Monday, February 26, 2001

Our New York Times Problem and Theirs

Deborah Sontag had a good day yesterday, at least by her minimalistic standards. There were but two “right-wing” and three “far-right” references in her characteristically undistinguished report of Mr. Sharon’s efforts to establish a national unity government.

When political writers, including at the Times, describe the likes of Jesse Helms, “conservative” is the term that’s fit to print. “Right-wing” and “far-right” are perjoratives usually reserved for those who are outside the pale of legitimate political activity. Mr. Sharon is treated differently because the ideologically driven, cliché-ridden head of the NYT’s Israel bureau doesn’t like what he stands for and does not have the skill to delve into the complexities of Israeli political life. In fact, Mr. Sharon is quite liberal on many issues.

I do not know whether the Times has a rulebook mandating the use of negative language in reports from Israel. Probably not. I am certain that there is a culture of Jewish self-hate on West 43rd Street, a phobia about appearing too Jewish that has endured during the 100+ years that the Ochs’ and Sulzbergers have owned the newspaper. This is a family of serial Jewish self-haters. They gave us a culture that resulted in opposition to Jewish appointees to the Supreme Court and journalists identified by their first initials because their first and middle names were too Jewish to be fit to print. And it is a culture that forever stained the record of the Times when it chose to report little and say little about the murder of European Jewry.

The paper acknowledged the error of its ways at a centennial celebration several years ago, in a brief statement included in an exhibit. The in petto nature of the apology undermined both its sincerity and efficacy. So far as we know, the Times has never examined why it acted so ignobly or whether Jewish lives might have been saved had the world’s most influential newspaper done its journalistic duty.

The Times is a magnificent institution and its Israel coverage is no worse and probably better than what we get elsewhere in the U.S., including the Washington Post, Boston Globe (NYT-owned) and the Los Angeles Times whose cartoonists seem to have gotten their training at der Sturmer.

In a sense, the Times’ Jewish problem is that it writes too much, that it focuses on Jewish minutiae, a tendency that inevitably transforms minor stories about warts and misdeeds into significant news. As major events around the globe are virtually ignored or downplayed, the Times incessantly covers Israel and Jews; whatever the intention, the results frequently are not fortuitous.

I am not eager to join the unforgiving anti-Jesse Jackson bandwagon. He has been over-pilloried for his incautious “Hymietown” eons ago. But Jackson has gotten a free ride, including at the NYT, in his latest indiscretions, both personal and financial.

This kid gloves treatment can be contrasted with the Times’ recent obituary of a Chassidic Rebbe who lived in Borough Park. It was of course necessary to report that a second cousin of the deceased had several followers who were convicted of fraud. In this instance, the New York Times met the National Enquirer.

There are people who regard the Time’s hyper-attention to Israel and Jews as good news, as a sign that we have made it in America and are respected. They are wrong and foolish. We shall have arrived – at least journalistically – when there is a sense of proportion, when we are not neglected or put under a microscope, when ordinary occurrences are not transformed into inflated stories. To the extent that Jews contribute to the pathological attention paid to our minutiae, they are doing harm to the community.

I used to think that it is useless to criticize the Times. I still think this way, but I am less certain. At a recent discussion of media coverage of the Middle East, Clyde Haberman, a talented Timesman, reacted to a barrage of criticism of his newspaper by, according to a story in this newspaper, advising “those who get overwrought by the Times’ coverage to stop reading the paper and preserve their health.”

What a wonderful attitude by a journalist who lives by the First Amendment.