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The Correction

The Times admits major screw-up on Bibi’s so-called breach of protocol

Liel Leibovitz
February 05, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his Jerusalem office on February 1, 2015. (GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his Jerusalem office on February 1, 2015. (GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

For one whole week, I’ve been staring at The Correction.

I’m a fairly seasoned reader of the New York Times, and a frequent critic of the paper, but the more I gazed at The Correction, the more it gazed back at me, defiant. What the hell?

You might have seen it yourself. It was affixed on January 30 to a story that ran the previous day about Bibi Netanyahu’s fraught relations with the Democratic Party. Here it is, in its entirety: “An earlier version of this article misstated when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel accepted Speaker John A. Boehner’s invitation to address Congress. He accepted after the administration had been informed of the invitation, not before.”

The Correction, as corrections do, ran in the very bottom of the story, but you don’t have to be an ink-stained veteran to know it belongs right in the lede. The story is a whodunit, and The Correction shows clearly that the Times got the wrong man.

The premise of the Times‘ original reporting, and the massive political and diplomatic firestorm that followed, was that Bibi had committed a truly unpardonable sin—the word “unprecedented” was used by MSNBC and Fox News alike—by failing to even bother notifying the White House before accepting Republican Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress on the Iranian nuclear program. In doing so, Bibi had not only disrespected the current occupant of the White House, whose aides have called Bibi a “chickenshit,” but much more seriously—the institution of the Presidency itself.

The Times‘ original version of events, which was based on the word of senior White House sources—who else could be authorized to state with certainty that Bibi hadn’t bothered to inform the White House of his visit?—quickly went viral. Israel’s Prime Minister hadn’t simply accepted an invitation to address Congress on the Iranian nuclear program, an issue that he has been insisting for years is of existential importance to his country, while also boosting his own re-election prospects—all of which would have been fair pool (American Presidents, including Obama, have been known to use visits to Israel for similar purposes). Instead, the Prime Minister of Israel was planning to waltz into Congress like he owned the place while giving the Institution of the Presidency the finger, in open violation of established diplomatic protocol. Commentators across the political spectrum united in stuttering outrage at Bibi’s hubris, and his stunning disregard for American Constitutional norms. The American-Israeli relationship had hit a new low, everyone agreed—and Bibi, the self-regarding jerk, with his rude, blatantly partisan behavior, was clearly and entirely at fault.

Only, now it turns out that—according to the Times—the story wasn’t true at all. In fact, Netanyahu had informed the White House of his visit before announcing it to anyone—a minor detail which means that the paper’s original reporting and all the huffing, puffing outrage that followed was dead wrong. And if Bibi had followed standard protocol, and given the White House the diplomatically-appropriate heads-up, as the Times‘ correction clearly and unequivocably stated, that meant that the Times‘ White House sources had been woefully and entirely misinformed about a key matter of protocol—or, more likely, had invented the tale of Bibi’s outrageous behavior out of whole cloth in order to blunt his unwelcome criticisms of the Administration’s Iran policy.

The decent thing to do would’ve been to write another piece altogether, contemplate why the paper of record got suckered so badly by the White House—which gained plenty from the manufactured story—and amend any and all implications of Bibi’s perfidy and bad manners that arose from the original report.

But hey, it’s only Bibi, a man whose villainy is so inherently assumed by the Times’ writers and readers alike that correcting the record with anything more than a footnote is hardly worth the trouble. There’s no reason to spoil The Narrative, the great story of a benighted Israel governed by hard and bad men and growing increasingly intransigent and soulless and mean—as evidenced by their opposition to Obama’s attempts to reach a mutually-beneficial nuclear deal with Iran. When it comes to Israel, it’s the only story the Times knows how to tell, even when the facts get in the way. For that, we’ll always have The Correction.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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