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Media Analyses





Updated: The Goldstone Report and the New York Times


Updated: April 14, 2011

On Sunday, April 3, the Washington Post published a bombshell Op-Ed by Richard Goldstone in which he repudiated the central and most slanderous finding of the anti-Israel United Nations report that bears his name. But the New York Times — on both its opinion and news pages — seems to be trying to minimize the impact of his recanting.

The Goldstone report's main accusation — that Israel was guilty of crimes against humanity for deliberately targeting civilians during the Gaza war — was one of the most damaging libels to have been leveled against the Jewish state in recent years, underpinning campaigns to delegitimize Israel and attack its leaders. Since its release in September 2009, the New York Times has allotted much space to covering the report. How has it covered the retraction?

Opinion

The New York Times acknowledges that it rejected an Op-Ed submitted by Mr. Goldstone for publication on March 22, but claims it was different  from the retraction that appeared in the Washington Post. What is clear, regardless of how much the column differed from the Washington Post mea culpa, is that Times editors did not want to publish a column reflecting Mr. Goldstone's more recent opinions.

They did not seem to exhibit similar reluctance in publishing Mr. Goldstone's first Op-Ed on September 17, 2009. That column, titled "Justice in Gaza," criticized Israel for carrying out "disproportionate attacks" on military targets and for "fail[ing] to adequately distinguish between combatants and civilians, as the laws of war strictly require." It also predicted that any investigation by Israel was "unlikely to be serious and objective" – sentiments that are perhaps more in line with the New York Times' overall approach to covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, which tends toward criticism of Israel.

News Coverage

Of the many stories the Times ran on Judge Goldstone and his report, two merited front page placement: an initial article, titled "U.N. Inquiry Sees Gaza War Crimes; Israel Chastised," that focused primarily on the report's condemnation of Israel, and "A Gaza War Study, an Outcry, A Bar Mitzvah's Missing Guest," which sarcastically criticized the South African Jewish community for branding Goldstone a traitor and trying to prevent him from attending his grandson's bar mitzvah.

Both represent recurring themes in the New York Times' coverage of the Goldstone Report – presenting the mission as a credible and respectable investigation that found Israel guilty of war crimes, and casting its denunciation as pro-Israel advocacy that demonizes anyone who criticizes Israel.

But the recanting of what essentially amounted to a blood libel, a landmark development on a major story, is apparently not quite as compelling to Times editors. An article covering Goldstone's repudiation of the report's central finding, "Head of U.N. Panel Regrets Saying Israel Intentionally Killed Gazans" was relegated to page 10 of the newspaper.

Even in this buried article, the newspaper seemed reluctant to abandon Goldstone's original condemnation of Israel Although the report has been revealed as a sham, the paper clung to the desription of Goldstone as "an esteemed South African jurist" who "documented numerous examples of mistreatement of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers," and emphasized that "he did not back away from those findings in his article." The authors repeated Goldstone's blame of Israel for refusing "to cooperate" with him and thus "severely hamper[ing] his report. "By ending with an account of Goldstone's "ostracization" by his South African Jewish community, the article seemed to imply that in retracting his original condemnation of Israel, Goldstone was caving into social pressure.

A second article with the (print) title, "Hoping to Rehabilitate Image, Israel Looks to Retraction of a Critical U.N. Report" published on April 4, suggests a theme of cynical Israeli exploitation.. Rather than leading with an honest description of  how Israel's concerns about the report were validated, the article instead begins:

Israel grappled on Sunday with whether a retraction by a United Nations investigator regarding its actions in the Gaza war two years ago could be used to rehabilitate its tarnished international image or as a pre-emptive defense in future military actions against armed groups.

Nor does the article acknowledge the substantive and reasoned arguments that have been brought against the Goldstone Report. Instead it clings to Goldstone's old, false argument that his critics did not provide accurate criticism of the report, asserting:

Much about the Goldstone report has been misrepresented by those with agendas both for and against Israel. Running to more than 500 pages and including extensive and detailed testimony from Palestinians in Gaza, the report was essentially dismissed in Israel and by its supporters because of its harshest accusations. But human rights organizations say that much of it remains valid.

The article provides no examples of how the report was "misrepresented." Nor does it explain why assertions of validity by human rights organizations – presumably the same biased groups that contributed to the original report– trump the  specific, well-documented arguments of those who dismiss the accuracy of the report.

A third article, published on April 5, about a planned trip by Goldstone to Israel, makes yet another effort to undo the damage the Washington Post Op-Ed has done to the overall credibility of the UN report. Hanging on to the report's accusations against Israel, reporter Ethan Bronner yet again reiterates the charges which he emphasizes remain valid. He writes:

Mr. Goldstone's essay in The Washington Post did not condemn or retract most of the report, which runs to more than 500 pages and accuses Israel of misusing weapons like white phosphorus, improperly attacking hospitals and United Nations buildings and taking aim at the infrastructure of civilian life, like food production and water installations.

Bronner suggests that other members of the mission do not agree with Goldstone's reversal.  Of course, that comes as no surprise to anyone aware of the mission members' pre-existing bias against Israel evidenced by their public statements, some long before they joined the mission.  In all its coverage of the Goldstone Report, New York Times, however, has never reported this to readers. 

Instead of reporting on the biases of the Goldstone commission members (for example, see "Chinkin's Gaza Letter Reveals Bias, But Also Skewed Facts", and "Goldstone Commissioner Suggests Israelis Conditioned to Kill Children") and the false premises underlying the report itself, the New York Times again and again portrayed them as respectable and credible. It shunned neutral terms like "controversial" to describe Judge Goldstone, his mission and findings, using  more laudatory descriptions that bolstered their validity. For example:

The report-produced by a panel of investigators led by an internationally respected jurist, Richard Goldstone found extensive evidence that both Israel and Palestinian militant groups took actions amounting to war crimes during the Gaza war. (Oct. 2 and Oct. 8, 2009)

 A United Nations investigation led by Richard Goldstone, an internationally respected judge found evidence of possible war crimes by both Israel and the Palestinian militant groups. (Oct. 9, 2009)

The human toll, as well as the extensive destruction of property, prompted a United Nations mission led by an internationally renowned judge, Richard Goldstone, to accuse Israel of deliberately attacking civilians and of violations of the international laws of war.  (Dec. 25, 2009)

The United Nations report, by a committee led by Richard Goldstone, an esteemed South African judge, was published in late September and called on Israel to carry out an independent investigation of its conduct of the three-week war.  (Jan. 24, 2010)

The report… was researched and written by a fact-finding mission created by the Human Rights Council and led by the respected international jurist Richard J. Goldstone, a South African judge and veteran war crimes prosecutor....Among other things, the report accused Israel of deliberate attacks against the civilian population of Gaza and of willful destruction of civilian infrastructure, a violation of international law. (Jan. 30, 2010)

The war left up to 1,400 Palestinians dead, including hundreds of civilians, and caused widespread property damage in Gaza, prompting a severely critical report by a United Nations mission led by an experienced international jurist, Richard Goldstone of South Africa.  (Feb. 2, 2010)

The New York Times devoted almost no space to examining the numerous, specific arguments against the report's findings. Instead, it perfunctorily dismissed criticism of the report as Israeli or pro-Israel posturing, without really explaining why the report drew such criticism. For example:

Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone mission, arguing that the mandate was biased from the outset, and it rejected the report. It also resisted calls by Israeli and international human rights organizations for an independent Israeli investigation outside the military framework. (July 7, 2010)

And:

Israel, which declined to cooperate with that investigation, has rejected the report's findings, saying it is looking into wrongdoing on its own.  (Oct. 4, 2010)

On the few occasions when explicit counter-arguments were presented, the discussion ended with Goldstone's rebuttal, thus lending it credence. For example:

The panel rejected the Israeli version of events surrounding several of the most contentious episodes of the war...

Israel repeatedly accused Hamas of using mosques to shelter armed men or munitions, and a report by Israel said an attack against the Maqadmah mosque in Jabaliya had killed six known militants. But the Human Rights Council report said the attack came during evening prayers, when some 300 men and women were in the mosque, and killed 15 people. There were no secondary explosions to indicate the presence of an arms cache.

If Israel wanted to destroy a mosque suspected as an arms cache, it should have done so in the middle of the night, Mr. Goldstone said  (Sept. 16, 2009)

And:

The report addressed the Israeli allegations, but said it found limited evidence that Palestinian fighters had deliberately used civilians as human shields.  (Sept 17, 2009)

When an Israeli internal military investigation indicted individual soldiers for misconduct during the Gaza war, the New York Times wrongly insinuated that this represented a validation of the Goldstone Report's own findings, contrary to Israel's claims. In fact, the reverse was true. See "Goldstone Report Implicitly Validated by the New York Times." 

In examining the New York Times' record on the Goldstone report, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that the newspaper is more interested in promoting as credible an investigation that even its leader has repudiated than in objectively reporting on its shortcomings. Unfortunately, this is  not surprising coming from a media outlet that is increasingly moving from objective news reporting to advocacy journalism.

Update: Public Editor Responds to Complaints About Article Placement

In an online column on April 11, 2011, New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane discussed the many complaints he received about the Times' downplaying of Goldstone's retraction.  The public editor queried Foreign Editor Susan Chira “about the decision to place the Goldstone retraction story on Page A10.”

According to Brisbane:

The circumstances she described were anything but cut and dried. The primary complicating factor was a story by The Times's Ethan Bronner, bureau chief in Jerusalem, saying that Israel was under new pressure to make a “far-reaching offer” to the Palestinians or face the prospect that the United Nations may vote to make the State of Palestine a UN member. Such a move would place Israel in the position of occupying lands belonging to a UN member state.

In other words, the preferred story of Times editors was one about Israel “occupying lands belonging to” the Palestinians, where a gloomy scenario awaits Israel if it does not do as the Arab state-dominated UN wants.

Brisbane clarified where he himself stood on the issue, writing:

Mr. Bronner's piece on the UN broke new ground in the story of the conflict and introduced a new view of the landscape for readers to consider. Frankly, I found it more interesting, and more useful to know as a reader who wonders where this conflict is headed, than the story reporting that Mr. Goldstone had, upon further consideration and with new evidence, changed his mind about the Israelis' actions in Gaza late 2008-early 2009.

As readers' representative, Brisbane could have suggested that readers would be best served by a story based on Goldstone's retraction, for example, an in-depth story on the UN's systemic bias against Israel and how that affects "where this conflict is headed."   But he instead disregarded the ire of readers, offering an excuse for downgrading and distorting a critical story that exonerated Israel of war crimes and choosing instead to justify featuring Bronner's dire speculations about Israel.


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