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

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

  1. I was a church friend of the former Washington Post ombudswoman, the late Deborah Howell, who served until Dec. 28, 2009. She vowed to me about a year before she finished up that she was going to do a thorough examination of the Post’s coverage of Israel-Palestine. She told me that the amount of pressure from both sides was totally “off-the charts” in intensity. Over the months I would occasionally inquire or she would let me know how the project was progressing. She would always say that she was still gathering material (something I tried to help with, as did others of my acquaintance).
    Well, she never published anything. To her credit, at least she did apologize: she approached me shortly after retiring and said that wherever she went in the Post organization almost everyone urged her strongly to leave the subject alone, something she said she never experienced with any other issue, no matter how controversial and passionate. She didn’t have the guts to spit into that wind.
    This was strong evidence of journalistic bad faith and the success of the classic Hasbara tactic of “dynamic silence,” raising the cost of any discussion of Israel unless it is very favorable.
    Is Margaret Sullivan aware of TimesWarp?
    Steve

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      • If this keeps up they’re going to have to learn some new tricks . . . But maybe, just maybe, TW can be a “bad cop” that allows those editors who would in fact rather play it straight and adhere to journalistic best practices to tell their less scrupulous bosses that they really have to move more toward an even-handed policy.
        Steve

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  2. The Times’ policy of following the “view from nowhere” school of journalism – that is, imposing a balanced and symmetrical perspective on a situation that is anything but, has resulted in a terrible miscarriage of journalism. And it’s been going on for far too long. People are starting to wake up, and they are pissed. Thank you again Barbara for all your efforts here. Keep holding your lantern high.

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