For many months I have received hundreds of emails from readers on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, complaining about Times coverage. And though email is a cold medium, their furor has practically burned through the screen.
The Times is biased, both sides charge. The Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, somehow manages to be — as the critics would have it — both wildly anti-Israel and practically a tool of the Israeli government.
One organization, Camera, even pays for a billboard across the street from the Times building to accuse the paper of regularly attacking Israel. And pro-Palestinian websites like The Electronic Intifada have detailed the ways in which, as they see it, Times coverage fails to do justice to an outcast people. Many readers have castigated me for not jumping into the fray to represent their position. I have searched for a way to write something useful and productive amid all this emotion and criticism, and have — until now — put it off.
But with this past summer’s bloody Gaza war and its aftermath, including the terrible attack on a Jerusalem synagogue last week, the positions seem more calcified than ever, and the partisan criticism of The Times harsher than ever. I felt an obligation to take on some of the issues I’ve heard most about, to get response from a top Times editor, and to make some recommendations. (This column is restricted to news coverage and does not consider the opinion side offerings, such as editorials and Op-Ed columns.)
One of the most frequent charges, on both sides, is that there is not enough context in news coverage. For example, Yumi Schleifer wrote to me over the summer to protest a full-page illustration of targets in Gaza that had been hit by Israel, charging that it “was clearly intended to show Israel as the bad guy.” He complained of “no accompanying illustration showing the population centers targeted by Hamas in Israel, nor the many Israeli settlements that have been hit by rockets and mortars over many years,” or showing Hamas personnel, weapons or tunnels.
Sylvie Horvath saw anti-Israeli sentiment in this sentence because it lacked context: “It is Israel’s assault on Gaza that is causing the vast majority of the carnage in the conflict, including the deaths of 42 soldiers on the Israeli side.” She said a fairer construction would have included the phrase “due to Hamas’ continual firing of missiles into peaceful Israeli communities.”
Historical context is missing, too, some readers say. They argue that the paper should point out, for example, that Israel is, as they often like to describe it, the only democracy in the Middle East and that it is surrounded by hostility in the region. One reader, Stella Teger, charged that Israel is always unfairly shown as the aggressor: “Which side has sworn to annihilate the other?”
Leila Walsh of Jersey City sees a version of the same problem but comes at it from the opposite direction. She sees The Times’s “failure to explain basic context in Gaza” and complains of “a deeply misleading portrayal of symmetry of suffering and victimhood that obscures reality and obfuscates Israeli war crimes and U.S. complicity.”
Many readers tell me they find it offensive when The Times publishes photographs that seem to equate unequal events, as if it were afraid to simply report the news without this balancing effort.
I asked Joseph Kahn, the top editor for international news, about this context complaint.
“I hear that criticism a lot,” he said. But, he said, behind it are “people who are very well informed and primed to deconstruct our stories based on their knowledge.” The Times does not hear this complaint, he said, from readers who are merely trying to understand the situation.
“We’re being asked to be partisans,” he said. “And we’re not partisans. We’re genuinely not.” If telling the entire history of the conflict from a partisan point of view is the metric, he said, “we’re going to fail every time.”
EVEN something as seemingly objective as death tolls can become contentious, as with last summer’s regularly updated graphic that seemed to equate rockets launched from Gaza — which did relatively little damage in Israel — with the strikes Israel made on Gaza, to devastating effect. Patrick Connors wrote on the Mondoweiss website: “The showcasing of these figures, implying near parity, is suggestive of a desperate effort by The New York Times to provide a counter to the only other figures in ‘The Toll in Gaza and Israel’ that show a stunning disparity between the number of Palestinian and Israeli deaths.” On this symmetry point, Mr. Kahn said it’s true that Times editors have become sensitized to complaints that they show the suffering of Palestinians only, and sometimes make an effort to balance it.
“It’s partly a result of decades of very intensive scrutiny from both sides,” he said. He admitted that “a separate line of criticism” could result from trying to represent both sides visually or in other ways. But he sees no harm in it: “When we default to symmetry, we don’t really do the objective reader a disservice.”
Another theme I hear is that The Times is biased because of the reporters who are covering the stories. This is a subject my predecessors have taken up before. Daniel Okrent called for a reporter to be stationed in the West Bank to counter what he saw as Israel-centric coverage from the Jerusalem bureau and its staffers who are immersed in Israeli life. Another public editor, Clark Hoyt, called for Ms. Rudoren’s predecessor as bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, to be reassigned because his son had entered the Israeli military, something Mr. Hoyt said would appear to be a conflict of interest. (Times editors did not follow either of these recommendations.)
The matter of who covers the Middle East for The Times can be tricky. Some readers have objected to The Times’s employment of Fares Akram as a contributor because he once had a photograph of Yasir Arafat as his Facebook profile picture. (Mr. Akram has now left The Times for a job with The Associated Press.) Other readers have objected to some of the activities of the family of Isabel Kershner, who writes on contract, and whose son has begun Israeli military training and whose husband once worked for an Israeli think tank.
At one time, the paper went out of its way not to assign Jewish staff members to the Jerusalem bureau; that, appropriately, has not been the case for decades. At this moment, The Times has no native Arabic speakers in its bureau. That’s a deficiency — one that Mr. Kahn said he is actively working on.
Then there’s the question of whether The Times, and other news organizations, simply overplay the conflict. Matti Friedman, a former AP correspondent in Israel,discussed that idea in a widely read article in Tablet magazine last August. He wrote that the mainstream press pays far too much attention to Israel because of “a hostile obsession with Jews” and does so within an unchanging and unfair narrative. “Israel is not an idea, a symbol of good or evil, or a litmus test for liberal opinion at dinner parties,” he wrote. “It is a small country in a scary part of the world that is getting scarier.”
Why does The Times place so much emphasis on Israel, particularly on the Palestinian conflict, when there are so many hot spots and so much carnage in the world?
One reason, surely, is that Israel is one of the United States’ most important allies — one to which it provided more than $3 billion in military aid last year — and that its activities are of great interest to Times readers. Not all of the paper’s attention to Israel deals with, or should deal with, the conflicts with Palestinians.
“I don’t think the subject is overcovered,” Mr. Kahn told me when I asked about this criticism. “We are following our best gut experience about what people are paying attention to. We cover things that are most relevant to our readers and to the international conversation. We’re not trying to shove it in people’s faces. We’re reflecting the intense interest that is there.”
It’s not unusual for readers to attack aspects of the same story from opposing directions. For example, one of the most notable articles about the war in Gaza concerned the four Palestinian boys killed on a beach by Israeli bombs. Many readers criticized a change in the article’s headline, from a hard-news approach in the early online version to a much softer — and some said euphemistic — headline in the print story. The first headline read, “Four Young Boys Killed Playing on Gaza Beach.” It was changed to “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.”
A READER, Daire MacFadden, accused The Times of trying to tone down the atrocity with the headline change: “As if the facts of this tragedy were not sad enough, the seeming sycophancy of the Times tonight moves me to despair at the state of things.” The executive editor, Dean Baquet, told me at that time that the change was a routine one as the story developed and was readied for the print edition, where it appeared on the front page.
Others objected to the prominence given to the article and its accompanying photographs. It was, they said, another instance of The Times trying to arouse pity for the Palestinians. Commenting not directly on this article but on others like it, one reader, David Bortnicker, charged that The Times has become “a propaganda outlet for Hamas.”
What can Times editors and reporters do in this situation in which so many readers mistrust their motives and their efforts, and in which charges of bias and cries of “shame on you” come unrelentingly from both sides?
I’m 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.
My strong impression is that The Times does everything it can to be fair in its coverage and generally succeeds. Does it have a worldview that underlies its coverage? Yes, the coverage seems to reflect baseline beliefs that Israel has a right to exist and that Palestinians deserve a state of their own.
Does The Times sometimes fall short in individual articles or headlines or in presentation? Undoubtedly. For example, a headline last week about a Palestinian boy who was shot called him only a “Palestinian”; that’s not untrue, but it failed to get across an important element of the story: that the victim, who was badly wounded, is 10 years old.
Solid and often excellent as it is, the coverage and handling of this fraught topic has room for improvement. Here are some recommendations:
1. Include more. Provide as much historical and geopolitical context as possible in individual articles, within the space constraints of news coverage. Include, too, whenever possible, a sense of the region – for example, that the rise of radical Islam is not a distant issue for Israel but a very real one and a very local one.
2. Engage more. Find ways to be transparent and direct with readers about The Times’s mission in covering this area. Online, a Times version of the Reddit AMAs (Ask Me Anything) — to which the public could submit questions for writers and editors to answer — might be useful. This would also be a way that journalists could be up front with readers about their own backgrounds, disclosing possible conflicts of interest and discussing how they deal with them as reporters and editors. Let readers and critics see that Times journalists are serious, smart and thoughtful people. And I could publish Q. and A.’s with Times staff members on my blog, similar to one I once published with the Times’s community manager about online comments. (I realize this may add more fuel to the fire.)
3. Diversify. Strengthen the coverage of Palestinians. They are more than just victims, and their beliefs and governance deserve coverage and scrutiny. Realistic examinations of what’s being taught in schools, and the way Hamas operates should be a part of this. What is the ideology of Hamas; what are its core beliefs and its operating principles? What is Palestinian daily life like? I haven’t seen much of this in The Times. There should be a native Arabic speaker on staff who can penetrate Palestinian society with understanding and solid news judgment. Mr. Okrent’s idea of a Ramallah bureau was a good one, I thought, but Mr. Kahn has told me that practical problems and expenses continue to make it unlikely. Failing that, diversity becomes an even more important component of fairness.
4. Stop straining for symmetry. In headlines, in side-by-side photos, in photo galleries, the Times sometimes looks like it is running scared. Maybe this is just an excess of sensitivity, but it doesn’t reflect the core value of news judgment above all.
The Times will never satisfy everyone with its coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict — no more than I can satisfy everyone (or even anyone) with this column. But that should not be the goal.
With the situation so polarized and no visible movement toward peaceful resolution, all that Times journalists can do is play it as fairly and straightforwardly as possible, both in covering the news and in engaging honestly and openly with their readers.
I’m grateful to Jonah Bromwich and Joumana Khatib for research help with this column.