NY Times’ Rudoren Suggests Colleagues Spreading “Nonsense”

Hamas Harassment

A French-Palestinian journalist was aggressively grilled by Hamas gunmen. They confiscated his passport, barred him from working, and told him to immediately leave Gaza “for his own good.” When the French newspaper Liberation published an article documenting this interrogation, the journalist, Radjaa Abu Dagga, asked them to pull the article. They agreed. It was an extraordinary step that suggests editors understood the piece put the journalist or his Gaza-based family in danger.

A British journalist who mentioned on Twitter that Hamas fires rockets from near his hotel, Harry Fear, was likewise told he must leave Gaza. His tweet, like the Liberation article, was quickly deleted. Fear later asked an Israeli reporter to modify her article mentioning his Twitter posts because, he told her, it put his life in danger. By the time he eventually told another reporter that Hamas hadn’t really intimidated him or interfered with his reporting — “It’s a totally free playing field,” he said, although in the same breath he admitted Hamas has told dozens of other journalists to censor themselves — the reversal felt more like evidence of intimidation than proof of its absence.

A European journalist explained that Hamas has barred journalists photographing dead or wounded Hamas fighters, and has threatened translators in order to influence coverage.

Reporters are under “strict orders” from Hamas to avoid documenting the group’s violence, explained Norwegian reporter Paul Jørgensen.

The message appears to have been taken. Two Wall Street Journal correspondents deleted Twitter posts implicating Hamas for using a Gaza Strip hospital as a base of operations, and later striking with a misfired rocket. And Al Jazeera America also appears to have removed from its website video in which their journalist discussed Hamas rocket-fire from residential neighborhoods.

Foreign Press Association Charged with “Nonsense”

Against this backdrop, it was hardly surprising when the Foreign Press Association put out a strongly worded statement slamming “the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month,” including harassment and threats.

More surprising was one New York Times reporter’s disdainful reaction to this criticism of Hamas behavior. “Every reporter I’ve met who was in Gaza during war says this Israeli/now FPA narrative of Hamas harassment is nonsense,” Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren wrote on Twitter.

Rudoren clearly hadn’t met a lot of journalists working in Gaza. John Donnison, a BBC journalist who reported from Gaza, and who is hardly sympathetic to the “Israeli narrative,” described the FPA statement as being “spot on.”

And Rudoren’s New York Times colleague Isabel Kershner apparently heard from plenty of journalists who didn’t feel the statement was nonsense. Kershner is an FPA board member and, according to a report by Matthew Kalman, approved the association’s statement.

The statement certainly explains why, in the words of Indian journalist Sreenivasan Jain, reporters in Gaza are “hobbled” by “fear of reprisals from Hamas.” Indeed, he waited until he left Gaza before broadcasting footage of Hamas firing a rocket from outside his hotel because “Hamas has not taken very kindly to any reporting of its rockets being fired.” 

Similarly, Italian reporter Gabriele Barbati explained that didn’t dare cross the terrorist group while he was within their reach. He waited until he was “out of Gaza far from Hamas retaliation” before pointing out that it was a misfired Hamas rocket and not Israeli ordinance that killed a group of Palestinian children.
Narrative Wars

Why, in light of all this testimony, was Rudoren moved to defend Hamas against criticism by her fellow reporters? Why did she go out of her way to post a tweet that not only dismissed the experiences of Abu Dagga and Jørgensen and Jain and Barbati and others, but also misinformed her readers about constraints and challenges faced by journalists working under Gaza’s repressive rulers?

In comments to Matthew Kalman, in which Rudoren offered some conciliatory comments about the FPA statement, she again insisted that she hadn’t heard about Hamas intimidation in any of her personal conversations (as if personal conversations invalidate all other readily available and widely discussed evidence). She also gave a clue about why her earlier tweet about FPA’s “nonsense” was so far off the mark, to the point that readers were certainly misled. Her tweet, an informal report for her thousands of Twitter followers, was shaped by her perception of the wider “narrative,” and her desire to shape that narrative:

I was not in Gaza during the height of the hostilities, I have only been here a week. But in conversations with many colleagues, those who were here from NYT and other major news organizations who I trust, I have not heard about harassment, intimidation, censorship or threats. There have been a few anecdotes re Hamas people shooing photographers away from fighters’ faces at the hospitals, asking people not to shoot this or that, and yes, names and phone numbers were taken down in a spiral notebook of who was here, but nothing that these veteran war correspondents consider unusual.

I am confident the FPA based its statement on detailed reports from members regarding their experiences on the ground, and only had the best intention of protecting journalists and journalism, as it always does. But I found the wording of the statement overly broad, and, especially given the narrative playing out in some social media circles regarding foreign correspondents being taken in by the Hamas narrative and not reporting on the war fully or fairly, I was concerned that it undermined what I consider to have been brave and excellent work by very talented people.

There is a convoluted element to this statement. Acco
rding to Rudoren, she had suggested criticism of Hamas by fellow journalists wasn’t truthful because she didn’t want people to think those journalists were taken in by the Hamas narrative. In other words, she purports to be “protecting” her colleagues by convincing people that they spew “nonsense.”

But never mind that. There is another message in her statement, one that is more coherent, but also more troubling. Rudoren wanted her Twitter followers to think the situation for reporters in Gaza is better than it actually is. The reason she gives is that, according to her narrative, some people on social media were embracing the narrative that reporters had been taken in by the Hamas narrative. To put it more clearly, her decision about how to discuss — or downplay — realities on the ground was based on her desire to reinforce a certain subjective world view and to minimize another one.

Readers aren’t simply seeing the Middle East through Rudoren’s eyes, with her acting as a neutral conveyor of information. Instead, they’re seeing a Middle East that is being intentionally filtered through the reporter’s world view. Rurodren wants to make sure people interpret the world in the very same way a Jewish female brought up in an affluent suburb of Boston, who lived on Park Slope, who loves books that are harshly critical of Israel, and whose friends tell her “good things” about anti-Israel extremist Ali Abunimah sees it.

Don’t misunderstand. Some of my favorite people have lived on Park Slope. I’ve spent lovely evenings in Newton. There isn’t anything inherently out-of-bounds about promoting a book by Peter Beinart, however much I may disagree with his attempts to turn public opinion against Israel. There is nothing wrong with news reporters having world views. But to do their job as the American public expects, their task is to get as close as possible to objectivity, not to get people to come as close as possible to their own subjectivity.

If Rudoren is moved to slam the FPA statement and downplay Hamas harassment for the sake of a narrative, then can she be expected to report fairly on Hamas harassment in the pages of The New York Times? Does her desire to cultivate a narrative explain why there has been no New York Times news story on the FPA statement?

Does her desire to shape narratives also explain why she didn’t mention, in a piece discussing debates about the number of civilian casualties in Gaza, that Hamas has called on the public to lie about this very topic? Is it why her recent article on “the battleground of words” between Hamas and Israel devoted over three times as much space to suggest Israel tries to manipulate public opinion than to showing Hamas doing the same thing? Is it why she earlier relayed without comment a Palestinian distortion about President Truman, but insisted an Israeli official “distorted” when he predicted, in line with other experts, the dollar value of future sanctions relief on Iran?

It now seems likely that these examples of partisan journalism (and many others) are the product of a journalist who is intent on sculpting a narrative, and is so comfortable doing so that she has no qualms admitting to the journalistic crime.
To repeat: there is nothing wrong with a reporter, off the clock, embracing a world view. Tablet‘s Marc Tracy put it well: “Only a fool would expect a reporter to have no opinions, but we expect them to zip their opinions up in favor of objectivity and to come to new stories with an open mind.” Tellingly, he wrote those words in 2012 about Jodi Rudoren, who was preparing to take her position as The Times Jerusalem bureau chief. Judging by her body of work, her fiasco with the Foreign Press Association, and the statement she later gave to explain that fiasco, expectations of impartiality have not been met.

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