Antisemitism and when context matters for the NY Times

This week, the conservative Weekly Standard broke a story that was headlined: Michelle Obama and John Kerry to Honor Anti-Semite and 9/11 Fan. Written by Samuel Tadros, the story explains that an award was going to be given today from the U.S. State Department to a Muslim woman from Egypt:

Samira Ibrahim, as the State Department’s profile describes her, “was among seven women subjected by the Egyptian military to forced virginity tests in March 2011.” The press release further notes that Samira “was arrested while in high school for writing a paper that criticized Arab leaders’ insincere support to the Palestinian cause.” Apparently, the State Department is unaware of her other convictions.

On Twitter, Ibrahim is quite blunt regarding her views. On July 18 of last year, after five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed a suicide bombing attack, Ibrahim jubilantly tweeted: “An explosion on a bus carrying Israelis in Burgas airport in Bulgaria on the Black Sea. Today is a very sweet day with a lot of very sweet news.”

Ibrahim frequently uses Twitter to air her anti-Semitic views. Last August 4, commenting on demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, she described the ruling Al Saud family as “dirtier than the Jews.” Seventeen days later she tweeted in reference to Adolf Hitler: “I have discovered with the passage of days, that no act contrary to morality, no crime against society, takes place, except with the Jews having a hand in it. Hitler.”

Ibrahim holds other repellent views as well. As a mob was attacking the United States embassy in Cairo on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, pulling down the American flag and raising the flag of Al Qaeda, Ibrahim wrote on twitter: “Today is the anniversary of 9/11. May every year come with America burning.” Possibly fearing the consequences of her tweet, she deleted it a couple of hours later, but not before a screen shot was saved by an Egyptian activist.

Obviously this was very embarrassing news for the State Department and the journalism done by Samuel Tadros resulted in the State Department pulling the award. The relative lack of interest in this story by big media outlets is perhaps worth observing.

But another brouhaha is happening because of a question a New York Times editor and reporter publicly asked of Tadros. The question, the reaction to that question and the defense of the question seem like interesting fodder for us to discuss here. The public question, delivered via Twitter:

@RobertMackey: @Samueltadros Is it correct to say you’re from Egypt’s Coptic Christian community? If so, does that inform your criticism of Islamists?

I’ll admit that when I read the question, I gasped. Either Tadros’ reporting is good or it is not. What does it matter if he’s from a community persecuted by Islamists? Ibrahim herself has been persecuted by Islamists. Others were similarly disappointed in the question, which they seemed to view as a way of denigrating Tadros’ work. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic asked:

.@RobertMackey @Samueltadros Umm, Robert, would you ask that same question to a Jewish person who raises concerns about prejudice?

Actually, you can click on the above picture for more of the response (or click here). Suffice to say it didn’t go over well.

Mackey responded, though, that his intent was not to ask a leading question. He’s spent the better part of his time since that initial tweet responding to critics. A sample:

puzzled why you’d answer a question about the Coptic perspective on Egypt as though it can only be motivated by prejudice.

have we reached a point where questions about our perspectives can only be racist? My background does influence my take.

I’m amazed that you’d assume that a clearly public question about the perspective of Egyptian communities must be out of bounds

I seem to have offended some by asking an Egyptian writer critical of Islamism if he is from the oppressed Coptic Christian minority (1/2);

I apologize if my Twitter-shortened question seemed offensive to anyone, but I was attempting to understand community dynamics, not offend,

Or let’s look at this sample exchange:

EricTrager18: Rather than judging @Samueltadros on his (excellent) reporting, you’re making his religion, which is immaterial, the issue.

RobertMackey: I’d suggest you are leaping to a conclusion there. I just wanted to understand and report his perspective, not judge it.

EricTrager18: 1.The Samira Ibrahim case has nothing to do w/Islamism; 2.You are essentializing his perspective as Coptic, which is shameful.

RobertMackey: how, by asking, can you conclude that I am “essentializing”? It was a geniune question; he could say, “No, it is not a factor”

EricTrager18: Please explain your theory for how being Coptic might make one critical of a non-Islamist (Samira) who celebrates 9/11.

RobertMackey: By assuming I have a theory, you are off-base. My question was about community relations in Egypt, based on his research work.

I always like to take people at their word on their motivations, so I think this should be a closed case as it relates to bigotry. Mackey was not intending, he says, to question his reporting but to just understand community dynamics and see if his Coptic Christianity influenced his reporting.

But what do you think about the question, the response and its defense? I don’t actually have strong views but I am somewhat alarmed at how selectively we see reporters apply questions such as this. I see very little questioning of motivations and how backgrounds influence story objectives when it comes to, say, other stories in the New York Times.

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  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

    Very complicated; I think it’s just easier if we indite ourselves for our own biases, as opposed to just accusing others. Once again, this article shows how our culture has lost the art of civil debate. In a culture where one critical comment leads to a divorce, people can’t ask you one question about your background without setting off a laundry list.

  • Justquoting

    Tweet doesn’t show that Mackey is an anti-Coptic bigot (!) but Mackey seems dissembling in his defense.

    If he was planning a whole separate story on Egyptian community relations, he would’ve said that FIRST THING after the backlash. If learning about Egyptian community relations was for his own human interest (!), it would’ve been strange for him to tweet Tadros as he did. He would’ve asked question differently & requested other correspondence.
    ________
    I tweeted Mackey:
    Q: How is ethnicity of person relevant in journalistic ethics codes?
    A: when question concerns membership in an INSTITUTION that states an agenda of support for an ethnic group
    IE: @RobertMackey is being a racialist twit.

  • sari

    Actually, the same questions have been asked of Jewish persons when they covered Israel, the Palestinians or any Jewish issue. In fact, how often has it been said that Jews own the media (or the banks or liberal institutions) in order to forward their nefarious goal of world domination? Goldberg used a bad example.

    While I think it’s wrong to presume or assume that one can proclaim bias on the basis of a label, we can assume that the sum of one’s background (religion, family, experience, education, etc.) colors one’s opinions. A person who is aware and introspective acknowledges that bias and will question all assumptions to ensure truth and impartiality. What seems to come across as bias, though, may be a greater familiarity and a more nuanced view of one’s “home” culture.

    Better phrasing might have conveyed Mackey’s actual question and been received in a more positive way.

  • Anne

    Personally, I understand why people would be troubled by the question asked of Tadros, but as GetReligion regularly points out, people’s faith and their experiences with that faith do color how they interact with the world. I could be wrong, but I didn’t the read question as trying to accuse the reporter of bias, but rather of genuine curiosity and trying to understand how the reporter’s life and faith community impacted him. And I would absolutely ask that kind of question to a Jewish person who (for example) had had family members who experienced the Holocaust and was raising concerns today about anti-Semitism in Germany. I would in no way be trying to imply bias or poor reporting – just the opposite. I would expect their heightened awareness of the issue to give them more insight, and I would be interested in learning from that. Now obviously, I’m talking about the motivations I would have if it had been me, and it’s possible that his were quite different. I do think, though, that if asked for the right reasons that question could be legitimate and allow for some fascinating responses.

    • mollie

      I think the key, if you don’t want to cause offense, is to universally apply such questioning. That it only seems to be applied to a narrow subset of reporters/pundits/activists might be the major problem with this.
      For my part, I think understanding motivation is key to a story. But I’m not entirely sure what it has to do with *this* particular story. Either the reporting is true or it’s not true. It’s not more true or less true based on the background of the reporter.

      • sari

        But we do it all the time. Many, many posts rail against liberals or graduates of certain institutions and state, without reservation, that this group or that is incapable of unbiased reporting or independent thought. Asking about ethnicity may be in bad taste, but it boils down to exactly the same thing–using a label to assume bias.

      • Anne

        Oh, I absolutely agree with that. I guess what I was trying to say is I think it *is* a good question to ask universally: not in terms of whether what the reporter is saying is true, but in terms of their analysis of what’s said, or (at times) the subtleties they know to look for. To use an unrelated example: if a white American called a black person “uppity,” that would carry a lot of historical and cultural weight that someone outside of our society might not be tuned in to. If I weren’t an American, I’d be interested in hearing a black American who reported on that story explain the way that their background “informed their criticism” of what was said. I wouldn’t be trying to imply that what they said wasn’t true or was biased; I’d just be curious what context their experiences gave them that I lacked. Again, though, I have no idea what this writer’s motivations were, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out that they were more insidious than anything I’m saying here.

  • Justquoting

    Asking questions about ethnicity to a journalist covering a story with solid reporting is WAY different than asking him a question over a beer. PLUS, the timing and lack of context of the question in this case evokes ad-hominem about ethnicity–putting an article in a critical perspective solely because of the ethnic background of the writer.

    Journalistic ethics codes often stress to refrain from questions of bias due to ethnicity of writer or interviewee, and stick to facts that corroborate or undercut the writer/interviewee’s story.

  • Jerry

    I agree with Mollie. GR has over and over and over and over again emphasized that a person’s religious background matters and that reporters should ask about how their religion informs their beliefs and actions. Mollie’s point about universally asking the question is spot on. It’s elementary fairness to apply the same standard to diverse situations.

    People research what they’re interested in. Tadros would have a special interest as a member of the Egyptian Coptic community and perhaps also special knowledge. Perhaps the question could have been asked better, but if it had not been asked, GR would or should have questioned the lack of such a question.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I find it interesting that Tadros and his story themselves became for Mackey a topic of investigative journalism. The Obama administration gets embarrassed, and a sympathetic NYT editor with an interest in mideast affairs looks into the story that embarrassed them. Does HIS background inform HIS actions and editorial perspective? Hmmm.

  • Darren Blair

    To me, unless Mackey had evidence to suggest that something untoward was going on, the matter should have been handled in a private fashion (such as via the phone or even in person) rather than on a public venue like Twitter. That he did what he did was just asking for something like this to go and blow up in his face.

    As it is, the issue with Samira Ibrahim is getting to be such that Snopes.com just did an article up about the controversy: http://www.snopes.com/politics/kerry/ibrahim.asp . A blow-up like this is only going to fan the flames.

  • aly

    Apology. Hope you will see vaticaninsider.lastampa. There you need Click on * inquiries and interviews *. There you’ll find Cardinal Rai interview The Conclave From A Middle East Perspective. It is not long. 6, March, 2013 .

  • http://faithvictoria.wordpress.com Steve weatherbe

    On the face of it, I’d have to favour Mackay. I’m a journalist on the religion beat myself and I’m always asking people their background. I interviewed Robert Spencer, author of such books as The Truth About Mohammed, and asked him if his family had fled Muslim oppression in Turkey. He freely agreed and neither he nor I thought it irrelevant or disqualifying. On the one hand, it’s just common sense that Tadros’s Coptic roots would inform his coverage–i.e., provide information; on the other hand, Mackay could well be using the question and answer to disqualify Tadros. We’ll have to wait and see. And we’ll never know for sure what Mackay would have done if he hadn’t been called on it.
    I know how I’d use the info to taint Tadros: I’d write something like “Tadros has admitted his coverage has been influenced by his family’s roots in the Coptic Christian community that frequently alleges persecution at the hands of Egypt’s Muslim majority.” There, I’ve managed three cheap shots at Tadros in one sentence.
    But what a great scoop for him. Could the NYT simply be envious?

  • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

    The thing is .. has Mackay (or any other journalist) learned anything from this, such as using Twitter to ask questions is idiotic ?? This brings up other questions:

    a) What kind of question can you ask in 140 or so characters that will convey the meaning of what you want to ask?
    b) Did you give any consideration to the fact that Twitter is not a private means of communication??

    There is a distinct lack of judgment in using Twitter for such purposes.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I just want to say that the “you only say that because you’re xyz” argument is widespread. While Mackey may just have had pure motives, it’s just as reasonable to think that he was trying to discredit Tadros’ journalism. If I favor the pro-life side, it’s only because I’m a man. If I favor a traditional Catholic for pope, it’s only because I myself am traditional. Yet, to spin it back on my interlocutors is seen as adversarial and aggressive: “Well, you are pro-choice only because you’re a feminist; you want a liberal pope because you’re a liberal yourself.” I’m not saying people of similar opinions as me do not argue thus. But I can only encounter those sorts of arguments from people with an opposing view to mine. Those who argue like that, it seems to me, believe themselves to be reasonable and they are searching for a reason why others are unreasonable; and prejudice is a good fallback. Ultimately, we do need to be objective and ask the truly relevant questions: Is someone like Samira Ibrahim worthy of being honored as a victim of radical Islamicism by a country given her own very vocal radical anti-Semitism and antagonistic views of that country? And we need to come to that irrespective of whatever in our background informs it.

    • Will

      You only say that because you are a logician!

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