If the New York Times botches its coverage of Israel, tipping reality upside down, making lesser occurrences into major stories and slighting deadly-serious events, what are the repercussions? Do senior editors carefully weigh substantive questions raised by concerned readers – or do they deflect criticism with evasions and insults?
A recent exchange with Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor of the paper, is instructive. He was asked about the paper's news judgment regarding the startling difference in Times coverage of a lethal terrorist attack on an Israeli family on December 11 and a shooting spree by an Israeli gunman that wounded six Arabs in Hebron on January 1.
On December 12, 1996 the Times reported the murders of two and wounding of five others in the Tzur family by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The story, which was 790 words in length, appeared on page twelve. There were no ancillary articles and there was one photograph.
On January 2, 1997 the Times devoted 3361 words, beginning on the front page above the fold, to the story of Noam Friedman's wounding of six Arabs in Hebron. In addition to the page one story, there were two pieces on page eight and a front page brief about the gunman. There were four photographs.
The newspaper devoted four times as much coverage and front page prominence to the Friedman shootings.
Headlines were strikingly different as well. For the Tzur killings, the Times wrote: "2 Settlers Die in Attack on West Bank Family."
For the Hebron shootings, the Times wrote: "Israeli Wounds 6 Arabs in Hebron Rampage," "Gunman in Hebron: Unbalanced Loner Driven By A Mission," "An Unbalanced Loner With a Rifle," "In Hebron Line Of Fire: A Savage Incident Feeds Fear Of Future."
Why was the assault that left a bullet-riddled van, a dead woman and child and five others wounded not characterized as "savage" or a "rampage," while Friedman's act, causing no fatalities, was? Why was reference to the Arab killers of the Tzurs omitted in the headline while the page one story on the Hebron shootings bore a headline that was direct and unambiguous as to the Israeli identity of the perpetrator?
There were marked differences too in the content of the reporting. The Times coverage of the Hebron story focused intensively on the supposed trend among Israelis toward such violence – Friedman was said to have "joined the ranks of Jews who used violence to block a peace they loathed." But such episodes have been exceedingly rare, perpetrated by single individuals, and emphatically denounced by the Israeli government and public.
In contrast, the many Arab attacks on Jews have overwhelmingly been the actions of members of organized groups enjoying support in the Arab public. Yet, the newspaper made no mention of the trends toward violence by the Arabs; there was no reference to the killers of Ita and Ephraim Tzur as having "joined the ranks of Arabs" who employ violence. The Times coverage turns reality precisely on its head, magnifying the rare case of Jewish attack on the Arabs and obscuring the lethal and pervasive violence against the Jews.
Whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately phoned Chairman Arafat to condemn Noam Friedman's action, the Palestinian Authority leader was silent in the aftermath of the Tzur killings and the Palestinian Ministry of Information issued a statement blaming Israel for the murders. There was no mention in the Times of the harsh Palestinian response.
The Times emphasized the "hatred" and "loathing" allegedly felt by Jews for Arabs in the case of a lone, mentally ill gunman, but omitted any such comment with regard to the calculated murder of the Tzurs by members of an organized terror group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP has not modified its rhetoric calling for the destruction of Israel, but the paper was silent about PFLP "hatred" of Jews.
The Times' Joel Greenberg provided no human interest detail in his story on the Tzur murders and quoted only the comments of government officials. (He might have noted, for example, that the parents and their five children were returning home to light the seventh Hanukkah candle.) However, in his column on the "savage incident" in Hebron he interviewed several Arabs who described their personal distress at the shooting.
Why, one wonders, were the murders of a Jewish mother and child of less human interest than Friedman's wounding of six Arabs?
None of these questions can be answered by resort to the political argument – that because of the sensitive negotiations underway on Hebron the Friedman shootings warranted more coverage. The murder of the Tzurs was, equally, a potentially destabilizing factor in the negotiations. Indeed, the mass murder of Jews in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv last year is what derailed the Oslo process and led to the ouster of the government leading that process.
Nor, obviously, is there any imaginable moral basis for the decision to downplay the killing of Jews and to emphasize the actions of a Noam Friedman.
Joseph Lelyveld responded to these questions with the following:
"I am sorry we've been slow in responding to your demands that we justify our editorial decisions to you. We value criticism but we are, frankly, worn out by hectoring. You've convicted us in your heart and you're now giving us a chance to plea for mercy before you pass sentence.
"I will not answer your rhetorical questions one by one because your letter plainly shows that you've anticipated the answer and rejected it.
"In moral terms, there is no murder or terrorist act that is not heinous. In terms of news interest, not all murders are equal. This is true in New York and Chechenya (sic) as well as in the Middle East. We think it mattered a lot that the shootings were in the center of Hebron at a delicate diplomatic moment. We do not think we were being dismissive in writing 790 words on the P.F.L.P. terrorist killings.
"We made these judgments in the context of the news on the particular days on which these events occurred. That's called editing. It is an act of human judgment, not a science of absolute measure.
"You'd have done it differently. We disagree. There's our answer."
Lelyveld's reply, with its pique and evasion and its tired platitudes, could only be proffered by someone immune from accountability. Yet, evidence of the New York Times' Israel problem is overwhelming. The Tzur/Friedman case is but one recent example. A similar comparison can be made with regard to coverage of the massacre of 29 Arabs by Baruch Goldstein in early 1994. That event, obviously a major story, prompted seventeen front-page articles in the first three weeks after the killings. In contrast, the subsequent bombing of a Tel Aviv bus that killed 22, the worst attack in Israel in decades and part of a calculated terror campaign by a Palestinian group, elicited just three front-page stories. Another bombing three months later in Netanya by yet a different Arab group killed 21 young Israelis and also garnered only three page-one stories in the newspaper.
Here again, the Times cannot justify the disparity in coverage by arguing that the vile action of Baruch Goldstein was more politically significant because of its impact on events and its revelations about the Israeli polity. The unprecedented Arab bombings inside Israel were no less important politically, influencing Israeli public opinion as they did. Moreover, the Palestinian bombings, in fact, revealed more about the Arab polity than did Goldstein's atrocity about Israel given that the bombings were carried out by organized groups with wide Arab support.
Observations such as these are dismissed as hectoring by Joseph Lelyveld. (Naturally, when the New York Times writes critically about any of the institutions or individuals to which it daily turns its attention, that's called reporting.) But hectoring or public criticism is sure to grow as the Times abuses its powerful position to mold public views, then refuses to address serious issues of distorted coverage in its pages.