from “Quotes and anecdotes” (September 27, 1991)
FEW readers realize that anonymous quotes in news stories are often fabricated, distorted or taken out of context. Even when the persons quoted are named, the relationship between what they say and what is printed, in even certain supposedly reputable papers, is purely coincidental – unless the quotes are of public pronouncements by public figures.
Quotes, particularly the “man in the street” kind, are used and even invented not because they mean anything but because they add credibility to the points the writer wishes to make.
A classic case is the way former New York Times Israel correspondent Joel Brinkley used a restaurant owner in Tiberias. He quoted him by name three years ago as saying he favored peace talks with the Palestinians, but not with Arafat and the PLO, who should be excluded “because they are murderers.”
As it happens, the Times was not too enthusiastic about Arafat at the time. But by March 1990 the paper developed a passionate fondness for the PLO boss. So Brinkley used the same Tiberias restaurant-owner quote (without mentioning that it was a year old) and simply omitted the reference to “Arafat the murderer.”
There is little difference between basing stories on spurious quotes and constructing a thesis on anecdotal evidence. An article by Brinkley about the plight of new immigrants in Israel published in the New York Times Magazine earlier this month is a lesson on how to lie with anecdotes. There are, to be sure, some outright bloopers – no Brinkley story is complete without them. For example, Brinkley states that only 8.3 percent of Israel’s schoolchildren go on to college, when in fact 34 percent do. (Israel ranks fourth in the world in the number of students attending universities or other post-high-school educational programs. )
Other generalizations of his are just as misleading. Brinkley describes the long wait for elective surgery in the public health services, but fails to mention that the Israeli conditions are comparable to those of similar health care programs in Britain and Canada. He is horrified by the “rash of immigrant suicides.” But the actual number is eight suicides among the first 200,000 immigrants. A lower rate than among veteran Israelis or among Americans.
But the trouble with Brinkley’s piece is not in its inaccuracies. It lies in his use of techniques which used to characterize Pravda: the perpetration of the “big lie” by converting isolated anecdotes of suffering and hardship into a general “truth.” As Natan Sharansky put it in last week’s Jerusalem Report, “Taken out of context and isolated from the historical changes taking place in the world and in Israel, Brinkley’s ‘facts’ create a picture surprisingly reminiscent of the anti-Zionist propaganda of Brezhnev’s times. They make it look as if Israel lures unfortunate Jews from the Soviet Union on the basis of false promises, then dooms them to a miserable existence – and to suicide.”
The ultimate test, Sharansky points out, is the way people vote with their feet. “Soviet immigrants are now allowed to go back, but practically no one does. And immigration from the Soviet Union, continuing at the rate of 10,000 a month, will increase in the near future.”
The Soviet people ultimately learned to treat anything published in Pravda as a lie until proven otherwise. That the Western press’s coverage of Israel demands similar caution is a great shame indeed.
from ‘Eyewitness’ accounts: Yes, people do lie (March 27, 1992)
A Brinkley letter
Some insight into the character and caliber of some of the journalists criticized in this column is often provided by their response to complaints. When they deign to reply at all, they show the same contempt for facts and fairness that characterizes their news reporting.
A good example was recently provided by Joel Brinkley, former New York Times bureau chief in Israel. Nathan Baker of Florida sent him an Eye on the Media column which enumerated distortions of fact, biased terminology, tendentious omissions and serious errors in his stories. Baker requested an explanation. This is what he received.
Dear Mr. Baker,
Before you fling yourself headlong into accusations against me and my newspaper, I suggest you reconsider your immediate assumption that David Bar- Illan and The Jerusalem Post are correct, while The New York Times and I are wrong.
I lived in Israel for almost four years. I am not Jewish, have no vested interest in the Middle East, either the Israelis or the Palestinians, and I tried as a newsman to call the shots as I saw them. That is the policy of this newspaper, too. Sometimes the stories I wrote pleased Israelis and American Jews, sometimes they didn’t.
David Bar-Illan is an ideologue with a clear, ever-present agenda writing editorials for a far smaller publication that also has its own agenda. His columns never displease Israelis of his political persuasion, or similar-minded American Jews. That alone should tell you something about credibility.
That Brinkley finds it necessary to mention he is not Jewish is as puzzling as Mike Wallace’s compulsion to parade the fact that he is. Nor does his trying to “call the shots as I saw them” a valid rebuttal to specific charges.
But the most telling part of the letter is the last paragraph. The question, after all, is not whether “Bar-Illan is an ideologue with an agenda,” which is about as pertinent as the reporter’s religion, but whether what Bar-Illan writes in the column is refutable.
Eye on the Media has been accused of having ‘an agenda,’ of relying on ‘government sources,’ of being ‘racist,’ ‘McCarthyite’ and – most recently – ‘paranoid’ (by the London Independent.) But no one has yet refuted its allegations.
Refreshingly, Brinkley does contribute a factual first: He makes the incontrovertible assertion that the the New York Times is bigger than the Jerusalem Post. (My paper is bigger than yours, so there! ). The notion that bigger is better and that it is a measure of accuracy and truth is not exactly novel, but it is an unexpected argument from a writer for a purportedly civilized newspaper.
The letter’s clincher – “his columns never displease Israelis of his political persuasion … That alone should tell you something about credibility” – is quintessential Brinkley.
First, it is grossly inaccurate: some of the column’s harshest critics are from the political persuasion Brinkley clearly believes is mine.
Moreover, even if such unanimity of approval did exist, it would not reflect on credibility.
But what is even more typical, and worse, is that Brinkley asserts as fact something he has absolutely no way of knowing. He cannot know what pleases or displeases a sector of the Israeli and American-Jewish population any more
than Time magazine can know what “most Jews” think.
Now if he had only addressed Nathan Baker’s questions instead of displaying insufferable hauteur, he would have made his first step toward becoming a true reporter. Well, a cub, anyway.
from “Trendy Joel Brinkley” (August 2, 1991)
New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Joel Brinkley, who is leaving his post soon, can easily maintain that he does not qualify as a true Israel basher. After all, had he been as slanted as his predecessors, he too would have undoubtedly received a Pulitzer Prize. Brinkley, who did win a Pulitzer for his reporting from Cambodia, would have had a point. It is difficult to imagine him emulating Times man David Shipler who deliberately mistranslated the word “adonee” – the Hebrew equivalent of “mister” – into “my lord,” in order to aver that Arabs are forced to address Israeli Jews with obsequious deference. And it is even more difficult to imagine that Brinkley would believe, as one of his Times colleagues had, that Arab school girls suffering stomach upsets caused by mass hysteria had been poisoned by the IDF; or that he would, like another predecessor, file a planted, fabricated story about a settlers’ pogrom in an Arab village without first checking it.
But while Brinkley may be less gullible than some of his colleagues, he is just as trendy and tendentious. He would no more deviate from the party line on Shamir as the enemy of peace than on pre-Kuwait Arafat as the moderate peace lover. His Sharon, too, is the cliche-ridden warlord type, surrounded by an unreasonable number of bodyguards, “even though terrorists are not known to have singled (Sharon) out,” as Brinkley put it in a Times magazine piece. But the Times itself had reported on February 10, 1989 that a terrrorist was apprehended while attempting to plant a bomb in Sharon’s apartment. Of course Brinkley may not consider Arabs who want to kill Sharon terrorists. His February 5, 1990 report on the slaughter of Israeli tourists in Egypt described the killers as “guerillas.”
Brinkley knows the one and only obstacle to peace when he sees it. Describing the deployment of half a dozen trailers in Talmon during one of Baker’s visits, he charged – in what purportedly was a straight news report -that the settlers were “repeating what is becoming a well-practiced effort at political obstruction.” And when Operation Solomon elicited too much admiration and sympathy for Israel, he chose to bash Israel in a story headlined “200 Ethiopians trapped in West Bank.” In it he implied that Ethiopians were held as prisoners in Kiryat Arba, and that Israel was lying when it said it did not direct newcomers to “the territories.” The Ethiopians at Kiryat Arba had arrived in 1984, before Israel promised not to direct immigrants to Judea-Samaria, and they could of course move out if they wished. They were the last of a larger group, most of whose members had settled in Jerusalem, and they had turned down apartment offers in Green Line Israel, deeming them not good enough. If they felt “trapped” it was because people of meager means can feel trapped anywhere. The utter falseness of the story was betrayed by the picture of the laughing, playful “trapped” Ethiopians which accompanied it.
The professional sloppiness of the story was compounded by Brinkley’s reference to Kiryat Arba as “the West Bank’s oldest settlement, in the heart of Hebron.” Kiryat Arba was established five years after the beginning of settlement activity, and it is well outside Hebron’s city limits. To the Times credit, it apologized for the story’s misleading slant in response to a reader’s complaint.
Following the Temple Mount incident Brinkley filed 12 bylined articles on the subject during October 1990. In none did he call the area the “Temple Mount.” He named it Al Aksa plaza, Al Aksa Mosque plaza, Al Aksa complex, Dome of the Rock and Haram Al Sharif. He referred to the rioting as the Al Aksa killings, the Al Aksa shootings and “the violence in Jerusalem’s Old City.” He mentioned the words “Temple Mount” three times: to describe who the “Temple Mount Faithful” were, and to explain that “Haram Al-Sharif” is known to Jews as the Temple Mount. After this it seems almost petty to mention that like most of his colleagues he mistakenly referred to the Western Wall as the most sacred site in Judaism. It is not. The Temple Mount is, and has been for almost 3000 years.
Brinkley’s story two weeks ago on Judge Ezra Kama’s Temple Mount report was headlined Temple Mount Provocation – Israel judge says police provoked Al-Aksa violence that killed 17. It led it with “An Israeli judge completing a nine-month investigation concluded today that the police, not the Palestinians, initially provoked the violence at Al-Aksa.” The story goes on to assert that the findings contradict those of a government-appointed commission of inquiry. In fact, the discrepancies between the two reports are minor. Kama confirms that Moslems were urged by mosque preachers on the previous Friday to come to the Mount to defend it from the “Temple Mount Faithful.” He states that 3,000 Arabs, mostly youths, heeded the call; that stones were prepared in advance; and that the Moslem leadership knew that none of the Temple Mount Faithful would be allowed to come anywhere near the area, and in fact clearly saw them leaving the Western Wall gates almost an hour before the rioting began.
Brinkley ignored all that and focused instead on Kama’s description of an accident with a tear gas cannister. This is what Kama said, “It is possible that after some of the Moslem crowds began advancing on the police, with some of them hurling stones at the police, a tear gas grenade fell. But I have no evidence as to the deliberate tossing of the grenade towards the Moslem women and girls except for the evidence by Sheikh al-Rifai and two men who participated in the disturbance.” Kama speculated that the tear gas grenade might have been kicked by the police in the direction of the menacing youths or towards a nearby crowd of women. But even if the incident happened, to call, as Brinkley did, the relatively harmless trail of tear gas smoke a “provocation” for a violent 50-minute riot in which 45 policemen were assaulted by a mob of 3,000, and Western Wall worshippers were stoned for 20 minutes, requires a special kind of malice.