New York Times Veers Off the ‘Road Map’

The New York Times has trouble reporting the facts straight about Middle East documents, repeatedly distorting their terms and shifting responsibility — and fault — to Israel. Recent misinformation about the road map by correspondent Steven Weisman is fuel for critics who see the paper increasingly marshaling its news pages to advance an editorial agenda.

Weisman and the Times are particularly reading-impaired when the document includes reference to Jewish “settlements.”

On May 12, a front page story above the fold stated in flat contradiction to the written terms of the road map peace initiative that with regard to “Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza” the “peace plan calls for their dismantling…”

The road map does no such thing. It addresses this large issue in broad terms, leaving the resolution to final status negotiation, and it uses the word “dismantle” only with respect to certain satellite outposts recently built.

Specifically, in “Phase I” the document calls for a settlement freeze and the dismantling of “outposts erected since March 2001.” In “Phase II” the document refers to “further action on settlements in conjunction with creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders.” The last reference in “Phase III” is to “a final, permanent status resolution” considering issues such as “borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements…”

Challenged to correct the false settlement-dismantling assertion, the Times instead dissembled. On May 21, Weisman wrote: “The peace plan calls implicitly for settlements to be dismantled as part of a final settlement, its drafters say.”

Which “drafters”? Weisman neglects to name those who see Israel as having “implicitly” forfeited ahead of time its rights of negotiation on a major issue.

Moreover, although the road map similarly leaves resolution of the issue of “refugees” to “permanent status”discussions, the Times has not reported that it is “implicitly” understood there is no so-called “right of return” for Palestinians to pre-1948 Israel. Nor has it presented such a view as fact, as it has its interpretation of the settlement matter.

A Weisman story on May 22 filled with half a dozen unnamed sources — “an informed diplomat” here and “an administration official” and “knowledgeable” source there — is indicative of the partisanship underlying the reporter’s coverage. He defines the road map as “a phased timetable to create a Palestinian state.” That is, indeed, the Palestinians’ primary aim, but Israel does have goals as well.

Though disregarded here by the Times, they are actually written into the road map. Israel’s overriding concern is that the initiative entails finally an end to terrorist violence and acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy.

May 23 brought another Weisman story replete with anonymous sources — this time citing unnamed “administration officials” as well as “many in Washington” — all nameless — critical of the Sharon government.

In addition, a “correction” ran underscoring the paper’s refusal to simply report the facts. It read:

A front-page story on May 12 about Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, his talks in Jerusalem and the Bush administration?s efforts to bring peace to the Middle East referred imprecisely to the peace plan drawn up by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. The plan, known to diplomats as the road map, is understood by its authors and by Israel and the Palestinians to entail the eventual dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But that understanding is not stated explicitly.

While a number of major national newspapers had also reported erroneously on the terms of the road map with regard to settlements and had issued corrections, each had simply stated the terms of the road map. Only the New York Times inserted its interpretation, claiming that all the parties, including Israel, understand the document as requiring — prior to, or without, negotiations — dismantling settlements. It offered no evidence whatsoever for this assertion.

All this insistent misrepresentation of reality is not new. It recalls former Jerusalem bureau chief Serge Schmemann’s remarkable 1998 rewriting of Israeli-Palestinian agreements related to Hebron.

Then the Times reporter first erred in claiming Israel was imposing new “conditions” on the Palestinians, charging Israel with, in effect, lying about the stipulations of a written agreement. Later, in a mendacious “correction,” the paper falsely maintained Israel was injecting “new, specific demands.”

It seems, despite the shadow of Jayson Blair and public unease about the “newspaper of record,” when it comes to reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict, political agenda still trumps journalistic propriety at the New York Times.

Originally appeared in the June 6, 2003 edition of the Jerusalem Post.

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