Thursday, February 12, 2015

Silence at the New York Times, So What Else is New?

For those interested in this sort of thing, on Feb. 2nd I wrote to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the NY Times, with my complaints about two recent stories by Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner—as I discussed in my blog of Jan. 31.

She did not respond in any manner.  Nor did Rudoren and Kershner, to whom I sent the blog and a copy of my email to Sullivan.  Is anyone surprised?

Here’s what I wrote to Sullivan:

I write to bring to your attention the following two recent objectionable  news stories in the Times.

On January 26, in a story entitled “Disillusioned by War, Israeli Soldiers Muted in 1967 Are Given Fuller Voice,” Jodi Rudoren wrote about a new Israeli documentary,“Censored Voices,” that reveals deliberate Israeli attacks on Egyptian civilians in the 1967 war, as well as other atrocities.  But then Rudoren adds, dismissively—maybe even contemptuously--that “the film raises concerns that, viewed without consideration for the existential threat Israel faced at the time, it could become catnip for contemporary critics.”

There are two things that are very wrong about that passage—not even including the issue that Rudoren is editorializing rather than simply reporting the news. First, few if any historians, scholars or Israeli generals from that period accepts that Israel was “fighting for its very survival during the 1967 war.” There is decisive evidence that a number of leading Israeli generals at the time—and none other than Menachem Begin later—believed not only that Israel faced no such “existential threat” but that it would easily defeat the Egyptian forces. This assessment was shared by the U.S. Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA. It would appear either that Rudoren did not know about that evidence—which is unacceptable for the lead Times correspondent in Israel—or that she wished to minimize the implications of the Israeli documentary.

Second, and perhaps even more serious: For Rudoren to dismiss a painfully honest Israeli documentary—none of whose factual claims she challenges—as “catnip for critics,” is unforgivable, because of its obvious implications. As the Wikipedia discussion of “catnip” puts it, catnip “is used as a recreational substance for pet cats' enjoyment…commonly leading them to roll on the ground, paw at it, lick it, and chew it.”

The second issue that I wish to bring to your attention is Isabel Kershner’s January 28 news story, “Israeli Group Says Military Attacks on Palestinian Homes Appeared to Violate International Law,” Kershner writes about a new B’Tselem report that described the Israeli attacks on Gaza, especially on residential buildings, as grave violations of international law

It is a serious and mostly commendable article, particularly because Kershner noted that previously released reports by Amnesty International and the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights had reached similar—actually, even more devastating—conclusions. There is one serious problem, however, with Kershner’s story. Almost all of it is drawn from the written report of B’Tselem--until Kershner writes that “B’Tselem concluded, however, that Israel was not deliberately trying to harm civilians.”

Presented as a stand-alone, one-sentence paragraph, Kershner clearly intends to draw particular attention it, as it would appear to absolve Israel of even worse war crimes than those discussed in the report. The problem is that the written report of B’Tselem makes no such statement. I emailed Kershner to point this out, and she responded that in a briefing by the B’Tselem staff, it was stated that “they did not believe that [deliberate killings of civilians] was the case.” Kershner’s response to my query clearly suggested that I was just quibbling, that it didn’t matter whether or not the cited statement came from a formal and public written report, but in fact it matters a great deal. An unverifiable account of an apparently off-the-record “briefing” is quite different: if B’Tselem wanted to go on official record as absolving Israel of deliberately targeting civilians, it would have said so in the report.

Moreover, the January 28 Haaretz story about the B’Tselem report, (Gili Cohen, “IDF broke international law in dozens of Gaza war strikes, Israeli rights group says,”) makes no claim that B’Tselem said that Israel hadn’t attacked civilians—even though it seems fair to assume that Cohen attended the same oral briefing.

In any case, an earlier report by the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, in conjunction with a number of other human rights and physician groups-a 250 page report actually mentioned in Kershner’s story, but not described—lays all doubt to rest about the issue, for the report provides painfully detailed evidence that Israel deliberately attacked—i.e. not “collateral damage”-- civilians and key civilian institutions, including homes, residential apartment houses, hospitals and ambulances.

Since Kershner knows about that report (she mentions it), which was published a week before her Jan. 28 story, her failure to discuss that evidence—whatever B’Tselem staffers said to her—is further evidence that she is trying to minimize the devastating implications of the Israeli ways of war—and not only in the Gaza attack last summer but throughout its history, a subject I have written about..

A final point: the Times and its writers frequently say that whatever they write about Israel gets attacked, either from the left or the “pro-Israeli” right, and that the attacks from the right well out-number those from the left. I’m sure you realize that this is entirely irrelevant to the unmistakable facts of the issues—in fact, if I remember correctly, you have mentioned that yourself.


Pat said...

Prof. Slater, thank you for putting your complaint, as well as response (or lack thereof) on the record.

In your headline, you ask, "So What Else is New?" You are not the only one asking that question about NYT, and it's not just about Israel. One news site I read regularly, Bob Parry's ConsortiumNews, often points out how the NYT distorts the facts to reflect the neocon view -- most recently on the war in Ukraine:

That makes the NYT's excuse about not being able to write about Israel without flack from all sides all the more disingenuous.

P.S. I will post a link to this report on ConsortiumNews.

Donald said...

I'm glad you put in the effort to do this. I guess Sullivan just doesn't want to tackle this issue in a serious way. Her piece a few months ago said it was the article she didn't want to write.