A Year of Biased Reporting: Why the New York Times Won

December 26, 2013 11:20

When HonestReporting readers were asked to choose the “winner” of the 2013 Dishonest Reporting Award, the prevailing displeasure was best summed up in a one-line email:

“The NY Times bludgeoned Israel all year.”

Much of the resentment focused on the paper’s op-ed section. A steady parade of commentaries disdainfully dismissing Israel’s Iranian anxieties certainly cemented the Gray Lady‘s award in the latter part of 2013. This wasn’t surprising. HonestReporting’s long-term study of the Times’s opinion section found similar problems in 2012.

But the NY Times built up a bona fide case to win this award even without the issue of op-eds.

The paper added a known anti-Israel conspiracy theorist to its editorial board, glorified stone throwers, raised questions about the way it corrects the record, and finished the year with a flourishing photo failure. None of the 2013 runners up such as the BBC, CNN, Haaretz, and others, came close to matching the tensions the Times stoked.

To be fair, there were some bright spots. Perhaps the Gray Lady’s finest moment, as one reader asserted, was when Memri brought to light a video of Mohammed Morsi making anti-Semitic comments. The story didn’t get the widespread attention it deserved until the New York Times picked it up, ultimately leading to a White House condemnation and public scrutiny that Morsi couldn’t ignore.

The Times is America’s most influential newspaper, partly because of its reach, and partly because of its reputation for journalistic excellence. With more than 1.8 million subscribers, 4.7 million followers on Facebook, and another 10.4 million on Twitter, the New York Times is the second most-visited news site in the world.

Here are the reasons HonestReporting readers flagged the New York Times for this year’s Dishonest Reporting Award.

Why The New York Times Won the 2013 Dishonest Reporting Award

Glorifying Stone Throwers

Not once, but twice, the Times put stone-throwing Palestinians on a glowing pedestal. First was a March New York Times Magazine cover story about weekly protests at Nabi Saleh (accompanied by a photo slide show titled The Resisters).

The author of the piece, Ben Ehrenreich, had previously smeared Israel in a vile Los Angeles Times op-ed comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa (South Africa was judged more benign) and labeled Gaza as a “139-square-mile prison camp.” And in a Harper’s dispatch, Ehrenreich imputed that Israel was waging a “water war with Palestine.”

As for the story itself, the specific criticisms were simply too lengthy to detail here. Arnold Roth had a compelling personal connection to the article. See also Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev and Commentary editor Jonathan Tobin.

Asked what got him curious about Nabi Saleh, Ehrenreich said afterwards:

I wanted to understand what would motivate people to keep fighting, to keep demonstrating every week, knowing exactly what the consequences would be and how much they stood to lose.

Memo to Ehrenreich and the Times: the weekly clashes in places like Nabi Saleh and Bilin are scripted for the media‘s consumption.

In August, the Times published a second look at rock throwing — this one about boys from the village of Beit Omar. How did bureau chief Jodi Rudoren explain the violence?

Here in Beit Ommar, a village of 17,000 between Bethlehem and Hebron that is surrounded by Jewish settlements, rock throwing is a rite of passage and an honored act of defiance.The futility of stones bouncing off armored vehicles matters little: confrontation is what counts.

HonestReporting reminded the Times that Throwing Stones is An Act of Violence. Rudoren followed  in the footsteps of Amira Hass, whose stone throwing apologia earned the Haaretz columnist her own Dishonest Reporting award too.

Questioning Israel’s Right to Exist

Nobody questions, say, Japan’s right to exist. Denying Russian people their self-determination is anti-Russian. And invalidating inherent Irish national aspirations won’t score points among Irish people anywhere in world.

Yet the New York Times saw fit to publish a hefty 2,052-word commentary by Professor Joseph Levine in March arguing that it’s not anti-Semitic to question Israel’s right to exist. A Jewish state, asserts Levine, is “undemocratic,” while the trappings of statehood aren’t a big a deal anyway.

Professors Ian Lustick and Joseph Levine
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Professors Ian Lustick (left) and Joseph Levine (right).

But the same rights the philosophy professor denies Jews are granted to the Palestinians. Self-determination? Jews need not apply.

A second op-ed calling for Israel’s demise was published in September. At face value, Professor Ian Lustick appeared to be calling for a one-state solution.

But a closer reading showed Lustick went beyond that to deny Jewish national aspirations. Is there any room for Jewish national expression in the one-state fantasy Lustick describes from the thin air of his ivory tower?

In such a radically new environment, secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab.

Lustick’s response to critics was reminiscent of William Shakespeare soliloquy: A tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Both Lustick and Levine are Jewish, but neither represents any mainstream Jewish views. Fancy academic titles don’t make up for the shortcomings of their arguments. But what does all this say about the Times?

Israel, Iran, and the Gray Lady’s Vendetta

Prime Minister Netanyahu addressing the UN, 2013.

This was absolutely the single biggest bone of contention among HonestReporting readers.

In September, world leaders gathered in New York for the start of the UN General Assembly. Amid signs of a thaw in US-Iran relations, the paper featured a steady parade of news and commentary pooh-poohing Israel’s legitimate fears of Iran’s nuclear program.

Quite a few readers went so far as to imply that the Gray Lady was either acting as a mouthpiece for the Obama administration or engaged in a personal vendetta against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Or both.

As Times of Israel reporter Avi Issacharoff wrote at the time:

And still, some American media outlets have evidently been mesmerized by President Hassan Rouhani’s smile. The New York Times seems to be directing a campaign against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said sanctions on Iran must not be removed and warned about the Islamic Republic’s true intentions. Certain Western journalists are possibly driven by the hope — and, perhaps, some degree of naivety — that the crisis will not require the use of force.

But the anti-Netanyahu campaign misses (or ignores) the fact that the wary Israeli government, not surprisingly, enjoys the support of many Arab countries — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — which are not naive about Iran.

And Israel HaYom‘s Dror Eydar added:

The Times has a long history of supporting even the faintest of hopes when it comes to reconciliation with ruthless dictators.

What fueled these perceptions?

  1. A staff-ed confusing Israeli wariness with malice.
  2. A staff-ed accusing Netanyahu of deliberately trying to sabotage the nuclear talks.
  3. A staff-ed condescendingly implying that Israel, Turkey and the Saudis are rebelling against the American master.
  4. A staff-ed setting up Israel to be the fall-guy for the collapse of US-Iran diplomacy.
  5. A staff-ed suggesting that reaching an agreement with Iran is more important than the contents of the deal.
  6. A staff-ed describing Israeli objections to the interim deal as one of the “perils ahead.”
  7. A staff-ed describing Netanyahu’s objections to an interim deal as “hysterical opposition.”
  8. Roger Cohen‘s condescending take on “Bibi’s Tired Iranian Lines.”
  9. Roger Cohen‘s dismissive view of Israeli concerns.
  10. Tom Friedman claiming that Congressional opposition to the White House on Iran stems “from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do . . .”
  11. Tom Friedman trivializing Israeli concerns by contrasting “Bibi crazy” with “Obama cool.”
  12. Tom Friedman‘s condescending take on concerned American allies.
  13. Jodi Rudoren‘s analysis that went overboard on Netanyahu’s political isolation. (This article caught a second wind of buzz because the paper corrected a description of Sara Netanyahu. Rudoren also sent the prime minister’s wife a personal apology.)

Looking back on it all, readers wondered: Did the the Times take the opportunity to hit back at Bibi after his UN speech called out the NY Times? If so, was doing so on such an existential issue an appropriate way to settle scores? How else would the Times explain the insultingly dismissive tone of all those commentaries? And why didn’t the Times bring more balance to its op-ed section?

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