Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference.
— Ludwig von Mises, On Human Action. (San Francisco: Fox Wilkes, 1996 4th rev. ed.).
Newspaper writing is about making choices. They range from choosing a topic and its parameters to the style of writing, the story’s length and the degree of context down to the language used. Choices are conscious and unconscious. While I should think about the framing of a story — being aware of the worldview I bring to an issue — before I write, I do not do it as often as I should.
But the preconceived notions and assumption I bring add value as I can place stories in their historical/political context. I am able to discern if issue X is important, urgent or tired. Spin from PR flacks seldom moves me. Yet I have never written a sports story and can draw upon no well of knowledge to make an informed choice.
The conscious and unconscious choice applies to language. When I write “marriage equality” rather than “gay marriage” I am making a political choice with my vocabulary that signals the editorial stance of the publication or my personal views. This was especially true when I wrote for the Jerusalem Post. Through my upbringing and culture I knew to write “Jerusalem” as it would not have occurred to me to write “Al Quds”. But I learned to say “Judea and Samaria” not the “Occupied Territories” and “separation barrier” not “the wall” in line with the newspaper’s editorial policies. The vocabulary I brought to a story, whether innate to my worldview or learned from my employers, framed the article.
Choice results in consequences, whether intended or not. Let me draw your attention to the work of The Times foreign correspondent Michael Binyon to illustrate this point.
Binyon has penned a superior piece on one of the major under reported stories from the Arab Spring — the plight of Arab Christians. Taking as its news peg a report on a conference of church leaders in Amman hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan The Times article entitled “Middle East Christians face a bleak future” takes an indirect, but highly effective route in telling its story. It is a master class lesson in the craft of newspaper writing.
Yet this story also rang alarm bells within the Jewish community in Britain. “Did conference speakers call for the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem?”, a prominent Jewish activist asked me after she read the article. “Had the Church of England gone over to the replacement theology camp?” This did not appear in a surface reading of the paper, but I immediately grasped her concern when I read the story again through her eyes.
The Times lede is beautifully written.
Their churches have been bombed, burnt and ransacked. Thousands flee their homes to seek safety in exile, as Islamist extremists incite mobs to attack the dwindling communities that remain. Christians in the Middle East are today facing the greatest dangers they have known for centuries.
Moving from a strong opening, the article succinctly gives the who, what, when and where — before moving into an extended treatment of the why. Again, this is nicely and professionally done — you see the hand of a professional at work here.
The article then passes to a serious of comments and observations from participants, that give substance to the theme articulated in the lede. And at the end we hear from Church of England (hurrah!).
The Anglicans were well represented. The Episcopal bishops of Egypt and Jerusalem were joined by the Rev. Toby Howarth from Lambeth Palace and former Bishop Michael Langrish of Exeter representing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mr Howarth made the point that Western Christians too often had a skewed assumption that Christianity was an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. And he underlined the importance of intra-Christian and intra-Muslim dialogue.
He was also one of the few speakers to note the importance of women in faith issues. Only two nuns joined the panel of 80 male clerics. One male speaker said that if faith issues were left to women half the problems would disappear immediately.
Aside from the male cleric’s patronizing comment about women — and what did he mean by saying that if half the people (men) left you would have half the problems you now have? — there seemed little objectionable in these comments, and nothing that would suggest an anti-Jewish attack from the Church of England.
But further up in the article, we read that Arab Christians:
had taken a full part in the wars against Israel and were in the forefront in the fight to maintain the Arab presence in Jerusalem and prevent its judiacisation.
In the worldview of my British Jewish friend the “judiacisation” reference prompted concerns that at this conference Christian Arabs had called for a Judenfrei Jerusalem. Though former Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs of Iran are the best known proponents of driving the Jews into the sea, the expulsion of Jews from the Arab world — from Morocco to Iran — in the years since 1948 is an open wound in the Israeli psyche. If some Christian Arabs had made this call — echoing their political leaders in the Palestinian Authority or other Arab states — had the Church of England and the bishops of Egypt and Jerusalem remained silent. By their silence were Anglicans implying consent to the calls to de-Judiaze Jerusalem?
If true, this was quite a story. “Church silence on Jew bating” would have been a fun headline, while the church journals would take a story on Anglican Replacement Theology.
To find out, I thought I would ask. A checked with Canon Toby Howarth from Lambeth Palace (the shorthand way to refer to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff). Dr, Howarth told me he had no knowledge of any calls from conference speakers to expel the Jews. I also raised the issue with the Bishop of Egypt at breakfast on Thursday — we were both attending conference at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. He had no memory of any anti-Semitic comments from the conference podium, but added that from the perspective of the Christian Arab, the judiacisation controversy was not about expelling Jews from Jerusalem, but Jews expelling Arab from Jerusalem.
The last patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem had been removed from office after he had been accused in acquiescing to the sale of church lands to Jewish businessmen. The gentrification of Jerusalem was forcing Arabs out of the city by pricing them out of the housing market or removing housing available to Arabs from the market, the bishop said.
Which perception is true? Both, none, one?
Had The Times intended to press this button in their story about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. I think it most unlikely. But the use of “judiacisation” without explanation prompted some readers hear things that other readers did not.