Sullivan’s statement. The Times rarely mentions that the Palestinians have squandered opportunities to achieve the state she claims the Times wants for them at least twice in this century. Nor does it often mention the ongoing incitement from the Palestinian authority that is a huge barrier to statehood. The Times’s actual coverage reflects a baseline view that seeks to ascribe fault nearly exclusively to one side, and to reinforce this scapegoating at every possible opportunity. The Times’s remaining readers then reward this advocacy by reading, sharing, and promoting it. While this may be profitable for the Times, it is advocacy, not journalism. No wonder that the Times has become what no news organization should be — the story, not the reporter.