The herd impulse among members of the media, the aversion to deviating from
views of other journalists, is especially pernicious in coverage of Israel
where the guiding thesis today is a simple one: "Hardline" Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has disrupted, if not wrecked, an otherwise
promising peace process in the Middle East. In this airbrushedand falsejournalistic
portrait, the unprecedented terrorist bombings of Israelis by Palestinians in
February/March of 1996 that predated Netanyahu, interrupted Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations and prompted the ouster of the Labor government are nearly
invisible. All problems with the Oslo negotiations are traced to the arrival of
the Likud leader, and all crises of the last ten months are laid at his feet;
at the same time, Palestinians are cast as hapless, frustrated victims whose
anger at Israeli policies not surprisingly propels them to assault and kill
In this formulation there is no examination of the grave Arab violations of
commitments made to Israel in return for the ceding of land. Indeed, such media
accounting has been virtually non-existent. And no one engages more assiduously
in the erasure of Arab breaches of the Oslo agreements than Serge Schmemann of
the New York Times. As Jerusalem bureau chief for the nation's newspaper
of record, he does much to shape the attitudes of his colleagues.
A veteran correspondent who once covered the Soviet Union, Schmemann has
taken on the familiar
Times air of vexation at the tiny Jewish state. Most irritating seems to
be Israeli insistence that its citizens are not meant to die, and that those
bent on killing them must be exposed and opposed. Schmemann discounts Israeli
security assessments, downplaying Israeli public fears, and omitting or
whitewashing Arafat's bellicosity. He habitually tilts his reporting through
selective emphasis on the views of those critical of the Israeli government,
omitting both official comment as well as the voices of the majority of the
Israeli public who support government policies.
Thus, while the Israeli government has repeatedly enumerated Palestinian
violations of the Oslo Accords, Schmemann has pointedly not reported them. He
takes the position that he knows better. Consider, for example, the matter of
Israel's demand that the PLO cease its chicanery about revising its charter
calling for the destruction of Israel. Schmemann has declared publicly and in
correspondence with readers that the document is outdated, unimportant, and
anyway has been modified to the satisfaction of the Americans and the previous
This he asserts even though Israel, Yasir Arafat and the United States all
signed a document in January 1997, as part of the Hebron Protocols, that lists
as first among items still requiring Palestinian compliance the revocation of
that same charter. (October 1996 was the most recent deadline by which the
Palestinian Authority was to produce a revised charter, and did not.)
New York Times considers it the proper role of a reporter to impose his
preferred view of reality on the public and to conceal facts he doesn't happen
Other Palestinian violations of the accords, such as recruitment of armed
forces far beyond the number allowed by Oslo, acquisition of contraband
weaponry, refusal to extradite murderers of Israelis, and use of inflammatory
rhetoric by Arafat and his lieutenants including praise of suicide bombers,
calls for Jihad and references to the ultimate goal of annihilating Israel, are
likewise downplayed or ignored entirely by Schmemann.
Schmemann's reporting is manipulative on other serious issues as well. In
March, when Israel made the decision to build a new neighborhood at Har Homa in
southeastern Jerusalem, government spokesmen began to warn that intelligence
sources were aware of Arafat's having given a "green light" to
terrorism. Schmemann sniffed at this, calling it a "supposed terror
Within days, the "supposed terror threat" became a bloody reality
in the form of a bombed Tel Aviv cafe where three young women, one pregnant and
one the mother of a six-month old baby, lost their lives. Schmemann, however,
was unabashed at having belittled Israel's concerns. His report on the Tel Aviv
carnage is notably perfunctory.
"The bombing," he wrote, "revived the familiar sequencethe
screaming sirens, the bearded religious men scouring the site for bits of flesh
for burial according to Jewish law, the frenzied demonstrators yelling `Death
to the Arabs!', the shocked questions, the chorus of condemnations from abroad."
(CNN, broadcasting from the scene within minutes of the blast, repeatedly note
that there were no frenzied crowds.)
The same March 22nd account contained a striking Schmemann
misrepresentation. So eager was he, apparently, to absolve Arafat of
responsibility for inciting the Tel Aviv murders that he inverted President
Clinton's stern public statement admonishing the Palestinians. Schmemann wrote,
"In Helsinki for a summit meeting with President Boris N. Yeltsin of
Russia, President Clinton defended Mr. Arafat. `There must be absolutely no
doubt in the minds of the friends or of the enemies of peace,' the President
said, `that the Palestinian Authority is unalterably opposed to terror and
unalterably committed to pre-empting and
preventing such acts. This is
essential to negotiating a meaningful and lasting peace.'"
Clinton, of course, was not defending Arafat; he was exhortingand
warninghim to deter terrorism. Schmemann's implausible assertion that
Clinton had issued a blanket vindication of Arafat testifies to the reporter's
eagerness to shift blame away from the Palestinian leader, regardless of his
possible complicity in violence.
Similarly, Schmemann's report on the Tel Aviv murders turned quickly to
emphasis on what Netanyahu had done to anger Arafat. The Prime Minister's
action on Har Homa and his unwillingness to hand over as much territory as
Arafat wanted are said to have "crushed whatever marginal trust Mr. Arafat
still had in Mr. Netanyahu's intentions." As throughout his reporting,
Schmemann's choice of language and emphasis is revealing indeed. It is not
Arafat who has "crushed" the "marginal trust" of Israelis by
instigating the slaughter of Jews, but, in truly Orwellian reversal, Arafat is
cast as the injured party.
Uneasy perhaps that his slighting of the "green light" warnings,
coupled with the subsequent bombing, left him exposed to charges of botched
reporting, Schmemann devoted an entire column on March 26th to the question of
whether Arafat had, in fact, incited the violence. But the assessment is as
distant from the full truth as his earlier reports. He writes that "...the
Israeli government has pummeled Yasir Arafat with charges of deliberately
resorting to violence and terror, depicting the Palestinians' leader as a master
manipulator capable of loosing bloodshed at will to achieve his political ends."
Casting this as an absurd picture of Arafat, despite the Palestinian's
career exemplifying precisely such ruthless talents, Schmemann then declares
that "diplomats, Palestinians and Israelis familiar with Palestinian
affairs" dispute the government view. None of these people are named except
Danny Rubenstein, identified as "a veteran Israeli writer about
Palestinian affairs for the Haaretz newspaper." In fact,
Rubenstein is a vociferous leftwing critic of the government. (In the same
article Schmemann repeatedly attaches the term "right-wing" or "right-winger"
to those on the other side of the political spectrum, while the unlabeled
Rubenstein is made to seem a neutral analyst.)
All the more dishonestly, Schmemann fails to tell readers that commentators
such as Yoel Marcus, one of Israel's most eminent journalistsalso at
Haaretz denounced Arafat's "green light to violence,"
as did many other writers for Israeli newspapers.
Nor was even one government official quoted on the "green light"
issue, which is at its heart a question of whether Israel's peace partner is
employing murder as a negotiating lever. Yet the head of Israel's Military
Intelligence, Brigadier General Moshe Yaalon, for example, had reiterated at a
press conference on March 23rd that Arafat gave a "green light" to
terrorism and that, even after the Tel Aviv bombing, had failed to instruct PA
security forces to act against terror.
But, after all, Schmemann doesn't seem to care much about evidence in the "green
light" question. He explains on April 3rd that "whether the
Palestinian leader actually gave a `green light' to terrorism or not, it is no
mystery that the threat of violence is one of the few cards in his hand."
Aside from the moral question of playing a "terrorism" card, which
Schmemann appears to be depicting as a legitimate policy option, Arafat had, of
course, explicitly foresworn any such option in the Oslo Accords.
Schmemann's breezy and exculpatory line regarding Arafat's use of terror is,
like his broader indifference to Palestinian violations of the Oslo Accords,
reflective of an apparent conviction that only Israel should be obliged to
fulfill its commitments. But it should come as no surprise that the
New York Times tolerates bias in this area; Israel has been explicitly
lectured on the editorial page to keep its part of the agreements regardless of
Palestinian violations. Why? To do otherwise, the
Times intoned last July, would "discredit the idea of negotiations"!