Fabricated Quotes Fit to Print at New York Times

One day after the United States Supreme Court reinstated a $10 million libel suit against New Yorker journalist Janet Malcolm for quoting fabricated statements, the New York Times’ Allan M. Siegal affirmed the position of his own newspaper on the subject. He said: "We believe that the material between quotation marks must be an absolutely literal rendition of what the quoted person said. We believe that if there is any reason to alter it for clarity or grammatical improvement, then the quotation marks come off and we resort to paraphrase and fragmentary quotes."

As in the case of so much journalism today, the words are high-minded and the self-congratulatory claims of unstinting rigor constant while the actual product is a depressing testament to shoddiness and bias. On no subject is the decline of journalistic standards more glaring than in the area of reporting on Israel. And nowhere more alarming than in America’s newspaper of record.

On June 5, 1994, the New York Times ran a column authored by Jonathan Kuttab, ostensibly rendering verbatim a negotiating session that occurred behind closed doors between Israelis and Palestinians on key legal issues. Even a casual reader with no knowledge of the actual events will detect the implausibility of the interaction said to have occurred.

Kuttab, a ubiquitous media figure whose denunciations are reported unquestioningly, is here recounting a meeting to which he was a party and in which he alleges Israeli torture and abuse of Palestinians. With each charge the Israeli team is depicted as acknowledging the essential truth of the allegation in evasive answers, weak protestations, and tacit agreement, or in cringing physical cues as when Kuttab observes, "To their credit, all four of them winced and fidgeted, and one covered his head in shame."

Kuttab portrays himself scoring point after virtuous point against the stumbling and culpable Israeli adversary. And all of it conveyed to Times readers as the "absolutely literal" utterances of the parties.

According to the Israelis at the meeting, it was understood that, in an effort to promote an informal and constructive atmosphere, no official records were to be made of the negotiations. As far as the Israelis know, no tape recording was made of the sessions.

Yet, the Times column contains extensive passages of what are purported to be direct quotes from the meeting, such as the following which begins with Kuttab quoting himself:

"You would not turn an Israeli over to a country like Saudi Arabia where the thief can have his hand cut off, would you?"

"No, we would not."

"Then why should I turn over my citizens to your jurisdiction where torture is the order of the day?"

"But we allow Israelis to be extradited to France and the United States."

"I would be willing to have Palestinians extradited to France and the United States as well, but with all due respect, you do not fit in that category at all…"

Kuttab has himself continually instructing the abject Israelis, leaning across a table with authoritative gestures, as when he declares: "Very frankly, we want to know that individuals we turn over to you are not tortured. Do you want us to turn over suspects for trial or also for interrogation?"

"For interrogation as well as trial."

"But with all due respect, you do not know how to interrogate. All you know is how to beat a confession out of somebody."

"You are only speaking about military courts and military trials. We promise to treat all these people under existing civilian laws applicable in the Israeli courts. We are a democracy and you know we have certain guarantees for the rights of defendants."

"I know all about those guarantees. You seem to forget that I practice in Israeli courts…"

Kuttab reworks and edits what happened at the negotiating session into a righteous attack on Israel, an attack the Times considered constructive to publicize without consulting the Israelis in attendance. But what, in fact, did happen at the meeting?

The Israeli version differs profoundly from Kuttab’s as a Times editor could have discovered with a phone call. Israeli participants agree that Kuttab used the sessions as a platform for levelling charges against Israel, but they viewed his allegations as theatrics, digressions from the practical aims of the meeting which were to hammer out agreement on legal issues. They did not sit silently in the face of the allegations of torture and abuse by Israel, as Kuttab would have it; they denied the charges. They did not, however, want the session to degenerate into a debate on these issues and for that reason restrained themselves from responding in detail, preferring to try to steer the session back to the stated agenda. They did not imagine Kuttab would violate the confidentiality of the meeting in submitting his version to the New York Times, nor did they, of course, imagine the New York Times would print Kuttab’s account without any fact-checking.

Not only is Kuttab’s fictionalized version a caricature of the personal interactions of the group, it is a highly misleading rendition of the substantive issues. Ironically, for example, when, in response to Kuttab’s denunciations of Israeli justice, the Israeli negotiators proposed that any Palestinian suspects transferred to Israeli authority would be guaranteed the same rights and treatment they would receive in the Gaza Strip and Jericho under Palestinian authority, Kuttab and his colleagues admitted this safeguard would be insufficient.

Indeed, in the course of negotiations Israel has proposed detailed and stringent human rights guarantees to be applied uniformly by Israelis and Palestinians, but the Palestinians have refused such provisions, opting for far more limited protections. The real story here, as Times readers might have learned, was that, while Kuttab railed against Israel in dramatic condemnations, it was Israeli negotiators who sought to introduce strong legal protections for Palestinian Arabs and it was Palestinian negotiators who vetoed them.

While Israeli delegates waited out the rhetorical grandstanding of the Palestinian "human-rights advocate," waited with concrete offers of detailed guarantees, Kuttab’s agenda remained what it has been throughout his career, to assault Israel by whatever means is at hand.

That career is unmentioned in the column’s introductory paragraph written by a Times editor. There Kuttab is identified simply as "a 42-year-old Palestinian lawyer" who "led the Palestinians’ legal committee." Passed over in silence is his role as a founder of the self-styled human-rights organization Al Haq, a group whose agenda is the castigation of Israel. Co-founder Raja Shehedeh’s venomous attacks on Israel once prompted Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli frequently critical of his country’s policies, to recoil fr
om the "…hatred that does not know any bounds, and that blinds the eyes of the … fighter for human rights…" He deplored Shehedeh’s resort to "groundless propaganda that he hears and fabricates."

Not surprisingly, the Times omits other elements of Kuttab’s record that would cast doubt on his lawyerly integrity. Excluded, for example, is his own rationalization of collaborator killings by Palestinians as necessary because "the intifada leadership does not have any jails." (That’s a direct quote from a September 10, 1989, column by Kuttab in the Jerusalem Post)

Likewise, the Times omits such episodes as one reported by Martin Peretz in The New Republic in which the smooth-tongued Kuttab is caught lying about Israel. Addressing a group of visiting dignitaries, he denounced Israeli medical authorities for their callous failure to immunize Arab babies against polio during an outbreak of the disease, while having recently undertaken innoculation of Israeli children. Unfortunately for Kuttab, the group had just come from the Sheikh Jarrah Medical Center, a facility built by the Jerusalem Foundation, where they had watched Arab babies receiving polio vaccine provided by Israel.

Nevertheless, when asked whether the Times had done anything to verify the accuracy of the quotations and substance of Kuttab’s column, New York Times editor Marc Charney replied, "We had no reason to doubt Kuttab."

No reason, because the Times has sunk to a point where polemicists such as Kuttab, presenting material that is patently distorted and misleading, are apparently given a forum on the basis of their offering views with which the paper is sympathetic. That the event portrayed is an obvious fabrication set off no alarms at the Times where, one can only assume, the blending of truth and fiction, the print version of the TV docudrama, is now acceptable journalism.

NOTE: Three days after CAMERA contacted the New York Times to question the accuracy of quotations and veracity of assertions in the Kuttab article, and four weeks after the article was published, the paper printed an Editor’s Note stating that the Times had erred in allowing Kuttab to use quotations marks as he had in the column. The Times has yet to explain why it failed to check Kuttab’s claims with the Israelis in attendance or to address more broadly its repeated journalistic lapses in covering Israel.

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