What’s Wrong with NY Times Coverage of Palestine? The Public Editor Speaks Out

Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times Public Editor, devotes a full page in the “Review” section to how the paper covers Palestine and Israel, a column that, she admits, “she never wanted to write.” She comes off with generally high marks, especially in comparison with former assessments and considering the constraints of her position.

Her column echoes the observations of previous editors and reporters: that the issue brings out vociferous and heated commentary from readers on both sides, who charge the paper with bias. She takes these complaints to foreign editor Joseph Kahn and reports on his responses; then she makes her recommendations.

Sullivan doesn’t accept the charge of partiality, writing that the Times seems to “do everything it can to be fair in its coverage and generally succeeds.” Those of us who read more thoroughly and follow other news sources, however, know that the newspaper protects Israel, omitting certain facts, emphasizing others and skewing reality in its headlines and photos.

TimesWarp readers who have visited our “Testing for Bias” page are aware that the question of partiality has come under more rigorous scrutiny than that provided by a public editor. Academics have studied the matter (see here and here), and others have quantified the coverage of Palestinian as opposed to Israeli deaths, especially among children.

All of these have found that the newspaper displays a pronounced bias toward Israel, and it is unfortunate that no one at the Times has taken these studies to heart.

In her piece today, however, Sullivan walks a narrow line. She herself cannot be seen to advocate one side, but in her recommendations it is clear that she finds the coverage of Palestinians lacking. The Jerusalem bureau has no Arabic speaker, she notes (Kahn says he is working on this), and it needs to get across more about Palestinian “beliefs and governance,” including a look at Hamas’s ideology and operating principles.

“What is Palestinian daily life like?” she writes. “I haven’t seen much of this in The Times.” The Times needs diversity (meaning more Palestinians) in its Jerusalem office, Sullivan states, especially since the newspaper has no plans for opening a Ramallah bureau, as former public editor Daniel Okrent proposed.

It should stop trying to show “symmetry” in its headlines and side-by-side photos. Although she doesn’t say this, most of these efforts aim to give the impression that Israelis are suffering equally with Palestinians, even though this is far from true.

Kahn’s response to this criticism is revealing: He maintains that such complaints come from readers who are “very well informed and primed to deconstruct our stories based on their knowledge.” Readers who are “merely trying to understand the situation” don’t complain.

In other words, knowledgeable readers are troublesome, and the impartial readers are those who take what the Times has to say without question.

Sullivan asks for more history and geopolitical context, something that should help Palestinians if it is done right. Times stories rarely state that the West Bank is under military occupation; that Hamas was elected in a fair vote; that 750,000 Palestinians were ejected in 1948 and remain as refugees; and that international law condemns Israel’s occupation, confiscation of land and resources, separation wall and blockade of Gaza.

Nine years ago, former public editor Okrent also wrote a column on Times coverage of Palestine-Israel, but he made no recommendations for change. He trashed the findings of a quantitative study by If Americans Knew (even though a Stanford group substantiated its report), and maintained that the Times was doing things right, carrying out a balancing act between two opposing camps.

By contrast, Sullivan has made a more honest effort. She has provided recommendations that could improve Times coverage—more about Palestinian life, a bureau located in Palestinian territory, Arabic speakers on the staff, more context with reference to history and international concerns and an end to the strained symmetry that tries to minimize Palestinian trauma in relation to that of Israelis.

Will the Times make an equally honest effort to meet these needs? Not likely, considering the Israel-centrism that is all too evident at every level of the newspaper, but we are allowed to hope.

Barbara Erickson

Advertisements

Israeli Army Shoots 10-Year-Old Boy, NY Times Buries the Lead

We have this headline today in The New York Times: “Palestinian Shot by Israeli Troops at Gaza Border.” Not big news, it would seem, but the title here obscures a salient fact: The victim was a 10-year-old boy.

The text of the story by Isabel Kershner also seems to take pains to play down the alarming news that Israeli soldiers seriously wounded a young boy. He is identified in the first sentence as simply as a “Palestinian” who “approached the border fence on Sunday.”

The unnamed boy was taken to an Israeli hospital, and Kershner adds that a “spokeswoman for the hospital said the Palestinian was a 10-year-old boy.” This comes across as an incidental fact and not particularly newsworthy, a stance that raises questions about the newspaper’s news judgment, especially when the story involves Palestinian lives.

The Times’s approach runs counter to other news media that reported the incident. Other outlets—even prominent Israeli media services such as Ynet and The Jerusalem Post—identify the victim in their headlines and opening sentences as a young boy, and most reports say that he was shot in the neck.

Kershner’s story also states that “Israel’s border with Gaza has remained tense but relatively calm since Israel and Hamas” agreed to a ceasefire in late August. TimesWarp readers will know that the border has been anything but calm for farmers and fishermen trying to ply their trades within the borders of Gaza. (See “Israeli Breaches of Gaza Ceasefire: Unfit to Print in The NY Times.”)

Although Israeli forces have fired on farmers, fishermen, boats and housing along the border and troops have invaded the enclave to level crops and degrade agricultural land, the Times can say that the border is “relatively calm” simply because it has been quiet on the Israeli side.

Israel-centrism pervades Times reporting; the Palestinian viewpoint is barely acknowledged, given brief notice in the obligatory quote from a source here and there. And when Israeli actions raise alarm (as in the shooting of a 10-year-old boy), the Times plays down the fact, once again confirming its status as a vigilant protector of Israel’s reputation.

Barbara Erickson

Israeli Breaches of Gaza Ceasefire: Unfit to Print in The NY Times

We are learning some details about Gaza in The New York Times: Tensions remain between rival political groups; the United Nations is investigating this summer’s attacks; construction material is arriving, though it is hard to get; and Egypt is creating a buffer zone along its border with the enclave.

The Times tells us that one rocket was fired into Israel some two weeks back, duly pegged as a “violation of the Aug. 26 cease-fire.” The launch drew punitive measures from Israel, which closed border crossings into Gaza for two days, but it would seem from all that is said that life is more or less quiet in the besieged enclave.

Readers have no reason to believe otherwise: The Times has said nothing about Israeli breaches of the ceasefire—frequent attacks on fishermen and farmers, incursions to devastate agricultural land and bureaucratic hurdles that impede the entry of construction material. In effect, life in Gaza is far from tranquil, broken by frequent assaults via land and sea.

In an Aug. 27 story, the Times reported that the ceasefire “restores the six-nautical-mile fishing zone off Gaza’s coast that Israel agreed to in 2012 but later cut back. It also says that Israeli-controlled border crossings will be opened to allow the ‘quick entry’ of humanitarian aid and materials to reconstruct Gaza.”

Within weeks of the ceasefire, however, some media outlets reported that Israeli forces had entered Gaza several times to level agricultural land, gunboats were firing on fishermen and United Nations officials were reporting that restrictions on building materials were just as tight as they had been before the attacks this summer.

The Times published a brief on Sept. 9, noting that Israel had arrested four fishermen. The story cites military sources, who said the men were beyond the six-mile limit, a claim disputed by the fishermen’s union, but since then the Times has gone silent about the ordeals of Gaza fishermen, even though reports from the United Nations and rights groups point up the continuing attacks.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that during September and October Israeli forces fired on Gaza fishermen 36 times, confiscated boats or equipment six times, injured five fishermen and arrested 18, who were taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod before being released. Some boats have been damaged by gunfire and shelling, and at least one sank before the crew could get back to shore.

PCHR notes that all the attacks took place within the six nautical mile limit and many of them occurred only one mile from shore.

Joe Catron, an American living in Gaza, wrote that by early September attacks were so frequent that “regular bursts of machine-gun fire and the occasional thuds of naval artillery punctuated the silence of early mornings along the Gaza coast.”

He described the ordeal of fisherman Muhammad Ishaq Zayid, who was detained on Sept. 3 when he was hauling in his nets one mile from land. Zayid was taken to Ashdod before being released at Erez Crossing. “They have everything: the boat, the nets and the fish,” he told Catron. He added that the boat and equipment belonged to his family, and it would cost some $2,300 to replace them.

Stories like that of Zayid have not appeared in the Times, nor has the newspaper mentioned Israeli harassment of farmers cultivating land along the border fence. Soldiers have fired at farmers and nearby houses, and tanks and bulldozers have entered the strip to degrade agricultural land several times since the ceasefire.

As for the critical issue of building materials, the Times has provided one story, by Jodi Rudoren, which implies that the problem lies in Gaza’s bureaucracy. Her Oct. 26 article, with the print edition headline “Aid Is In, but Gazans Can Only Look at Supplies,” tells us that Israel, “with great fanfare,” allowed in truckloads of cement, steel and gravel for private use, but Gaza red tape has not allowed it to be sold.

First of all, we should note that this material entered Gaza nearly two months after the ceasefire, which is not the “quick entry” specified in the terms of the truce. And then we should add that other reports tell us it is the red tape imposed by Israel, not by officials in Gaza, that is the crux of the problem.

The Times reported in September that “a temporary deal” arranged between Israel, the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority would allow the entry of much needed cement and other building materials, but the story gave no details of this mechanism.

Other recent reports, however, tell us that the deal is a cumbersome business. Palestinians have to apply for a specified amount of materials, international monitors verify the applicant’s need and the monitors then follow the transfer of goods until the applicant receives them in hand.

“Israel insists on these strict measures,” one report states, “allegedly so [Hamas] cannot use them to construct their tunnels.” Journalist Jonathan Cook has also uncovered some details of the deal and finds that it is Israeli restrictions that create the hurdles.

“The PA and UN will have to submit to a database reviewed by Israel the details of every home that needs rebuilding,” he writes, and Israel has the right to veto any request. In sum, Cook says, “The reason for the hold-up is, as ever, Israel’s ‘security needs’. Gaza can be rebuilt but only to the precise specifications laid down by Israeli officials.”

Thus, three months after the ceasefire, material is trickling in at a rate that does little to house the 110,000 residents left homeless by the Israeli assaults or to restore the 500 business that were destroyed (along with 40 percent of the livestock, many mosques and agricultural buildings).

The United Nations reported that the Oct. 14 delivery of materials, which took place with “fanfare,” according to the Times, comprised 2,000 tons destined for the private sector. In fact, the UN goes on, “To cope with the current construction caseload, around 3,000-4,000 truckloads of cement aggregates and iron bars need to be entered per-day.”

In other words, as the Israeli monitoring organization Gisha, writes, “The pace of entrance of materials is just a fraction of need.”

Israel has violated the terms and spirit of the ceasefire, but Times readers would never know this. The stories of Gaza fishermen and farmers find no place in its pages, nor do we hear of the tangled process Israel imposes on reconstruction efforts. Only news devoid of the context of occupation and repression that Israel exerts over Gaza makes the pages of The New York Times.

Barbara Erickson

Another Palestinian Dead, Another Police Cover-up in the NY Times

For the sixth time in recent weeks Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian, and again we find a report of the incident in The New York Times: “Tensions Mount as Israel Arabs Protest Police Shooting.” The headline alone signals that readers will find something short of the full truth in this account.

For one thing, it was more than a “shooting”; it was a murder. For another, it was not an isolated incident but one of a series. The Times, however, fails to tie this death to other recent killings, and it works to divert blame from police, who were caught in a deliberate lie.

The story by Isabel Kershner follows on a series of police slayings in recent weeks, none of them mentioned in the present story. We can begin with the Sept. 23 killing of two Hebron men suspected of abducting and killing three Israeli teenagers this summer. Although this was reported in the Times as the result of a shootout, a police official later confirmed that it was a targeted killing.

A month later the newspaper reported the shooting death of Abd al Rahman al Shaloudy after he allegedly rammed his car into pedestrians at a Jerusalem light rail station. He was killed as he tried to flee on foot, according to police.

On Oct. 30, police killed Mu’atez Hijazi, suspected of trying to assassinate an Israeli extremist. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said troops surrounded Hijazi’s home in an attempt to arrest him but returned fire after he shot at officers. Although other reports (here and here) said he was unarmed and no threat to police, the Times failed to mention these accounts.

Another Jerusalem man accused of deliberately driving into pedestrians, Ibrahim al Akari, was shot and killed after he exited his vehicle. A Haaretz article raised concerns about this killing, and Richard Silverstein of Tikun Olam said al Akari was “executed on the spot” as he lay disabled on the ground, but the Times said only that he was shot after he brandished an iron bar.

In all of these instances, the Times goes with the police justification for the fatal shooting, but in the most recent story the paper is forced to admit that the official account was false. This time a CCTV video showed that the victim, an Israeli citizen who lived in the Galilee, was killed as he was retreating and posed no threat.

Although police repeatedly said the victim, Kheir al-Din Hamdan, 22, tried to stab an officer and police shot in the air to warn him before he was brought down, the video refutes all of this. He struck a police van with an object in his hand and then backed off when police opened a car door. He was shot as he withdrew from the scene, and police dragged him over the ground, bleeding, and threw him in the van.

The Times could not ignore this evidence, and Kershner’s story includes brief information about the video but nothing about the original police account that was proven false. He “appeared to be retreating,” she admits, but she omits any mention of the original claim that police shot only after the man attacked them with a knife and after they fired in the air to warn him.

This information would make the full extent of their lie apparent, and it appears to be too much for the Times to face. Such a revelation might cast doubt on past claims from police officials and future ones as well.

It appears police faced no threat during the recent killings in Hebron, Jerusalem and the Galilee, but Times readers are unlikely to be aware of the fact. Its reports almost always provide the police rationale and leave it at that, even as other media have sounded the alarm about police fatalities.

A Haaretz article says bluntly that Israeli police are out to kill, not to arrest suspects and bring them to trial: “It’s apparent that in such situations there is a new undeclared, unwritten regulation, which has found its expression in…either neutralizing attackers at the site of assault…or the killing of the terrorists at the time of capture (as happened in the aftermath of the Yehudah Glick shooting and in September, during the operation resulting in the ‘detention’ of those who killed the three Israeli kidnap victims in Hebron). Police shoot first and ask questions later.”

Silverstein takes up the same theme: “In many of the past cases of apprehending Palestinians, the security forces claim the suspects opened fire first and were killed by return fire. But I’ve pointed out that in almost all cases, they don’t fire in response. They initiate and they execute.”

This debate over trigger-happy security forces and targeted executions finds no place in The New York Times. Here police spokespersons can count on having the last word—unless an inconvenient video destroys their accounts—but even in the face of outright lies, the newspaper works to spare their reputation and mute the evidence of officially sanctioned crimes.

Barbara Erickson

How to Spell Aqsa: A Sign of Contempt in the NY Times

[Update: The Times has responded to this post. See note at bottom.]

Here are two questions to pose to The New York Times Jerusalem bureau: Why has Al Aqsa Mosque become Al Aksa in the Times’ reports? What guides the decision to reject Arabic spelling, especially at this critical moment of conflict over the holy site?

News of tensions over the ancient Al Aqsa Mosque has been circulating in Palestinian news service reports for many months but has only recently appeared in the Times, and with this sudden interest has come a new phenomenon—a change in orthography.

Past Times articles about the site almost always use the correct Arabic transliteration, with a “q,” but since the story broke into the newspaper last week, it has consistently been Al Aksa in five articles over four days (for example, here and here). It is not a sudden change of policy for rendering Arabic in English—Al Quds (Jerusalem) and other words remain as always in these stories and elsewhere the Times still uses Al Aqsa. The change emanates from the Jerusalem bureau and refers solely to Al Aqsa Mosque and its compound.

Readers should note that “Aksa” is the way Hebrew speakers (and many other non-Arabic speakers) pronounce the word. In modern Hebrew there is no “qaf” sound, except in the speech of some Mizrahi Jews (those hailing from Arab countries). The difference is that the Arabic “qaf” is pronounced deep in the throat, while the Hebrew “kaph” is like the familiar “k” sound we use in English.

As recently as September, Al Aqsa was appearing in the stories of Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, but this changed when she began to write about Jewish efforts to get greater access to the area. [See her explanation below.] Significantly, the deviant “Aksa” had appeared in her writing at least once before, and this also was in a story last year about Jewish pressure for changes at the holy site.

Other publications, even those by activists for greater Jewish access, use Aqsa (The Jerusalem Post is an exception), and over the years the Times has almost always stayed with the correct Arabic transliteration, but there is at least one notable (perhaps ominous) exception.

In September 2000 Likud leader Ariel Sharon visited the Al Aqsa compound (known as the Temple Mount to Jews). He was accompanied by 1,000 troops, and the deliberately provocative event set off the Second Intifada, also known as the Al Aqsa Intifada.

In its coverage of Sharon’s visit 14 years ago, the Times turned to the “Aksa” spelling. He went, the story said, “to assert Jewish claims there” and spent an hour at the site, setting off violent protests from the moment he arrived.

Sharon’s visit and the present efforts to increase Jewish worship at the site threaten what commentators have described as the “last Jerusalem bastion that expresses the national and religious identity of most Palestinians” and “the last leg of institutional Palestinian life in Jerusalem.”

The mosque compound is nominally under the authority of Jordan and run by an Islamic trust called a waqf, although Israel controls access and patrols the area. Jordan has joined Palestinian parties in calling for an end to Jewish demands for change at the site, but the Israeli Knesset is considering a bill that would create a significant alteration—the division of Al Aqsa Mosque into Jewish and Muslim sections.

The Times stories fail to inform readers of this threat to the status quo and say nothing about extremist plans to destroy Al Aqsa and the glittering Dome of the Rock in order to replace them with a third Jewish temple. Instead, the readers learn only that Jews want the right to pray at the site, a seemingly innocuous demand.

Larry Derfner, writing in 972 Magazine, states that the goal of the Jewish lobbyists is something more: “The Temple Mount movement is and always has been a movement not for religious equality, but for Jewish religious domination and contempt for Muslims and Islam.”

When the Times chooses “Aksa,” the Hebrew pronunciation, over the correct “Aqsa” of Arabic, it is sending a subtle signal, picking up on this contempt. This is not an open challenge—Arabs hear the word simply as an error—but it shows once again that faced with a choice in presenting the narrative of Palestine and Israel the Times favors the voice of the occupier.

Barbara Erickson

[Note: In two stories (here and here) published in the Times on Nov. 7, the spelling reverted to the correct Al Aqsa. The day before it had still been Aksa. Jodi Rudoren wrote TimesWarp to say that she has always spelled the name correctly, but her copy was changed by staff in New York. After complaints, she said, they have changed it back. Her explanation falls short of clarifying all the timelines and coincidences here, but it is worth noting that she insists there was no motive to Hebraize the word.]