NY Times Mischaracterizes Conversations Between Egyptian Intelligence and Media

We know the White House’s position on Jerusalem. In late 2017, the U.S. formally recognized the city’s status as Israel’s capital.
We also know the view of Congress. Over twenty years earlier, a strong bipartisan majority passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which acknowledges that “since 1950, the city of Jerusalem has been the capital of the State of Israel as the capital of Israel” and says the city should be recognized as such.

Now, thanks to leaked phone calls between an Egyptian intelligence officer and several prominent media figures, we know what Egypt thinks. They want to avoid war and to encourage some flexibility on the part of the Palestinians, the officer told his contacts.

And finally, we also know what The New York Times thinks of all that Egyptian moderation. It doesn’t seem pleased. In a Dec. 7, front-page article about the leaked conversations, the newspaper it did its part to embarrass the Egyptians, framing the story in a way that casts the government in the harshest of lights, and even fabricating portions of what the Egyptian official said.

Here’s what’s clear: In the days after the U.S. announcement on Jerusalem, Egypt had taken steps to maintain calm, and went so far as to feed talking points to the media figures, who reportedly complied without hesitation.

“I wanted to talk with you in order to inform you of the media policy” and national security policy, the intelligence officer told a talk show host. “I’m at your command,” the host responded.

Egypt: We don’t like it, but don’t lose your heads

The crux of the Egyptian message was that a wave of Palestinian violence would help neither the Palestinians nor the Egyptians. The only way to alleviate Palestinian suffering is through a political solution, not an uprising that would cause the death of many Palestinians and the spur the resurgence of the terror group Hamas, the officer said. We might not like Israeli control over Jerusalem, but outrage isn’t a particularly productive response to this ongoing reality, the Egyptians seem to be saying.

The news itself is fascinating. And so is the way The New York Times covered the story.

The newspaper could have focused on the Egyptian government’s attempt to reduce hatred and prevent violence against Israel, a noteworthy and productive step in a country whose media and population is steeped in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment.

Indeed, only a year before his conversation with the Egyptian intelligence officer was leaked to the Times, a Egyptian talk show host Said Hassassin went on the air to argue that a Palestinian who rammed his truck into a group of Israelis, killing four, should be considered a hero. “You’re the man,” the pundit exclaimed on Egyptian television. In another segment, broadcast after a terror attack on an Egyptian church, Hassassin suggested the attacker might have been a Jew, before backtracking because “even the Jews” aren’t capable of such a heinous act.

What does it mean for the Egyptian-Israeli peace when prominent Egyptians celebrate terrorism and denigrate the Jews? Alternatively, what might be gained when they encourage calm? Alas, these questions were of no interest to the New York Times.

The Times might have also focused on the geopolitics of the leak itself. Who provided the recordings to the newspaper? The reporter, David Kirkpatrick, protected the anonymity of the source, saying only it was provided by “an intermediary supportive of the Palestinian cause and opposed to President Sisi.”

The need for anonymity is understandable. But Kirkpatrick’s characterization is surprisingly clumsy for a newspaper that prides itself on nuance. There is not one, uniform Palestinian cause, but many causes with distinct aims. Were the tapes provided by a proponent of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Or was it someone opposed to Israel’s very existence, an activist who hoped to embarrass Egypt for its restraint, stir up rage against the Jewish state and undermine the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty?

And who was the original source of the recordings? What was their motivation? Was it likely a foreign intelligence service? Or a domestic opponent of the state? There is plenty of reason to think the newspaper might dig beneath the surface to explore such questions. When Israeli researchers released a book exposing state-sponsored incitement by the Palestinian Authority government, for example, The New York Times scrutinized the messengers no less than their message. Those who point out Palestinian incitement are often trying to “score propaganda points,” the newspaper insisted. But in the case of the Egyptian leak, which was clearly a salvo in a propaganda battle, these questions were received with a shrug. The reporter noted that “the origin of the recordings could not be determined” and immediately moved on.

Egypt: Condemn
New York Times: Egypt says don’t condemn

The story the newspaper preferred to tell, then, was not one about Egyptian moderation, nor one about the clear attempt to embarrass the country for its temperance. Instead, Kirkpatrick opted to make it about Egyptian perfidy, favoring phrasing that suggests the government sold out their Palestinians neighbors.

The Egyptian intelligence officer placed his phone calls “quietly,” the author noted in his opening sentence. In the second sentence, Kirkpatrick claimed the officer told his media contacts that Egypt would “denounce the decision in public,” adding to the impression of double-dealing by the Egyptians. The article went even further, claiming the Egyptian officer “told the [talk show] hosts that instead of condemning the decision, they should persuade their viewers to accept it.” (Emphasis added throughout.)

It’s fascinating news. But it’s false. The Egyptian officer said nothing about his government criticizing the news merely “in public.” And he didn’t call on the influential Egyptians to accept the decision “instead of” denouncing it. On the contrary, the calls to condemn were frequent and clear: “We will condemn, like everybody condemns, the issue that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel, is that clear?” he told an Egyptian actress. “First of all we condemn this matter, like all our Arab brothers,” he said to another media figure. And he told a third, “We’re now saying that there’s a wave of condemnation that we’re going with, and we’re condemning this thing together with all our Arab brothers.”

“Do you understand?” he reemphasized later in the conversation. “We will condemn without a doubt. The policy now is censure from all the Arab world and all the Arab brothers.”

That’s a lot of condemnation. But condemnation wasn’t the most important thing, in the assessment of the intelligence officer. What is important, he repeated throughout his conversations, is ending Palestinian suffering once and for all through a final and negotiated solution to the conflict. When it comes down to it, he noted, Egypt can and will condemn, but it can’t do much about the reality of American recognition. “For us there’s no intent to go to war,” he said. In fact, the American declaration wasn’t even necessary; Israeli control over Jerusalem is a fact on the ground regardless, the official noted.

From all this, we learn that the Egyptian media isn’t particularly independent, which should surprise no one, but also that the country isn’t a one-dimensional outrage machine, concerned more about Palestinian symbols than about Palestinian lives or even Egyptian national interests. That, too, should be unsurprising.

At any rate, the lack of fury Egypt’s reaction is hardly a reason to falsely claim, as did The New York Times, that the media figures were instructed not to condemn the American decision. The officer told them to condemn it, but maintained that this wasn’t the beginning and end of sound policy.

Why did the newspaper mislead readers? One almost senses disappointment in its descriptions of an Arab world that has refrained from banging the war drums over Israel. Consider the following sentence by Kirkpatrick:

For decades, powerful Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have publicly criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, while privately acquiescing to Israel’s continued occupation of territory the Palestinians claim as their homeland.

Again, there’s the insinuation of duplicity — a public posture about the conflict in general that, readers are led to believe, contrasts with a behind-the-scenes viewpoint.

But what is the Times actually saying? That the Egyptians and Saudis aren’t genuinely opposed to various Israeli policies? What exactly does it mean to “acquiesce to Israel’s continued occupation”? The Saudis consistently vote against Israel in the United Nations. They’ve sent millions of dollars to support the Palestinians, including to the Palestine Liberation Organization and to the families of suicide bombers. They’ve sponsored and promoted an initiative meant to pressure Israel to withdraw from the territories under terms preferred by the Palestinians.

What, then, would it look like not to acquiesce? Would it require yet more funding to even more radical groups? Should Saudi Arabia turn away Israeli intelligence about its arch-nemesis Iran? Must Saudi tanks roll across the desert?

New York Times: Ramallah is Epic.
New York Times: Ramallah is Lame.

The newspaper’s disapproval of Egypt’s restraint comes across most laughably in its description of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. According to Kirkpatrick, the intelligence officer suggested that Palestinians “should content themselves with the dreary West Bank town that currently houses the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah.” Dreary, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “dismal, gloomy; repulsively dull or uninteresting.”

The newspaper’s language, though, is irreconcilable with the its earlier descriptions of a Ramallah that’s neither dreary nor a town, but rather an exciting, bustling city. In a March 2013 piece, reporter Jodi Rudoren described it as “the current center of Palestinian government and cultural life.” A March 2006 opinion piece referred to the city’s “bustling downtown,” where “bars and café’s are filled with laughter.” In August 2013, Isabel Kershner referred to it as “the Palestinian Authority’s bustling administrative capital.”

The most vivid picture of a spirited city can be found in a June 2010 piece in the New York Times Travel section, entitled “Ramallah Attracts a Cosmopolitan Crowd.” The article, about “the de facto capital of the West Bank,” opens with a scene of a night club that “pulsed with the rhythmic dancing of hundreds of young people.” It notes that “this city on the West Bank has become a destination for thousands of young North Americans, Europeans and offspring of the Palestinian elite.” It describes “hot spots … set in restored Ottoman buildings, streamlined Art Deco houses that date from the British mandate, or atop new high-rises.” The city and its “sophisticated culture” is said to rival Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Amman. “In addition to café culture and night life, Ramallah is home to music, dance and arts festivals.” And so on.

So why did the lively, sophisticated, and bustling city become a dreary town? What accounts for the change?

In response to questions about the shape-shifting city, a New York Times editor told CAMERA that “a city can be both dreary and still have a bustling nightclub.” That surely true. But then, the newspaper didn’t say Ramallah has one lively nightclub. Again, it painted a picture of laughter-filled cafés, a bustling downtown, and a center of cultural life, music, dance and arts — the exact opposite of the definition of dreary.

It’s a small adjective, but one that underscores a significant point. The newspaper is putting its finger on the scales, coloring a story to make the content of Egypt’s suggestion (and not merely its method of dissemination) seem more objectionable. The suggestion that the West Bank’s sophisticated “de facto capital” might work as its formal capital is one thing. The suggestion that “dreary town” become the capital comes across altogether differently.

This example is important, too, because such partisan editorializing in The New York Times, which violates journalistic guidelines, has been all too common. CAMERA has previously highlighted the newspaper’s habit of using subjective adjectives to cast Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials in a negative light. For example, a reporter once opined, in a news story, that the Israeli prime minister is “best known for, and perhaps best at,” speaking out in “strident tones.” Netanyahu and other Israeli ministers have also been characterized by Times news reporters as “shrill,” “stubborn,” “abrasive,” “derisive,” and “cynical.” On the other hand, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president whose tenure has involved walking away from various peace talks, has been labeled “conciliatory.”

When this same Mahmoud Abbas, in a December 2017 speech at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, cited anti-Semitic verses from the Koran when casting Jews as the falsifiers of history and religion, the vile slurs were ignored by the newspaper. To report on the undeniably newsworthy story would have cast doubt on the newspaper’s depiction of a conciliatory Palestinian leader.

And just as Ramallah suddenly became dreary when the newspaper sought to encourage readers to feel the Palestinian capital should be in Jerusalem and not Ramallah, the newspaper has also in recent months downplayed the Jewish connection to Jerusalem; bizarrely stated insisted that “the consensus under international law is that East Jerusalem … should be the future capital of a Palestinian state,” as if international law is in the business of choosing capital cities (it isn’t); and the overwhelmingly stacked the deck by citing eleven critics and only one supporter of U.S. policy toward Jerusalem. This isn’t journalism “without fear or favor,” as the newspaper promises. It’s journalism that clearly favors the Palestinian narrative of the conflict over that of Israel and even, in this case, Egypt.

The New York Times has an ongoing ad campaign describing itself as an objective defender of the truth. “The truth is hard,” the advertisements argue. A 2016 letter to readers from publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., promised the newspaper will “report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor.” And a 2018 letter by his successor, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, assured readers that “The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have.”

Such is how we would expect businessmen to defend their business. But more independent minds at the newspaper have argued that the newspaper is guided by a “worldview,” a “narrative,” a “frame,” and a “pre-designated line” that influences news coverage. A New York Times public editor has gone so far as to remind reporters that the Palestinians are “more than just victims.”

The erroneous paraphrasing of the Egyptian intelligence officer, the metamorphosing characterizations of Ramallah, and the refusal to cover anti-Semitic language by the Palestinian president suggest that the truth is indeed hard — and that the newspaper must try harder if it wants to convince readers that it can be relied on to convey it fully and fairly.

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