Dying to Make the News: Selective Reporting in The NY Times

Two groups of protesters took to the streets yesterday in the occupied Palestinian territories and both gatherings found themselves under attack by local security forces. In short order each group was assaulted and dispersed.

The New York Times has seen fit to inform us of one of these protests but has said nothing of the other. A small demonstration in Gaza, broken up by “men who appeared to be Hamas security officials,” made the pages of the newspaper. A different protest, violently quelled in the West Bank town of al-Tur, received no mention.

The Gaza protest drew a crowd of up to 200 people and was held as a call for “political change and freedom,” the Times said. Some of the participants were beaten with sticks; some were detained; but no injuries were reported.

Meanwhile, dozens of residents, joined by international supporters, held a sit-in on the main street of al-Tur, an East Jerusalem village. They were protesting the Israeli authorities’ closure of their main street earlier this week, after villagers had demonstrated against the killing of a 17-year-old boy at a nearby checkpoint.

Israeli police attacked the al-Tur protesters, launched stun grenades into the crowd and detained two demonstrators. Two people were injured by shrapnel, and witnesses said the police continued to fire grenades at residents even after the protest was dispersed.

West Bank protests are frequent events, and they often involve injuries from tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and live ammunition, but only when someone dies are these confrontations likely to make the pages of the Times.

In such cases, when the Times sees fit to run stories about the deaths of Palestinian demonstrators, the Israeli police and army invariably have their say (see here, for example), but the paper apparently saw no reason to get a response from Hamas when it reported the recent protest in Gaza. Readers find no comments from Hamas officials and no mention of any attempt to contact them.

It is true that protests against Hamas are rare events and West Bank demonstrations protesting the Israeli occupation are common, but this is not enough to account for the Times blackout on nearly all Palestinian demonstrations. There is more at work here, and the omission fits a pattern of selective reporting on Gaza and the West Bank.

This week, for instance, reports surfaced that Hamas is offering Israel a long-term ceasefire agreement, using Turkey and Qatar as intermediaries. It is asking for open borders, an end to the blockade and the construction of a Gaza harbor in return for five to 10 years of peace. You can find this news elsewhere (here and here) but not in the Times.

Other news missing from the Times include Israel’s frequent breaches of the August 2014 ceasefire. During the first three months of this year, Israel made six incursions into the Gaza strip and its forces fired on Gaza residents 67 times, but readers rarely find news of these events, even though they are routinely reported by monitoring groups.

One of the shootings took place during a demonstration in Gaza City, the site of the anti-Hamas protest that made the pages of the Times. In this case, however, residents were protesting the slow pace of reconstruction and Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and even though the protest was broken up by live fire, the paper did not find it newsworthy.

The Times sets the bar high when it is considering demonstrations against the Israeli occupation as fodder for its pages. But when protesters take on Hamas, it is a different matter. That scenario conveniently fits the newspaper’s (and Israel’s) determination to demonize the party and thus it becomes news fit to print.

Barbara Erickson

Advertisements

Racism in Israeli Society: Winning Elections, Spewing Hate

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played the race card in a final attempt to get out the vote last month, it displayed to all the world how such bigoted rhetoric has deep appeal in Israeli society: The effort was successful and swept him to yet another term as head of state.

As voters were going to the polls, he said on Israeli television that Palestinian citizens of the state (“Arabs” in Israeli terms) were “streaming in droves to the polling stations” and “right-wing rule [was] in danger.” At the time, surveys showed his rival Isaac Herzog leading, but the final tally gave Netanyahu a decisive victory.

Here we have a topic worthy of inquiry: How is it possible that the leader of a democracy can make such an openly racist appeal to voters? And what is it in Israeli society that responds to this kind of incitement?

The New York Times has reported Netanyahu’s words, adding that “opponents accused him of baldfaced racism,” but it has failed to go beyond these brief remarks. Times articles tell us, for instance, that Netanyahu’s remarks “appear racist” or were criticized as being racist, but they stop short of acknowledging that Israeli society has a problem with ethnic bigotry.

Times readers never learn, for instance, that Israeli buses are segregated by ethnicity, that nearly 50 percent of Israelis want Arab citizens of the state transferred to the Palestinian Authority, that Israeli youth recently marched through the Old City of Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs” (just the latest example of such displays) and that more than 50 Israeli laws discriminate against non-Jews.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reporting on a recent Hebrew language book on Israeli school life, notes that “ethnic hatred has become a basic element in the everyday life of Israeli youth.” The book quotes students who boast about their eagerness to kill Palestinians. “I’m ready to kill someone with my hands,” a 10th grade girl says. “I wish them death.”

After more of this kind of example, the article states: “One conclusion that arises from the text is how little the education system is able—or wants—to deal with the racism problem.”

In the Times, however, we find no talk of a “racism problem” in Israel, even though this bigotry goes beyond hatred of Palestinians to encompass other non-Jews. The state has been imprisoning and deporting asylum seekers from Africa, for instance, and Africans in Tel Aviv have faced throngs of violent protesters demanding their expulsion.

But even as the newspaper has been silent in the face of all this, it has promoted discussion of anti-Semitism. In recent weeks, the Times has run two overblown stories about complaints of anti-Semitism on American college campuses (see TimesWarp here and here), a David Brooks column on how to combat the phenomenon internationally and an editorial about soccer fans in Europe. It also made much of the anti-Semitism issue after gunmen took over a Jewish market in Paris and left four dead earlier this year.

The Brooks column ran just as the conversation about the election was at its peak, as Netanyahu was backtracking from his remarks about Arab voters and fudging on a claim that he would never allow a Palestinian state. This was a perfect time to dig more deeply into the troubling signs of racism in Israel.

Instead, readers were offered the Brooks piece, which appears to rely heavily on sources such as hyper-alarmist press releases from the Anti-Defamation League to support evidence of growing anti-Semitism.

When the Times ran an editorial about racist soccer chants in Europe last week, it had nothing to say about a notable example out of Israel—the openly racist Beitar Jerusalem team, which refuses to sign Palestinian players and is noted for its fans’ racist chants and banners. Its supporters also made news when hundreds staged a walkout after a non-Jewish team member (a Chechen Muslim) scored a goal.

Segregated bus lines, the racist chants of Israeli youth and public opinion that favors the transfer of minorities from the state are eminently newsworthy topics, but the newspaper shows little interest in informing readers of such things. The Times would have us believe that Israelis are the victims—but not the perpetrators—of ethnic violence, and it gives short shrift to news that fails to support this script.

Barbara Erickson

[For a full and close-up look at Israeli racism, see Goliath by Max Blumenthal.]

The NY Times and BDS: Changing the Subject

The topic of boycott, divestment and sanctions has made another rare—and fleeting—appearance in The New York Times, a phenomenon that takes place only under the right conditions: when it is possible to bury the issue under charges of anti-Semitism.

So it happens that this week BDS creeps into a story titled “Student Coalition at Stanford Confronts Allegations of Anti-Semitism” by Jennifer Medina. Although the Times never covered any aspects of an intense Stanford debate that ended in a vote favoring divestment from Israel this February, the newspaper has now broached the issue in a story based on a single complaint of anti-Semitism.

The student, Molly Horwitz, wrote in the Stanford Daily that she was “shocked and devastated” after an interview with a panel representing a group called the Students of Color Coalition. She was running for the student senate and sought an endorsement from the group, and she had written extensively in her application about being both Jewish and Latina (she was adopted from Paraguay and raised Jewish).

Horwitz claimed that a panel member asked, “Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?” and she answered that the voting process had been fair but she was disappointed by the outcome. An “awkward silence” followed, she told the Times, and the interview soon came to an end. She failed to get the endorsement.

In a response also published in the Stanford Daily, SOCC denied that the divestment question had been linked to Horwitz’s religion and said it was asked of all candidates. The group also denied charges that it asked senate candidates who received endorsements to sign a contract prohibiting affiliation with Jewish groups.

This last allegation appeared in the Stanford Review, a publication founded by Peter Thiel, who has campaigned against efforts to promote diversity on campus. The Times identifies the paper only as “a student publication that has criticized the [SOCC] in the past.”

There we have it. Even though the Times article admits that the circumstances here are “murky, with no official record,” editors nevertheless chose to run this non-story with a four-column photo at the head of the National section of the newspaper.

By contrast, readers have received virtually no news of the many divestment votes on campuses throughout the United States, including Stanford and a system-wide poll at University of California. Although these have generated lively discussions, late-night meetings and hotly contested votes (and most have been successful), the Times chooses to ignore them.

The paper would rather have us believe that the raging debate on campus concerns “what constitutes anti-Semitism.” In this story and an earlier one about a similar occurrence at the University of California Los Angeles, the Times states that the topic has become a big issue at universities but fails to name any other incidents to support the claim.

The Times is eager to foster a debate about anti-Semitism, but it avoids the hot-button campus discussions on divestment. Those debates bring up unsavory facts about Israel and Palestine, which the paper prefers to obscure and marginalize: human rights abuses, breaches of international law and the daily cruelties inflicted on the residents of Gaza and the West Bank.

In its coverage, the Times amplifies the voices of those who raise charges of anti-Semitism, aiding their efforts to undermine the BDS movement and divert attention from divestment debates. It does so, unfortunately, under the banner of “objective journalism.”

Barbara Erickson

[Further BDS news omitted from the Times: The Israeli High Court of Justice this week upheld a controversial law that allows anyone to sue an individual or group that calls for a boycott of Israel or any entity under its control (such as settlements). 972 Magazine has written two excellent pieces on this development, here and here.]

How the Israeli Army “Helps” Palestinians

It seems that the Israeli Defense Forces, far from repressing Palestinians under their control, are just trying to help. This is what we learn from a recent report by Isabel Kershner in The New York Times. In the occupied West Bank, she writes, the military is making an effort to provide Palestinians with “economic stability and revive the local economy.”

In “Israel’s Military Faces Delicate Balance in West Bank,” Kershner quotes an Israeli general who claims that the army has allowed freer movement of Palestinians in an effort to “offset the growing economic hardship.” This, says Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, is being done even though it involves “some security risks.”

Readers who pay even minimal attention to alternative media will sense serious dissonance here. This talk of easing the burden contrasts with accounts of some very different activities on the part of Israeli forces: the demolition of homes, the confiscation of equipment, the destruction of water systems, the uprooting of olive trees and other activities that directly threaten the livelihoods of Palestinians.

Just last week, for example, the army entered Khan al Ahmar, a Bedouin community outside Jerusalem, and removed a dozen solar panels. The panels had been donated by an organization that promotes sustainability and were the only source of electricity for the village and a school serving all the Bedouin communities in the area. B’Tselem, an Israeli rights organization, reported that the last of the panels had been put in place the same day the army arrived to take them away.

The following day Israeli officers uprooted and confiscated 120 olive trees near Salfit in the northern West Bank, claiming that the farmers who owned the trees had been told to evacuate their land. This came on top of a one-week period last month when the army destroyed 492 trees in three communities across the West Bank. The orchards, according to the army, had been declared “state land.”

The same week that Israeli forces were uprooting nearly 500 olive trees, officers confiscated water tanks in the northern Jordan Valley farming community of al Farisiyah, which is not connected to a water supply network. Another Jordan Valley community lost its water supply in late January when the army confiscated all its recently installed water pipes.

The IDF is responsible for all of this, whether in its role as the Civil Administration (a branch of the military) or as troops guarding the agency’s workers.

Yet Kershner reports in the Times that these same Israeli forces who are devastating homes, fields, solar panels and water tanks are trying to bolster the economy of the West Bank. Without a hint of irony she quotes General Alon as saying that the government has instructed his army to “maintain security, civilian and economic stability as much as we can.”

Kershner blames at least part of the West Bank’s economic problems on the Israeli government’s decision to withhold tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority, a punitive measure taken after Palestinians joined the International Criminal Court at the beginning of this year. There is no mention of the fact that army officials are tasked with destroying the most basic amenities in West Bank communities.

Nor is anything said about home demolitions, which have driven East Jerusalem families out of their neighborhoods and forced a number of West Bank Palestinians to take shelter in caves. Some 15 families in the village of Al Mafqara near Hebron are now living in mountainside caves after the army destroyed the homes they were building. The army raids also destroyed a generator, the only source of electricity for the village.

It would take only minimal efforts to alleviate the burdens of Palestinians who now live without electricity or piped water, but this is not part of the mitigation plan described by General Alon. Israel’s “effort to offset economic hardship” involves two policy changes: allowing Palestinians with permits to enter Israel simply by showing their identity cards and by lowering the age of permit applicants from 24 to 22.

Even this is a “risk,” according to Alon, but apparently it is seen as a safety valve, a way to prevent Palestinian unrest. Readers would never know from this story and others in the Times that Palestinians are the ones at constant risk of harassment, loss and damages.

Kershner writes that her interview with General Alon was a “rare” opportunity and came only as he was leaving his tour of duty as top commander in the West Bank. Here was a chance to ask some urgent questions concerning army abuses in the territory—the arrest, mistreatment and detention of Palestinian children, for instance, and the excessive use of deadly force during demonstrations, both well-documented by monitoring agencies.

But none of this was on Kershner’s radar. General Alon was allowed to hold forth on his efforts to “offset the economic hardship” in the West Bank, apparently without any unwelcome questions from the Times’ reporter. The result is a story with blinders on, one that turns away from the facts on the ground and gives voice to a claim that is ultimately absurd.

Barbara Erickson

Israeli Spin Trumps Ethics in The NY Times

Marathon runners gathered in Bethlehem recently to run loops through the walled-in city, aiming to make a point: Israel’s separation barrier has cut the city off from Jerusalem and much of the West Bank and confined its residents inside a towering wall. The New York Times was on hand to observe and report, but the result was something less than an honest view of the scene.

The event was named “The Right to Movement: Palestine Marathon,” and reporter Diaa Hadid tells us that it took place in Bethlehem in order “to draw attention to the constraints Palestinians say they face in their daily lives.”

Note her use of the phrase “Palestinians say they face.” This is a familiar construction in the Times. Palestinians suffer from undeniable rights abuses under the Israeli occupation, but this cannot be stated outright. Times stories tend to reduce these facts to “claims,” issues that readers can dismiss as the grumblings of Israel’s adversaries.

Thus we also read in the marathon story that “Bethlehem is a postcard-perfect location to display Palestinian grievances.” With the single word “grievances” oppressive policies are dismissed as mere complaints.

This is not the case when it comes to the Israeli side of the narrative. Hadid writes, “Israel built the barrier in response to a wave of suicide bombings during the Second Intifada. Palestinians see it more as a land grab because it frequently dips into the West Bank swallowing what they see as their traditional lands.”

So Israel’s stated rationale for building the barrier is taken at face value, as a “response” pure and simple. But it is a different situation for the Palestinians: Once again we have their problems framed as a point of view, something they “see more as” a land grab. And the territory in question is no longer theirs; it has become “what they see as their traditional lands.”

Any story that deals so directly with the Separation Wall should remind readers of these facts: The International Court of Justice has declared the barrier to be illegal under international law, and 85 percent of the planned route runs within the West Bank not on the boundary with Israel. (Thus, when Hadid writes that the wall “dips into” Palestinian territory, she is minimizing the actual state of affairs.)

In its 2004 14-to-1 decision the ICJ declared that the wall was not necessary for Israel’s security and that it should be dismantled and reparations made for the extensive damage it had caused. Israel rejected to ICJ’s findings and continues to build on Palestinian land, cutting off farmers from their fields and dividing families and communities.

Israeli officials like to say that the wall has prevented suicide bombings, but the fact is that Hamas on its own abandoned the tactic in 2006. It was not the wall that stopped the bombings; it was the decision by Hamas.

In fact, the wall has never been an impermeable barrier. It has failed to keep out some 15,000 to 30,000 Palestinians from the West Bank who work illegally inside Israel and is obviously no obstacle to would-be bombers.

It is also worth noting that suicide bombings ended when the wall was only partially completed, and now, long after the threat ended, Israel continues to build, citing a rationale that no longer applies.

Nevertheless, in the Times story the wall is a “response” to bombings, while the abuses of the occupation, clearly revealed under the adjudication of international law, have become nothing more than claims. In the newspaper of record readers are shortchanged once again as Israeli spin trumps the demands of ethical journalism.

Barbara Erickson