Friday, February 19, 2010

The Times Gets It Wrong Again

Those of us for whom the New York Times is both an addiction and a quasi-Bible constantly assess its Israeli and Jewish reporting, often concluding that it is unfair. It is evident that the newspaper gets an awful lot of feedback from Jewish readers, many if not most of whom write to complain. It’s also the case that the Times hears quite a bit from readers who are hostile to Israel and believe that the newspaper is biased in favor of the Jewish state.

That’s the picture that emerges from Clark Hoyt’s sensitive and sensible “Too Close to Home” article in the February 7 Sunday Times. Hoyt is now the paper’s Public Editor. It’s his responsibility to consider whether the country’s greatest newspaper has abided by journalistic standards. It’s not his responsibility to make editorial decisions, although it is a good bet that he has influence there as well, if only because editors know that someone is looking over their shoulders.

The article discusses the difficult issue of whether Ethan Bronner should remain the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief since his son who is an American collegian is now serving as a volunteer in the Israeli army. Even before this question arose, Hoyt received hundreds of complaints alleging that Bronner’s writing is slanted against Israel. There has also been a fusillade from the other side claiming pro-Israel or anti-Arab bias. The father/son situation has upped the volume. It is mildly comforting that our mild paranoia about the media and Israel is matched by the mild paranoia of Israel’s enemies.

Despite the highly unusual circumstance, the Times has decided to keep Bronner on the job because, as Hoyt writes, it did not want “to cave in to…relentlessly unfair criticism of the paper’s Middle East coverage by people who are hostile to objective reporting.” After acknowledging that “it doesn’t seem fair to hold a father accountable for the decision of his adult son,” Hoyt concludes that Bronner should be transferred elsewhere for “the duration of his son’s service in the I.D.F.”

In a sharp response posted on the Public Editor’s blog, Bill Keller, the Times’ executive editor, said nothing doing. “We will not be taking your advice to remove Ethan Bronner from the Jerusalem Bureau,” because to do so would be to “capitulate to the more savage partisans.” Keller then offers a handful of inapposite examples that amount to a fierce but ineffective defense of his decision. Hoyt is right. Appearances do matter, especially in journalism, and Bronner should be transferred. Whether he goes or stays, the newspaper’s Israel and Middle East coverage will continue to generate much comment and controversy.

What is stunning about the episode is how far the paper is now removed from the longstanding policy of not posting a Jewish reporter in Israel. That changed when Thomas Friedman came to Jerusalem from Beirut, a mixed blessing if there ever was one. Putting aside Friedman’s trademark egocentrism, as he acknowledged in “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” he liked the Arabs a great deal more than he liked the Israelis. There wasn’t an Israeli wart that he was aware of that could escape his reporting.

Bronner is far superior to Friedman. The Times’ Israel problem, however, transcends the situation of the Bronner family or whether its reporters in Jerusalem are Jewish. In a nutshell, the problem is too much attention, too much of which is devoted to trivia. This is a conscious decision, arising I believe from the large proportion of Times’ readers who are Jewish, as well as from the maintenance of an expensive bureau in Jerusalem. There is copy to be filed and this is a challenge when there are no big stories relating to warfare or Hezbollah and Hamas. In a sense, reporters feel obligated and may be instructed to ferret out tales of internal Israeli problems or minor conflicts of the kind that come with the territory called life. The result is that small-time stuff makes it big time into the newspaper.

This isn’t a new phenomenon and my concern is apparently not shared by many, as there are children of all ages – most of them adults – who lap up the coverage given to Israel and Jews. At its best, journalism is a two-edged sword. The caressing hand is sooner or later also the hand that bites. No other country on the face of the earth is subjected to the trivial pursuit that is regular fare in Israeli coverage and, for that matter, no other people on the face of the earth is reported on the way Jews are reported on. This isn’t a blessing.

Several weeks ago, David Brooks, the best of the Times Op Ed writers, was in Israel and filed a wonderful article about the country’s technological development and other indices of progress. He saw the larger picture. In a probably unintended way, his article serves as a rebuke to his employer. Nitpicking, he was suggesting, is not the same as journalism.

Unfortunately, the forces that dictate and shape what Timesmen file from Israel encourage nitpicking, so that readers generally do not know of the highways and parks unless they serve as instrumentalities to criticize Israel. Readers do not know about Israeli scientific achievements and technological developments or of the stunning improvement in the standard of living or of the remarkable accomplishment of integrating nearly a million Russians. The media wallow in trivia and negativism and that’s the story that people who do not know Israel first-hand get when they read their newspapers.

I believe that inadvertently the treatment that Israel gets serves as a disincentive to Palestinian and Arab self-examination and as a disincentive to utilize the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been available to improve the lot of Palestinians. Why take that road when the media wars are being won? Downtrodden Palestinians are highly functional to the Arab world.