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A Brief History of the NYT’s Israel Coverage

Inside baseball on Jerusalem bureau chiefs past and present

Marc Tracy
January 17, 2012

Attention, shtetlsphere: the Columbia Journalism Review has a long article on the New York Times’s coverage of Israel. It’s by Neil A. Lewis, a former Timesman himself. He argues that where the Times has generally shifted its coverage from portraying Israel as a beleaguered, persecuted minority surrounded by a sea of enmity to a powerful U.S. client immorally continuing the settlement enterprise, it is less setting the tone of debate and more reflecting popular American views. This combines with journalism’s bias for the underdog to lead to more favorable coverage for the Palestinians. Either way, Lewis is saying that the Times Jerusalem bureau chief isn’t like the Times dining or theater critic, his every review able to make or break an establishment (or a country)—rather, it just can seem like that to a community that feels a uniquely deep investment in both Israel and this particular, and peculiarly Jewish, newspaper.

The biggest piece of news—the thing that, anyway, I hadn’t known before—is that less than 10 years ago the Times considered Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg for Jerusalem bureau chief, partly in the context of the tenure, a few years before, of Deborah Sontag, who was seen as especially sympathetic to the Palestinians. There is also much on current chief Ethan Bronner, who has been assailed by the left—for allegedly giving favorable coverage to other people in his speaker’s bureau—and by the right—for the fact that his son served in the Israel Defense Forces. Actually, the left saw his son’s service as problematic, too: Rorscach-like, you could perceive it biasing him toward pro-Israel militarism or incentivizing him to write things that make armed conflict less likely.

The New York Times is a daily magazine of Jewish life and culture that is obsessed with not appearing Jewish—in, I can’t resist adding, an indelibly German-Jewish way, reflective of its historically German-Jewish owners. The article opens with the story of David Shipler, who was selected in the 1970s specifically to be the first Jerusalem bureau chief who was Jewish—an odd twist on preferential hiring made odder by the fact that Shipler is not Jewish. But the Times is weird about Jews in many ways. Consider its famous celebration, in recent years, of Brownstone and hipster Brooklyn, of Williamsburg and Fort Greene and Park Slope—populated by plenty of Jews, but secular ones—at the expense of, say, Russian Jewish Brighton Beach, or Syrian Jewish Gravesend, or Hasidic south Williamsburg and Borough Park: neighborhoods that actually can seem like Marrakesh compared to the neighborhoods in which the typical Times reader resides. The paper’s (Jewish) travel writer just admitted that Israel was the only country he “had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting,” and when he got around to writing it up, it focused almost entirely on Jerusalem’s Old City. So, it’s more a Jewish problem than an Israel problem.

(The article does not address the Times editorial page, which theoretically more directly reflects ownership’s sensibilities and which was recently criticized by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office. Personally, I think Bibi is wrong to refuse to be published by the Times, which remains the most important podium in the American Jewish world, even if he is right that President Abbas’ op-ed last year should not have been published as it was.)

There is one bizarre section in which Lewis points out that terrorism can exploit neutral journalism by using murderous spectacle to draw attention to its cause, and that there is not much that can be done about this. He follows with a more scrupulous discussion of a related dynamic:

Another common theme of American Jewish supporters of Israel who criticize the Times is that the paper, and indeed most Western media, generally do not cover fully the range of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel invective that is depressingly common in parts of the Arab media and clergy.

The critics are frustrated by this and have a point. Newspapers generally have a difficult time in dealing with any repeated phenomena, like hateful speech. An individual article may cover the subject once, to lay out the general phenomenon. But it is generally impractical to write an article about each subsequent instance. Editors are then inclined to say that the initial article already covered the subject.

As a result, such outrageous comments recede into something akin to background noise. They may be deplorable but are not always deplored.

Lewis then suggests that Israel is held to a double standard; but that this is right, because it’s a democracy; but that actually it’s wrong, because it’s still unfair. He is a bit mushy on solutions—although maybe we will find out some of his suggestions when, as is reported at the conclusion, a longer version of this article is published in February. Because you really can’t talk about this stuff enough.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.