Bibi vs. The New York Times

Unbeknown to me, George was working on something for GetReligion that was a big picture look about how the New York Times handles the Arab-Israeli conflict. He did an admirable job and I heartily recommend reading that piece.

However, I’m going to hit that same issue again just a few days later.

When a major world leader singles out a major American news organ and blasts its coverage of his country, that’s a significant development. Even odder, this incident prompted relatively little discussion or notice — especially in media critic circles.

There are some obvious reasons why this is the case. It’s probably not surprising that the liberal editors of The New York Times don’t think much of the right-wing government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, when the Times asked Bibi to pen an op-ed for the paper he could have respectfully declined. Instead, Netanyahu, who’s not known for his subtlety, fired off a response blasting the paper for asking him to do so, given what he sees as the newspaper’s bias. Then, turning up the heat even more, he leaked his broadside to the Jerusalem Post:

[Senior Netanyahu adiser Ron] Dermer made clear that this had much to do with the fact that 19 of the paper’s 20 op-ed pieces on Israel since September were negative.

Ironically, the one positive piece was written by Richard Goldstone — chairman of the UN’s Goldstone Commission Report — defending Israel against charges of apartheid.

“We wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘Bibiwashing’ the op-ed page of The New York Times,” Dermer said, in reference to a piece called “Israel and Pinkwashing” from November. In that piece, a City University of New York humanities professor lambasted Israel for, as Dermer wrote, “having the temerity to champion its record on gay rights.”

That piece, he wrote, “set a new bar that will be hard for you to lower in the future.”

Interestingly enough, Dermer also lodged this criticism against another specific op-ed:

Dermer also took the paper to task for running an op-ed piece by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in May that asserted that shortly after the UN voted for the partition of Palestine in November 1947, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.”

Those lines, Dermer wrote, “effectively turn on its head an event within living memory in which the Palestinians rejected the UN partition plan accepted by the Jews, and then joined five Arab states in launching a war to annihilate the embryonic Jewish state. It should not have made it past the most rudimentary fact-checking.”

That it did find its way into the op-ed pages of the “paper of record,” he wrote, showed the degree to which the paper had not internalized former senator Daniel Moynihan’s admonition that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but … no one is entitled to their own facts.”

OK, now I know what many of you are thinking.

GetReligion doesn’t generally concern itself with op-eds or editorial stances. However, I think that these journalistic critiques offered by the Netanyahu government raise a couple of relevant issues of interest to readers of this blog. Yes, there is expected to be a strict wall of separation between news and editorial — I once worked at a paper where they moved the editorial writers’ desks for fear that the proximity to the newsroom would encourage editorial writers and news reporters to have conversations with each other. But that doesn’t mean expected journalistic standards for news coverage stop at the door of the editorial department, allowing opinions to reign supreme.

Now it’s one thing to accept that someone doesn’t agree with you, but people are less inclined to let disagreements slide when they feel that the arguments being used against you are dishonest. Netanyahu’s government is trying to establish that the New York Times’ Israel coverage is unfair, not because of honest disagreement but because the Times is using editorial license to distort the factual record.

That’s a pretty serious accusation. Netanyahu was hardly alone in thinking that “pinkwashing” piece was disconnected from factual reality. However, the dispute here isn’t about the specifics of the piece, so much as it is asserting that the entire premise is broadly untrue. This argument against the piece pits American cultural politics against perceptions about how religious tolerance is actually practiced in Israel, a very diverse society. Even if you think one side in this debate is more wrong than the other on balance, there are lots of specific circumstances that could be cited to challenge assumptions all around.

Because the disputes over Israel are largely driven by acrimony between two religions, it seems like the tendency is to try and argue every dispute as black and white where one side is morally superior. Along these lines, I certainly see why Dermer was annoyed that the paper let Abbas elide over the inconvenient details regarding how the Arab states rejected the U.N. plan and launched and offensive war. But, and I say this as someone who’s spent a great deal of time recently excoriating the media for passing opinions off as facts, I’m not sure Abbas’ statement can be seen as anything other than interpretative.

Perhaps you can argue that the sins of omission in Abbas’ statement are discrediting, but there’s a very fine line between that and saying the paper should have rejected his version of events as a matter of “fact-checking.” Everyone likes to use “the facts” as a cudgel, but in the process of pummeling their opponents, people are far too willing to pretend something is an objective truth when it’s not.

I don’t know what the New York Times’ current policy on this is, or whether a more stringent attitude toward fact-checking would have resulted in Netanyahu being more pleased with the paper’s coverage of Israel.

However, I will say that  one of journalism’s dirty little secrets is that almost no columns or op-eds are fact-checked before they go to print. (USA TODAY is one of the few outlets I’m aware of where they make a point of running op-eds through a separate fact check in addition to the typical editing routine where they may or may not catch any errors.) The attitude seems to be that since it’s labeled opinion, the byline will suffer more damage to its reputation than the outlet where it was published.

One can debate whether or not the Times is entitled to let its editorial freak flag fly here or is so biased against Israel it’s willing to let the facts be distorted. But I do think instituting a higher standard of factual rigor on op-ed pages would be helpful — particularly on religious issues — which are often the most complex and divisive issues addressed by columnists. How more factual rigor would be instituted, I’m not sure.

Would you be more inclined to read certain columns or op-ed pages if you knew they’d been through a fact-checking process before publication? And I also wonder if, despite the “wall of separation” between news and editorial staffers, does there come a point where a disproportionate and egregious editorial opining starts to affect your perception of the paper’s credibility and news coverage on particular topic?

I think we know where Netanyahu comes down on these questions and it’s pretty absolutist. For his part, Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the Times, has essentially argued that the Times is unbiased on politics, but not culture, morals and religion. Unfortunately for Keller, Israel is a Gordian Knot comprised of all of those aforementioned ideological strands. So I’m curious to know what factual standards you think opinion pages should adhere to to preserve their credibility.

 

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  • Jerry

    So I’m curious to know what factual standards you think opinion pages should adhere to to preserve their credibility.

    Preserve their credibility? Opinion pages are opinions and, as such, don’t reflect credibility. Also, given how often I see mis-edited stories including HTML in print media, errors of fact etc, focusing on errors in the editorials appears Quixotic to me. This is especially true in the middle east where one side’s fact is another side’s biased fiction.

  • Bill

    But as Mark Twain advised, “First, get the facts. Then you can distort them at your leisure.”

  • Rich Orman

    Bibi is not the Head Of State of Israel. The Head of State is the President, who is currently Shimon Peres. As Prime Minister, Bibi is Head Of Government.

  • mark

    Thanks, Rich. Fixed that.

  • Passing By

    Part of what makes opinion columns so interesting is how the pundit justifies an opinion. Are the facts plainly wrong, incomplete, or just assumed, because no one could be so stupid as to not see the brilliance of the opinion?

    Opinions without facts is prejudice. I might be wrong, or have an incomplete understanding, but the facts are what they are independent of my understanding. If I willfully ignore or distort facts, I might even be fairly called a bigot.

  • Richard Mounts

    I evaluate another’s opinion based, in part, on whether or not the argument is supported by objective fact. A thing, an event, a result happened or it didn’t. Why the thing or event happened, or how the result was obtained–that is opinion. If your facts are demonstrably wrong I will discount, or even reject, your opinion. I guess that I’ve just made a case for op-ed page editors to go either way on this. As an editor I can say say “caveat emptor,” or decide that the reader may not know enough about an event to know that an author mis-stated the facts.

  • carl jacobs

    Yes, there is expected to be a strict wall of separation between news and editorial

    In some parallel universe perhaps. But not at the NY Times.

    I also wonder if, despite the “wall of separation” between news and editorial staffers, does there come a point where a disproportionate and egregious editorial opining starts to affect your perception of the paper’s credibility and news coverage on particular topic?

    No, a paper’s credibility is ruined by editorializing in the news that reflects the editorial page. The later simply tells you how to identify the former. But enough of the obligatory condemnation of obvious the media bias that drips off every page of that indomitable newspaper.

    Mahmoud Abbas isn’t just a columnist. He is a national leader. A national leader does not just write Op-ed pieces. He serves a national agenda and has access to levers of power. It matters what he says. The typical columnist writes a column and it disappears from public consciousness before the paper ends up on the bottom of the birdcage. Not so a national leader. His word automatically carries both more weight and more credibility. People listen to what he says. To give him space to to write a piece is to give his national agenda access to the NY Times for purposes of propaganda. It allows the paper to be explicitly used to manipulate those levers of power.

    If the NY Times is going to allow this – and I do not think it should – then it should at least make sure the facts in the piece are correct. One would hate to think that the NY Times would have allowed (say) Hitler to write an Op-ed piece stating his reasons for invading Poland. No, I can’t see that happening. But that is the moral equivalent of what the NY Times actually allowed Abbas to do. His statement wasn’t “interpretive.” It was rank lying. Just like Hitler lied about his reasons for invading Poland. And why should the NY Times allow a foreign leader access to its influence in order to service its cause with lies?

    Yes, why indeed?

    carl

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Unti proven wrong, I don’t disbelieve any bad thing said about the NY Times.

  • sari

    Couldn’t editorial staff print an italicized correction below the column to alert the reader to assertions which are clearly false? Papers like the NYT have been guilty of biased reporting on the Middle East for so long that pieces like the Abbas statement (it’s really more than a standard Op-Ed) reinforce what’s already being served up as fact. Another strategy would have been to allow Netanyahu to submit a piece to be printed on the same day, to expose readers to both viewpoints.

    The roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are complex and routinely oversimplified by both the media and proponents of one side or another.

  • Jeffrey

    Does the Weekly Standard fact check opInion pieces? Does the Washington Examiner?

  • Will

    Bibi is not the Head Of State of Israel. The Head of State is the President, who is currently Shimon Peres. As Prime Minister, Bibi is Head Of Government.

    Americans are constantly getting this wrong, probably because this is one of the few countries where the head of state is also head of government.

  • mark

    Jeffrey,

    The Weekly Standard does. The Washington Examiner, like nearly all newspaper opinion pages, does not.

    Best,

    Mark

  • Steve S.

    Adolf Hitler was an enemy of the United States. Mahmoud Abbas is the head of an entity which is not only friendly to the United States, but like the State of Israel, has for years under administrations of both parties been the recipient of US foreign aid. Some Americans might think he’s another Hitler, but the US Government clearly does not.

    It is not unprecedented for national leaders and officials of foreign governments to publish Op-Ed pieces in the newspapers. As has been pointed out, it is not customary to fact-check them. And of course there are all kinds of op-ed stories printed from all kinds of advocacy groups on all kinds of issues who will use the op-ed as a platform for whatever propaganda they want to spread. Mr. Netanyahu was given the opportunity to avail himself of this platform, but apparently he thought it would serve his propaganda purposes better to turn it down.

    Sophisticated readers, that is those familiar with the conventions of journalism, ought to know that government officials are almost always going to present things in a way that is self-serving to their own agenda. So long as the author is clearly identified, it shouldn’t be a problem. The smart reader will cast a skeptical eye on whatever is said.

    As for this alleged news bias, there’s a well-attested tendency (the “hostile media effect” studied by Robert Vallone and his colleagues) for strong partisans of one side or the other to look at the same news coverage and to think it is biased against their own side. Partisans of Israel will think the coverage is pro-Palestianian, and those of the Palestinians will think it’s pro-Israeli. Right-wingers think the NYT is slanted to the left; left-wingers think it’s slanted to the right. Media critics on both sides find it very easy to cite examples to bolster their point.

  • Daniel

    well, to Jerry’s point, I generally think opinion pages are whacked. That applies to conservatives and liberals. If opinion writers want my respect, they have to get their facts right. They can’t be delusional or I won’t respect them. I know it is a high standard of rigor to expect writers to get 90 to 95 percent of their facts right. But that’s my minimum standard. My maximum is 100 percent. So no, Jerry, you’re right, they don’t have much credibility!

  • carl jacobs

    Steve S.

    Adolf Hitler was an enemy of the United States.

    Not in 1940, he wasn’t. Let’s not project knowledge from 1941 back into 1940. Germany was no more an enemy of the US in 1940 than China is an enemy of the US today. So what would have been wrong with the NY Times offering Hitler the opportunity to present his case on Poland in an Op-Ed piece? Certainly the ‘sophisticated reader’ would have discerned that his intent would be to separate the US from Britain in order to further German war aims. Since the author would have been clearly identified, it shouldn’t have been a problem.

    But that doesn’t really address the reason I brought Hitler into the discussion. His justification for the attack on Poland was a transparent lie. Abbas’ description of the origin of the Israeli war of Independence was a transparent lie. Why should a newspaper allow a lie by a political figure to appear unchallenged on its pages? The newspaper will not print a ‘State of the Union’ address by a political figure without challenging the factual accuracy of what is said in the speech. How then can it let a foreign leader speak lies without challenge in an Op-Ed piece? I thought the media fancied itself the ‘fourth branch of government?’ I thought it saw itself as a necessary gatekeeper of information, and the keeper of a sacred public trust?

    carl

  • Just visiting

    carl:

    “Germany was no more an enemy of the US in 1940 than China is an enemy of the US today.”

    Unless China is fighting a war I’ve never heard of against countries that the United States is subsidizing and arming, that’s a false statement. Especially after the United States began patrolling the North Atlantic Ocean aggressively in support of the merchant fleet it was using to supply Britain, the United States and Germany were in a pre-war phase.

    It should be noted that Abbas’ statement doesn’t contradict the argument of Derfner that Israel’s war of independence was seen as a defensive war.

    ““Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.”

    The people who ran the Israeli state were happy that they ruled over as small an Arab population as they did–an Israel that hadn’t displaced its Arab population in the war of independence would have a very large Arab minority verging on majority status. The Israeli government encouraged the flight of Arabs from the territories it gained and, more importantly, prevented the Arabs who fled from returning.

  • carl jacobs

    Just Visiting

    the United States and Germany were in a pre-war phase.

    Yes, that certainly describes the attitude in the United States in 1940. We were in the “pre-war phase of preparing for war with Germany.” Well certainly, FDR thought so, and that prescience and foresight by itself qualifies him as a great President. But the general public had no such idea. It was interested mostly in staying the hell out of one more European war. Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR was concerned he wouldn’t be able to translate the event into a declaration war on the real threat of Germany. He was hoping for German involvement in the attack to facilitate that end. So I am still left wondering why a newspaper like the NY Times should not have allowed Hitler the opportunity to contribute to that important public policy debate in the US.

    But if you like. I will move the subject of the Op-Ed back a few months and change the subject to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. That event differed from Poland only in that the craven allies in Europe didn’t react with a declaration of war. So then I meet your criteria for China not being an enemy. Unless you want to say that we were in a ‘pre-pre-war phase.’ Why shouldn’t the NY Times have offered Hitler Op-Ed space to defend the invasion of Czechoslovakia?

    Keep trying. There must be some technicality out there that would allow you to exclude Hitler from the general principle so that the general principle can still be defended.

    carl

  • Just visiting

    Carl:

    The US-German relationship in 1940 is fundamentally different from the US-Chinese relationship now. Then, Germany was waging war against near-allies of the United States; now, China isn’t waging any foreign war at all. Glad to see you agree with my point.

    “Why shouldn’t the NY Times have offered Hitler Op-Ed space to defend the invasion of Czechoslovakia?”

    Do you intend this to be a rhetorical question or as a serious question? If the latter, then the case _could_ be made. You arguably made it just now.

    And how does this relate to Abbas (or Netanyahu) again?

  • carl jacobs

    Just visiting

    Do you intend this to be a rhetorical question or as a serious question? If the latter, then the case _could_ be made. You arguably made it just now.

    Of course, I intend it to be a serious question. That’s why I have been asking variations of it throughout this whole thread. The seriousness of the question is made manifest by the complete lack of answer it has received. And, yes, I have consciously made the case because I am confident no self-respecting reader of the NY Times would allow its sacred pages to be defiled by the likes of Hitler. That inconsistency illuminates what is really being advocated in the case of Abbas. It has nothing to do with who he is. It has nothing to do with the position he occupies. It has everything to do with the position he is advocating. The later has the Nihil Obstat of the Secular Priesthood that runs the Op-Ed page. What are a few lies in the service of a cause officially approved by the Editorial staff of the NY Times?

    And how does this relate to Abbas (or Netanyahu) again?

    You mean besides the whole “Hitler would have lied, and Abbas did lie, so why is the NY Times extending its credibility to Abbas and allowing itself to be used in service of his lies when it manifestly would not have done so for Hitler” line of argument?

    Of course, I could also go after the idea of giving space to the leader of a nation that wants to slaughter the Jews as a matter of national policy. If it ever achieved its actual goals, I mean. That is what the Palestinians say amongst themselves after all when they think no one in the West is listening. Didn’t we just have a thread on that subject?

    carl

  • Just visiting

    What did Abbas lie about? Just to be clear.