Truman, The Jewish State, and the Decline in New York Times Standards

Two news articles, published five years apart but referencing the same historical event, paint a damning picture of a recent decline in New York Times standards.

The event occurred in May 1948. Only days before the leaders of the Jewish community in British-ruled Palestine were to declare the establishment of the State of Israel, it was still unclear whether President Harry Truman would side with his Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, who opposed recognition of the Jewish state, or with his senior advisor Clark Clifford, who urged Truman to follow his impulse in favor of recognition.

The dramatic debate was settled only hours before the modern state of Israel came into formal existence. At 6:11 P.M. in Washington, D.C., or just 11 minutes after the midnight rebirth of the Jewish state, Truman’s press secretary read the following statement:

This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof.

The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new State of Israel.

The New York Times referred to this presidential statement twice in the past five years, and the way the did so exposes an unfortunate decline in the newspaper’s standards. In both articles, reporters mentioned recent Palestinian attempts to cast a last minute change in the language of the statement — one of the letter’s two references to “Jewish state” was changed to “State of Israel” — as supposedly showing that Truman did not support the idea of a Jewish state. But while the earlier article gave some clarifying context that suggested Palestinian leaders are misusing the letter, the more recent piece relayed the misinformation with no qualification, leaving New York Times readers severely misinformed about Truman’s position.

A Fact Check
Correspondent Isabel Kershner’s April 2009 story reported that a senior Palestinian negotiator used a copy of the Truman letter to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s position that they shouldn’t recognize the Jewish state. She also cited an Israeli professor who provided a more complete understanding of what the letter means, and what it doesn’t:

Palestinian negotiators have long refused to recognize Israel’s Jewish character, saying that it would negate the Palestinian refugees’ demand for the right to return to their former homes and would be detrimental to the status of Israel’s Arab citizens.

In an attempt to bolster the Palestinian argument, [Saeb] Erekat on Monday produced a copy of a letter signed by President Harry S. Truman on May 14, 1948. In its original form, it recognizes the provisional government of the new Jewish state, but the typed words “Jewish state” in the second paragraph have been crossed out and replaced with the handwritten “State of Israel.”

Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Mr. Erekat was misinterpreting the American president’s intention. According to Mr. Avineri, the Truman letter had been prepared hours before Israel declared its independence, before the new country had chosen its name.

It was later corrected by a Truman adviser, Clark M. Clifford, after the declaration of independence in order to call the country by its name, not to deny its Jewish character, Mr. Avineri said.

In short, the reporter did her job in reporting what the Palestinian official said while simultaneously providing readers with the basic information they need to understand the story.

Free to Mislead
Fast forward five years to the present. Palestinian leaders are still waving around the Truman letter, but this time they have an ally in The New York Times, which seemingly can no longer be bothered to treat Israel with due accuracy and fairness. A Feb. 3, 2014 story by Jodi Rudoren reported the following about the issue:

On recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Mr. Abbas said, “This is out of the question,” noting that Jordan and Egypt were not asked to do so when they signed peace treaties with Israel. He presented a 28-page packet he has been distributing widely that included a 1948 letter signed by President Harry Truman in which “Jewish state” was crossed out and replaced by “State of Israel….”

Rudoren says nothing more about the letter. Her article, in other words, gives the distinct impression that the late American president and the current Palestinian one are on the same page when it comes to opposing the Jewish state, when in fact the opposite is true.

When CAMERA contacted Rudoren to call for a published clarification, she replied that there was no need to point out that Abbas was misrepresenting the letter because “those who know” the facts can reach their own conclusions.

When is a “Fact Check” Fit to Print?
This idea, that specialized knowledge is a prerequisite for making proper sense of a news story, is the antithesis of illuminating journalism. But Rudoren’s response also exposes a flagrant double standard. In an article she co-wrote only three months earlier about differing American and Israeli views on an anticipated nuclear deal with Iran, Rudoren went out of her way to make the case that Israel’s minister of strategic affairs gave a “distorted” prediction about the deal’s potential benefits to Iran. If she felt her role as a journalist was to harshly “fact check” forward looking estimates, then by any consistent standard, her articles should likewise fact check straightforward misrepresentations of history such as Abbas’s use of the Truman letter. But apparently her novel journalistic principle — those who know will know — only applies when it comes to shielding the Palestinian leader from an established and essential journalistic principle: scrutiny.

Rudoren also cited space constraints to explain why she failed to educate readers about the letter, as her colleague appropriately did five years earlier. But space seems to constrain only when it’s convenient for the reporter. After all, she found room in her article about Iran to criticize the Israeli minister, although it was 250 words longer than the one that relayed Abbas’s distortion.

An editor in The New York Times standards department was hardly more interested in clearing the record. Abbas actually did show people the Truman letter, he argued, so there is nothing to correct. But this, too, is
a principle that the newspaper is willing to turn on and off as they please.

Consider the case of the New York Times‘s September 2003 obituary of Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz. That obituary accurately cited a book about Kissenger, but the newspaper later published an “editors’ note” because it saw the cited material as potentially misleading.

The obituary asserted that

In “The Secret Conversations of Henry Kissinger” (Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company), Mr. Golan wrote that Mr. Kissinger duped Mr. Dinitz into telling Israel the shipments were being delayed by the Pentagon. Only after the Soviet Union resupplied Egypt and Syria did the main American airlift get under way.

Two weeks later, the editors’ note clarified,

The article asserted that Mr. Dinitz had been duped by Mr. Kissinger into believing that the Pentagon was the cause of the delay, and it cited a 1976 book, “The Secret Conversations of Henry Kissinger,” by Matti Golan, an Israeli journalist, as the source of this analysis. The Times should have sought verification of that account. In recent years, fresh examinations of the Israeli-United States diplomacy in that period, including Mr. Kissinger’s memoirs and “Peace Process,” by the former National Security Council official William Quandt, have painted a more complex picture. They report that Mr. Dinitz was not duped by the United States but in fact negotiated vigorously in the face of the American concerns.

If an obituary that provided just one of two opposing interpretations on a matter of dispute required an editors’ note, surely the same should apply to an even more egregious case: a news article that relayed a straightforwardly false interpretation of the Truman letter but not the accurate information? Only if the newspaper’s guiding principle is accuracy, as opposed to advocacy.
Truman Supported the Jewish State
Jodi Rudoren was correct when she argued, however unhelpfully, that “those who know” would already know whether Abbas’s misled about the Truman letter. But considering that the average online reader of The New York Times wasn’t alive when Truman decided to recognize the Jewish state, one would expect rather few people to be in the category of those who know.  
The reality is that there was no question at the time of Israel’s establishment that the country could be anything other than the Jewish state. It was a Jewish state that was contemplated and argued about in the late 1940s. In October 1946, Truman declared American support for the “creation of a viable Jewish state.” It was an explicitly “Jewish state” named in the 1947 United Nations partition resolution, and so an explicitly Jewish state that Truman voted for in helping that resolution pass.
It was an explicitly Jewish state that George Marshall, Clark Clifford and others debated on May 12, 1948 in the Oval Office at Truman’s behest. (During that debate, for example, Marshall’s under secretary Robert Lovett argued that “It would be highly injurious to the United Nations to announce the recognition of the Jewish state even before it had come into existence.” Expressing concerns that the state could have communist sympathies, he asked, “How do we know what kind of Jewish state will be set up?” Clifford, for his part, urged the president to “give prompt recognition to the Jewish state,” and that this should be done “before the Soviet Union or any other nation recognizes the Jewish state” because “the new Jewish state” can be a country “on which we rely.”)
It was  an explicitly Jewish state that was proclaimed on May 14, and notwithstanding Abbas’s insinuations to the contrary, it was an explicitly Jewish state whose government was recognized by Truman in his letter. A cable sent from “The Secretary of State to the Embassy in the United Kingdom” instructed American ambassador Lewis W. Douglas to tell the British foreign secretary what was about to happen. It read:
For Douglas. Please inform Bevin or other responsible official Brit Govt that we have reason to believe that provisional govt of new Jewish state will make request at once for recognition and that in present circumstances we feel that we should grant recognition to Jewish provisional govt as de facto authority of Jewish state. (Emphasis added)
And while Jodi Rudoren’s article in The Times gives the impression that the modified presidential statement no longer referenced a Jewish state — she described it as “a 1948 letter signed by President Harry Truman in which ‘Jewish state’ was crossed out and replaced by ‘State of Israel'” — it in fact did. It described a “Jewish state” that had been proclaimed and that had requested recognition, and it granted de facto recognition to the “provisional government thereof.”
Finally, it is worth noting that it was an explicitly Jewish state described in the top story of the May 15, 1948 edition of The New York Times. Its article on Israel’s independence put in words what everybody already understood: “The Jewish state, the world’s newest sovereignty, to be known as the State of Israel, came into being in Palestine at midnight upon termination of the British mandate.”

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