Similarities and Differences
When it comes to murderous attacks targeting civilians, the similarities are painfully straightforward: Blood is blood. Innocence is innocence. The pain of a child lost is the terrible pain of a child lost, no matter the victim’s religion, language, or ethnicity.
A newspaper can seek to stir moral outrage about terrorism; it can aim to mitigate with context; or it can do something in between. Whatever path it chooses, though, its approach should be generally consistent, without changing based on the identity of the attacker. Among other things, this means that if one ethnic group’s reaction to “their” terrorism deserves so much exploration, so many words, and so many articles, the same should be the case for another group’s reaction to their own terrorism.
At the same time, some differences in coverage are clearly appropriate. Evenhandedness doesn’t mean two similar actions must be described with exactly the same words. It means they are to be approached with the same journalistic guidelines in mind, captured with the same lens, scrutinized with the same skepticism, and contextualized to the same extent. When there are disparities on the ground, an effective journalist will find a way to reflect them as clearly as possible.
A Double Standard by the Numbers
It is one thing, though, for Israelis to be more bothered by their terrorists than Palestinians are by theirs, and for this uncomfortable reality to be conveyed by a newspaper. It is another for The New York Times itself to be more interested in Israeli extremism than in Palestinian extremism, to repeatedly raise questions about only Israeli morality and not Palestinian morality, and to give readers the impression that Israeli society has a greater need than Palestinian society to tackle its extremist violence, despite the opposite being true.
Compare New York Times coverage of the recent arson attack that killed Palestinian Ali Dawabsheh with its coverage one month earlier of the drive-by shooting that killed Israeli Malachi Rosenfeld. When Rosenfeld was shot and critically wounded, three sentences about the incident were squeezed into the middle of an unrelated article about Israel’s border with Jordan. When he died the next day, The Times devoted only two or three sentences to the murder in a miniature-sized news brief. Its print headline, “Israel: Man Dies After West Bank Attack,” neglected to mention the ethnicity of the man or his suspected attackers.
Universal and Specific Critics
The quantitative difference is glaring. But if you look closely, you will also find subtler qualitative ones. The brief about the killing of Malachi Rosenfeld mentioned that “Israel’s defense minister … blamed a recent wave of attacks on programs on Palestinian television that he said incited violence.” On its own, it seems commendable that the newspaper would relay Israel’s concerns about the impact of Palestinian incitement. But compare this to language found in coverage of the arson, and you will notice a phenomenon that occurs all too frequently in the pages of The New York Times: while criticism of Palestinians is normally attributed to specific Israelis, such as “Israel’s defense minister,” criticism of Israel is often portrayed as a more universal view, attributed to some unnamed mass of critics, or even conveyed in the reporter’s own authoritative voice, and it is repeated in a way that makes clear that the newspaper is pushing a particular talking point.
“Israel has long been criticized for not vigilantly investigating price-tag attacks or punishing their offenders,” one article about the Dawabsheh killing states. “Few shootings
ever lead to prosecutions,” a reporter says in another piece. There is a “sense that Israeli law-enforcement authorities have for years acted with laxness and leniency toward Israeli citizens,” another article asserts, before adding that “Israeli and Palestinian critics have long contended that the Israeli authorities treat Jewish perpetrators of violence with kid gloves compared with the harsh measures taken against Palestinians suspected of similar crimes against Israelis.” “Traditionally, the Shin Bet has typically acted with constraint in dealing with Jewish citizens,” a reporter opines. “Justice … is elusive,” her colleague states. “Palestinians and leftist Israelis argue that Israel’s nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank and impunity for settler vandals inevitably led to Friday’s firebombing of the Dawabsheh home,” the front-page piece notes.
Apples, Oranges, and Apples
For the sake of fairness, let’s acknowledge that it might be reasonable to see some degree of difference between a newspaper’s coverage of Ali Dawabsheh and Malachi Rosenfeld, even if not to the extent we’ve seen at The New York Times. The former was an 18-month-old toddler, and the latter a 26-year-old student. It is a unique kind of heartbreak that accompanies the death of a small child, and this can be reflected in the coverage.
But when we consider prior Times reporting on terror attacks targeting children, it becomes clear that this explanation fails to exonerate the newspaper’s relative disinterest in the death of the Israeli student.
In 2014, 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was murdered by Israeli teens. The Palestinian victim’s name has been mentioned in 34 New York Times articles since then. In 2001, a 10-month-old girl, Shalhevet Pass was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. The Israeli infant’s name has been mentioned in only nine articles. In 2003, 7-month-old Shaked Avraham was gunned down by a Palestinian terrorist who sprayed her family’s house with bullets as they were eating Rosh Hashana dinner. Her murder has been mentioned only twice, and her name not even once. The discrepancy, then, is not all about age.
Here again, one can imagine rationalizations. Unlike the more recent murder of the Palestinian Abu Khdeir, the Israelis Pass and Avraham were killed during the Palestinian terror war of 2000–2005, at a time when violence claimed the lives of so many victims. It would have been impossible to focus so much attention on every death, one might argue.
But this justification, too, fails to exonerate the newspaper.
Chaya Zissel Braun, a 3-month-old Israeli-American citizen, was killed in 2014 by a Palestinian who drove his car into passengers waiting at a Jerusalem light rail station. Her name was mentioned in only three New York Times stories, although the killing occurred within months of the Abu Khdeir incident.
One-Way Moral Judgement
sraelis from left to right have loudly and unequivocally described as a disgrace with no place in Israeli society, is in fact a result of something inherently amiss with the Jewish state. Incredibly, though, the idea that Palestinian political culture might have contributed to the attack on the Fogel family was treated, in the newspaper’s coverage of that attack, as a reason to criticize Israel:
The new focus on incitement against Israel, together with Israeli dissatisfaction over the Palestinian response to the brutal attack, seemed to pose a question about the Israeli government’s readiness to deal with Mr. Abbas as a serious peace partner — even though Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad are widely considered moderates who have repeatedly said they would never resort to violence.
There is no shortage of iterations of this pattern. After a 2014 Palestinian terror attack on a Jewish synagogue in which five Israeli were killed, editors scrubbed from a news story any reference to John Kerry’s forceful condemnation of Palestinian incitement, and the newspaper’s analysis after the incident included more comment blaming Israel than blaming the Palestinians.