Questions for The New York Times

The New York Times has hired a new public editor, Arthur Brisbane, to be an “advocate” for readers and to uphold “the highest standards in journalism.” Let’s hope he means it because a backlog of complaints about the publication’s coverage of Israel and the Middle East awaits him.

Among unresolved matters is one evidently too hot for editors to handle. It concerns Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s statements on MSNBC revealing a strikingly jaundiced view of Israelis generally. He claimed in a March 8 broadcast that unfavorable views of Barack Obama on the part of the Israeli electorate reflected not just dismay over the policies of the president, but also collective public “prejudice” and “racism.”

The incendiary charge is belied empirically by poll data showing Israelis had actually favored Obama over John McCain in the 2008 election, and until the late spring of 2009 continued to approve quite enthusiastically of the young American president, with 60% expressing favorable opinion toward him. Attitudes shifted when his policies roused concerns – not, obviously, because Israelis suddenly noticed his race!

Yet Times editors have stonewalled in setting the record straight. (According to the Times’ own standards, their writers are not to make statements in other media outlets that couldn’t also appropriately appear in the paper.)

Equally notable in this matter is Bronner’s double standard. While dubbing Israelis racists he has avoided applying the term to bigoted Arab attacks against the Jewish state. A Nexis search finds not a single case in which he directly labeled Palestinians or Arabs racists – notwithstanding the many documented examples of anti-Semitic media, political and religious statements from Arab sources.

In a sea of similar cases, a February 28, 2010 screed by Hamas’s deputy minister of religious endowments, aired on Al-Aqsa TV just days before the New York Times bureau chief labeled Israelis racists. The Muslim cleric declared:

[The Jews] want to present themselves to the world as if they have rights, but, in fact, they are foreign bacteria – a microbe unparalleled in the world. It’s not me who says this. The Koran itself says that they have no parallel: “You shall find the strongest men in enmity to the believers to be the Jews.” May He annihilate this filthy people who have neither religion nor conscience. I condemn whoever believes in normalizing relations with them, whoever supports sitting down with them, and whoever believes that they are human beings. They are not human beings. They are not people. They have no religion, no conscience, and no moral values. (Translation by MEMRI, Middle East Media Research Institute.)

The question is: Can a reporter who falsely imputes bigoted sentiment to the Israeli population, while ignoring ferocious prejudice on the part of the Arabs, be trusted on any subject related to the Jewish state?

There are other questions for the public editor, including those about the Times’ heavy reliance on radical NGO’s for quotes and story ideas focused on biased criticism of Israel, and the paper’s portrayal of these sources as objective and credible. Thus, reporters frequently cite – to name but a few – Breaking the Silence, B’tselem and Gisha.

As Ha’aretz’s military correspondent observed regarding Breaking the Silence, “Any organization whose Web site includes the claim by members to expose the ‘corruption which permeates the [Israeli] military system’ is not a neutral observer.” Indicative of the disregard for fairness and objectivity, Israeli soldier “testimonies” posted on its Web site alleging various infractions are anonymous and include no dates or specifics, making investigation – and refutation – impossible.

B’Tselem, created to “change Israeli policy in the occupied territories” and to monitor treatment of Palestinians there, has categorized terrorists such as Abdul Salaam Sadek Hassouneh, who murdered six at a Bat Mitzvah celebration in 2002, as “civilians” killed by Israel. Similar distortions minimizing violence against Israelis color much of B’Tselem’s work.

Gisha pursues legal measures against Israel, charging “segregation,” and signs ads alleging Israel is an apartheid regime. Its reports minimize or ignore entirely the threats against Israel. Yet the Times invokes these groups’ claims as worthy and valid.

The same whitewashing of extremist sources occurs in other ways readers will likely never notice. A story on May 7 by Ethan Bronner deceptively cited “Nancy Kricorian, a New York City novelist and poet who visited here for the first time as part of the Palestinian [writers’] festival.” The “novelist and poet” who was quoted as “infuriated” at Israel’s “military checkpoints and the separation barrier,” was presented as an apolitical literary soul newly encountering Middle East realities.

Actually, Nancy Kricorian is the New York coordinator of the far-left Code Pink organization and promotes stridently anti-Israel political positions, including the organization’s “Stolen Beauty” boycott campaign against Israel’s Ahava company, creator and marketer of Dead Sea beauty products.

Mr. Brisbane will do the public and the paper a service to address squarely the increasingly tainted Times coverage, including urging an apology by Ethan Bronner for his smearing of Israelis, requiring candid identification of radical (and factually questionable) sources being cited and encouraging prominent coverage of the virulent anti-Jewish rhetoric of Israel’s neighbors that undermines hopes for peace.

This column originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on July 26, 2010

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