I usually defend The New York Times against charges that it is biased against Israel. I know its journalists will occasionally write a headline that seems to minimize Palestinian responsibility in terror attacks, or reverse cause and effect in what many media lazily refer to as the “cycle of violence.” But I’ll also note that, on the whole, the Times’ coverage of Israel matches reality. And unlike many other news outlets — which seem to report only on violence and strife in Israel — its pages feature Israelis who are working, playing, and creating outside of the narrative of “conflict.”
And then the newspaper will publish something so bizarrely one-sided or mischievously inaccurate — and I find myself about to speed-dial CAMERA.
On Oct. 8, Times foreign editor Rick Gladstone published a piece in response to the violence surrounding Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, under the headline “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place.” According to the article, “The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered,” is whether the Temple Mount is “the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.”
A rush of commentators pointed out that that is not the question at all. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina, one of the experts interviewed for the article, was moved to point this out in a letter to the editor. “The only real question,” Magness wrote, “is the precise location of the temple(s) on the Temple Mount.” The key word there is “on.” Without that simple preposition, Gladstone’s article seems to support the Palestinian narrative that the temples, if they existed at all, never sat on or near their “Noble Sanctuary.”
The Times knew it had blundered. It amended a correction to the original article acknowledging that “this article misstated the question.” The question, it continued, “is where precisely on the 37-acre Temple Mount site the temples had once stood, not whether the temples had ever existed there.” (For want of an “on,” a Jewish kingdom was lost.)
An “Editors’ Note” was added on October 13:
An article on Thursday, with the headline “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place,” examined the scholarly debate about two ancient Jewish temples on the Temple Mount, a site sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. While the article laid out the history of the Jewish temples and the archaeological and historical evidence about them, the headline and a passage in the initial version of the article implied incorrectly that questions among scholars about the location of the temples potentially affected Jewish claims to the site and Israel’s broader assertion of sovereignty over Jerusalem. In fact, as the article was later corrected to clarify, the scholarly debate is a narrower one, focused on the precise location on the Temple Mount where the long destroyed temples once stood. All versions of the article should have made clear that the archaeological and historical uncertainties about the site — unlike assertions by some Palestinians that the temples never existed — do not directly challenge Jewish claims to the Temple Mount.
I don’t know what was going on in the heads of Times’ editors when they published Gladstone’s original piece, but I can guess. Anti-Semitism? I doubt it. Incompetence? Liberal bias? Maybe — but of a certain type. The article seems to be a product of a headlong quest for objectivity, in which the author overcorrects in pursuit of “even-handedness.”
The Mideast conflict invites this pursuit. Both sides have been fighting the same battle for so long, and each side has such a compelling “narrative” that it follows that there must be two sides to any issue they are fighting over. Wary of appearing to take sides, the reporter looks for balance where there actually is none. The pitfalls of such “objectivity” have plagued mainstream coverage of the climate debate and the dangers of tobacco.
I also suspect that journalists bristle at the sameness of the Israeli-Palestinian story — interchangeable attacks and counter-attacks, peace talks and diplomatic failures. I have been writing the same headlines since the 1980s. “Israelis, Palestinians in violent clashes.” “White House aims to restart peace process.” “Benjamin Netanyahu elected prime minister.”
Tedium can lead to a search for fresh angles where there often are none. Editors often demand this. The two sides have been fighting about the Temple Mount for years. Maybe there is a new way to think about this ancient grudge?
And then there is the “If both sides are angry, we must be doing something right” defense. The Times does hear it from both sides — just as many Jews think the paper has it in for Israel, Palestinians complain that the Times ignores “the broader narrative of colonization and resistance,” as a pro-Palestinian website puts it. Standing up to this anger and goading the critics becomes a point of journalistic pride.
Everything above can be said of many of the mainstream newspapers, news services, and broadcast venues covering Israel. But there’s one other factor uniquely shaping the Times‘ Israel coverage: in essence, it is the world’s most influential Jewish newspaper. That’s not because of its vestigially Jewish ownership (of the four major Jewish denominations, the Sulzbergers seem to belong to the one called Presbyterianism), but because it is the hometown newspaper of the capital of Diaspora Jewry. Reading the Sunday Times over bagels is as much a Jewish ritual as davening mincha, and performed by many more Jews. When the Times reports on Israel, it seems to aspire to the kind of insider conversation you can hear at coffee shops and spin classes all over the Upper West Side. The Times assumes its readers can handle the hard stuff about Israel, and aren’t squeamish about issues of Jewish identity and conflicted loyalties.
What else explains the now infamous chart the editors put together, tallying the Jewish lawmakers who voted for and against the Iran deal? Jewish news outlets were doing this kind of math, so why not the Times? But its editors learned that when a Jewish newspaper counts Jews, it’s all in the family. When a mainstream publication does it, it’s creepy and borderline anti-Semitic.
But if the Times thinks it’s writing for the Jewish family, it’s a particular kind of family: highly educated, superbly informed, and unabashedly liberal. It’s a family that rejects the one-sided narratives of the “pro-Israel” media watchdogs, who often confuse propaganda with journalism. They distrust hasbara, and are less likely to identify with cranky Uncle Sid who watches Fox complains about the “anti-Semits” in the State Department than with progressive Cousin Nathan who wrote his senior thesis at Brown on “Paradigms of Conflict Resolution in an Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue Forum.”
I don’t think I’m giving away too much by saying that I’m more of a Nathan than a Sid. When I talk with friends about Israel, I’m often critical of the government and refuse to see Israel as blameless in the ongoing conflict. That’s why I am usually sanguine about the Israel coverage in the Times. Thomas Friedman, c’est moi.
But that’s with friends. When I talk with “outsiders,” I temper my criticism. When they defend BDS, I turn into a hasbaranik. I understand why my more hawkish friends complain about the shoddy journalism, baffling picture choices, pointlessly provocative op-eds, and tone-deaf headlines that sometimes crop up in the Times. I can’t defend these blunders, but I do argue against the idea that the motivation is anti-Semitism. That makes me feel a little better. Whether it helps Israel or not is another story.