In Their Own Words

In June, a CAMERA mailing alerted members to the recurring problem of biased coverage of Israel by the New York Times, the nation’s most influential newspaper. Among the issues of concern cited were:

  • The Times‘ striking failure to report systematically and in depth on how the parties to the Oslo Accords have complied, or not complied, with their sworn obligations. CAMERA pointed out that the Times had downplayed or omitted entirely serious Palestinian violations, while frequently airing Palestinian grievances against Israel.

  • The distorted Times coverage of a story concerning United Nations allegations that Israel engages in torture (May 8, 1997). A 4000-word, front-page article by Serge Schmemann relied on anecdotal charges by a Palestinian identified only as “George,” and cited the views of individuals such as Lea Tsemel, a self-declared anti-Zionist who has compared Israel to a Nazi state. The reporter described Tsemel simply as a “veteran defense lawyer.”

    The zeal Schmemann evinced in reporting on alleged Israeli torture was absent in his May 27 coverage of a Palestinian human rights group press conference about the first comprehensive study of torture in Palestinian prisons. Although the human rights report told in gruesome detail of torture inflicted on Palestinians and although other media commented on the bravery of the report’s author in challenging the PA, Schmemann’s coverage was a perfunctory story that appeared on page seven. Indeed, as though reluctant to draw attention away from Israeli conduct, the correspondent made repeated references to alleged Israeli abuses.

  • The flatly false assertion by Serge Schmemann that, in the wake of a March 21 terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, President Clinton strongly defended Yasir Arafat. The president did no such thing. Schmemann reversed the president’s words which were, in fact, a stern warning that the PA make clear it is “unalterably opposed to terror.” CAMERA formally called for a published correction of this error.

How did the New York Times respond to reader complaints about such deficiencies in its coverage? In answer to a letter from a CAMERA reader addressing in particular the two Schmemann articles of May 8 and 27, Times News Editor William Borders wrote:

The whole point is that torture by Israel, a democratic ally of the United States, which gets huge support from this country, is news. Torture by Palestinians seems less surprising. Surely you don’t consider the two authorities morally equivalent.

When the reader sent a follow-up letter noting the inadequacy of this response, Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld replied (August 31):

I’m sorry that you found the letter from my colleague William Borders offensive…

…If your objection [to the article on alleged Israeli torture] is simply that we raised that sensitive subject in the first place, I can only reply that it has been the subject of debate in Israeli courts and is certainly a valid subject for reporting.

…The same Mr. Schmemann whom you maligned as pro-Palestinian was on the scene of the two recent bombings in Jerusalem and his accounts were heart-rending.

The letters of Mr. Borders and Mr. Lelyveld failed, of course, to respond to the bias and distortion in Times coverage noted by CAMERA.

The objection to the May 8 Schmemann article on alleged torture in Israel was, again, that it was based on anecdote, inadequately identified sources, and showed no attempt to investigate or corroborate allegations. Lelyveld is right that the issue is the subject of much discussion and debate in Israel; it is regrettable that Schmemann failed to look objectively at that discussion and debate but chose rather to offer a one-sided and highly prejudicial rendering.

The notion that perfunctory coverage of the Palestinian Authority’s use of torture is adequate because torture by the Palestinians is “less surprising” is a strange journalistic concept indeed. An obvious question is, how would PA abuses come to be less surprising to the public if media, particularly America’s newspaper of record, fail to report it fully and prominently.

Also, of course, this line of reasoning could justify failure to cover any human rights violations by regimes thought of as particularly brutal. Is this the explanation why, for example, The New York Times buried the first reports on the Holocaust — a State Department announcement in 1942 that at least two million Jews had been killed by the Nazis — in a small article on page 10? Because mass murder by the Nazis was not "surprising"?

Perhaps the Times' failure to cover Palestinian Authority violations of its Oslo commitments is rationalized by Times editors in the same way: Non-compliance by the Palestinians is "less surprising." Certainly, the Times has urged in editorials that Israel maintain its adherence to Oslo commitments even in the face of Palestinian noncompliance; suggesting that the latter should be weighed relatively lightly. But the Times' failure to offer coverage of Palestinian violations is, again, a shirking of journalistic responsibilities, depriving readers of information crucial to comprehension of the current stalemate in the peace talks and perpetuating a biased picture of the actual state of affairs in Israel and the PA territories.

Lelyveld's reference to Schmemann's "heart-rending" reporting on recent terrorist bombings is particularly disingenuous. In fact, it has been a pattern in Schmemann's coverage of terrorist attacks to shift quickly from the Jewish victims and to focus instead on what is presented as a heavy-handed Israeli government response — closures of PA territories, pressure on Arafat to move against the terrorists, withholding of further concessions to the Palestinians.

Relevant human interest stories in the Times tend to focus on Palestinian grievances in the face of protective Israeli measures. Also, Schmemann has not shrunk from misrepresenting the bombing scene itself to take a swipe at Israel. For example, after a March 21 Tel Aviv terror attack, he wrote of the "frenzied demonstrators yelling `Death to the Arabs.' CNN, which broadcast virtual saturation television coverage of the bombing and its aftermath, specifically noted there were no such demonstrations.

While the letters from the Times editors seek to cast the bias in Times coverage in a benign light, as merely reflecting understandable higher expectations of Israel, the rhetoric of Times coverage is something very different and not benign at all. It casts the greater onus on Israel and exonerates the Palestinian Authority from responsibility for a range of obstacles to peace, including brutal attacks on dissent within the Palestinian community, non-compliance with Oslo commitments, and promotion of violence and terror against Israelis.

Comments are closed.