Daniel Okrent’s False Symmetry

Daniel Okrent is soon to conclude his tenure as the New York Times‘ Public Editor (ombudsman). In his post, he often listened seriously to reader comment and on occasion concurred with criticism of the paper. His columns urged, for example, more sensible use of the word “terrorist” – when civilians are deliberately targeted by gunmen and bombers – instead of a self-conscious avoidance of the term that had been more typical. He also encouraged systematic corrections on the opinion pages.

Given this independent-minded approach, Okrent’s April 24 (“The Hottest Button: How The Times Covers Israel and Palestine“) commentary on Middle East coverage disappointed on many counts, omitting or glossing over tough issues and resorting ultimately to platitudes about how difficult it is for the paper to “walk down the middle.”

CAMERA was quoted in Okrent’s column praising the paper for its care in presenting the terms of international agreements and the perspectives of the parties in this regard. (For instance, having repeatedly corrected – in response to CAMERA – erroneous reports on Security Council Resolution 242 that claimed Israel was compelled by its terms to cede the entire West Bank and Gaza, the paper has for the last several years covered the important issue correctly.) Indeed, reporting by the new bureau chief in Jerusalem, Steve Erlanger, has been admirably fair and attentive to the facts generally. Likewise, his predecessor, James Bennet, was for the most part careful to present information with precision and balanced attention to the views of the parties. The work of these two correspondents has been a dramatic improvement over previous reporters Deborah Sontag and Serge Schmemann.

As noted in Okrent’s column, the editor consulted with a number of media critics, including CAMERA, in the course of reviewing a cross-section of opinion. CAMERA’s discussions with Okrent included both positive observations about Erlanger and Bennet and negative observations about other aspects of the paper’s reporting. Apparently, conversations with Michael Brown, executive director of Partners for Peace (who was paired in Okrent’s Op-Ed with CAMERA as one of the “reasoned critics”), also included a mixture of comment.

Incitement Issue

On the critical side, CAMERA conveyed to Okrent in detail our contention that the single greatest failure of the New York Times in its reporting since the beginning of Oslo has been the omission of anti-Israel hate-indoctrination purveyed via Palestinian schools, mosques, television, radio, newspapers, summer camps, public rallies, political pronouncements and more. Beyond all other forces that have contributed to a breakdown of negotiations and reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, the socialization of the Palestinian public to reject Israel as alien and illegitimate rather than as a neighbor nation is paramount.

However, Okrent’s column addressed only Brown’s specific criticisms — with one even explicitly endorsed by Okrent and another presented in detail. CAMERA’s concerns, described at length in the private discussions, were invisible, subsumed in a general, non-specific passage in the column which read: “The paper’s seeming reluctance, for instance, to report evidence of incitement to racial or religious hatred derives in part, I believe, from a subconscious effort to stick to the noninflammatory middle and to keep things civil, even when civility leaked out of the conflict long ago.”

First, if such journalistic avoidance of troubling realities does occur as he indicates, why did Public Editor Okrent not deplore this? The role of journalists is to report what’s actually happening, not what they wish were happening and what makes them feel emotionally comfortable.

Additionally, Okrent’s reference to journalists neglecting stories on incitement to hatred because they subconsciously “stick to the noninflammatory middle” betrays a startling lack of awareness of the facts. The Palestinian “middle” – official and mainstream – is the source of the anti-Israel campaigns. It’s the Israeli “middle” that rejects the hate-mongering elements on its own fringes. This was repeatedly stressed in conversations with Okrent and it is inexplicable that he would disregard such an undeniable reality.

Forcing a non-existent symmetry on the issue led Okrent to a patently false and misleading characterization — and, perhaps “subconsciously,” to the unfair omission of CAMERA’s stated concerns.

Ignoring Palestinian Intimidation of the Press

Okrent leaves unexplored a related matter CAMERA raised in discussions — the issue of Palestinian press intimidation and its impact on what is reported. He recommends following the suggestion of pro-Palestinian advocates that the Times base a reporter in a Palestinian population center such as Ramallah, ostensibly to provide closer attention to the sentiments of that group, but he omits CAMERA’s rejoinder to this. We pointed out that it would very likely be physically unsafe for a journalist to report candidly on negative aspects of Palestinian life under the PA. Even journalists who only venture occasionally into PA areas have encountered threats and violence when reporting on stories deemed harmful to the Palestinian image. (see ” Intimidation of Journalists” on the CAMERA Web site)

Partners for Peace

The Times editor understandably sought to learn from many sides of the contentious Middle East issue, but his decision to rely on the deceptively named Partners for Peace also indicates a lack of familiarity with the subject, if not gross naivete about how extreme anti-Israel detractors operate. As the group’s Web site reveals, one of the members of the Board of Directors is Adam Shapiro, a founder of the International Solidarity Movement, which endorses violent Palestinian “resistance” and has termed sucide bombing “noble.” Also prominent on the site is “the ‘Jerusalem Women Speak: Three Women, Three Faiths, One Shared Vision’ speaking tour.” This three-women roadshow consists of two Palestinians and an Israeli critic who uniformly assail Israel with distorted accusations. A section of the CAMERA Web site commentary on Partners for Peace states: Partners for Peace was formed after the government rejected a tax-exempt status application from the Council for the National Interest (CNI). Afterward, CNI members created Partners for Peace as an outlet to pursue its activities. According to AIPAC’s Near East Report newsletter, CNI members were urged to support Partners as an alternative. Like Partners for Peace, CNI was built on avowed hostility to Israel and a tendency to espouse conspiracy theories. CNI Foundation Chairman Paul McCloskey went so far as to refer to Israel as “an ugly little nation” and “a potential enemy of the United States.” In addition, CNI Chairman and Partners for Peace Advisory Board member Paul Findley has accused the Mossad (Israeli intelligence) of playing a role in the JFK assassination and attempting to kill President George Bush. Partners for Peace’s ties to CNI do not end there, however. Not only do the two organizations share an office, but they are also joined by marriage (Partners for Peace President Jerri Bird’s husband, Eugene, serves as CNI president).

Wh y “Palestine”?

Okrent’s use of “Palestine” in the title of his piece and in the text is striking. The Times Foreign Desk does not use the term in its news coverage, nor do most mainstream papers in their news pages. In fact, some newspapers have repeatedly issued corrections when mistakenly using the word. “Palestinian Authority,” “Palestinian Autonomous Areas” or “Palestinians” correctly apply, but the Public Editor inserts a notable political view in his choice on this score.

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