The New York Times blows it, gets sucked into Israeli-Palestinian Temple Mount quagmire

There is no long-running conflict more closely covered today than the struggle-without-end between Israelis and Palestinians. The Website of the Foreign Press Association in Israel says some 480 correspondents from around the world currently work in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

That number swells, of course, when the conflict heats up, the simmer becomes an explosion, and more people die, as -- sadly -- is currently the case as Israelis cope with a wave of Palestinian knifings and other attacks. Adding to the total number of journalists writing about the situation are those doing so from outside the conflict zone -- like those churning out stories from the Manhattan headquarters of The New York Times.

Which brings me to a story about Jerusalem's Temple Mount (as Jews call it)/Haram al-Sharif (as its known in Arabic) produced by the Times' home office last week that provoked an angry backlash from Jews and other Israel-supporters to a degree I've not seen in a very long time.

The piece was headlined "Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem's Holiest Place." It was a mess of a story about what is arguably, as the cliche goes, the world's most contested piece of real estate, a site Jews consider their holiest, and Muslims call their third holiest.

The piece focused solely on the historicity of the two biblical-era Jewish Temples. Given the ferociousness of the conflict, such stories easily become about way more than archeology and whatever may be scholarship's current version of history. That's because they go to the very heart of the clashing Israeli and Palestinian narratives -- historically, theologically and, probably most importantly, politically. 

Even getting such a story "factually" correct is not enough, as fact and fiction concerning the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif vary in accordance with which partisan is talking. Still, this piece could claim no such cover.

When first posted by the Times on Oct. 8, the story explored whether the two biblical Jewish Temples ever stood on the same leveled hilltop where today stand the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa mosque. It concluded that scholars have by no means settled the question..

Palestinian religious and political leaders, including Yasser Arafat, have long denied that the Temples ever stood on the hilltop as part of their political struggle to assert control over the site, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel says such denials are nothing more than crude attempts to erase thousands of years of Jewish history in an effort to undercut Zionism's claims to political legitimacy. 

The current wave of violence began with Palestinian claims -- repeatedly denied by the Israeli government -- that Israel seeks to alter the site's status quo agreement, in effect since 1967, that allows only Muslims to pray there, and restricts Jewish access.

The Times article, consciously or otherwise, critics said -- and I agree -- played into the Palestinian line. To its harshest critics, the piece seemed, at best, very sloppy journalism, at worst, purposefully biased writing. Or perhaps both. 

A day after publication, and after the onslaught of criticism, The Times appended a correction to the story's online version that was tantamount to admitting it was ill-conceived and poorly executed. Here's how the nut graph originally read:

The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is whether the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.

Here is how that graph read after it was corrected:

The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is where on the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.

And finally, here's the editor's note attached to the piece explaining the correction: 

An earlier version of this article misstated the question that many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered concerning the two ancient Jewish temples. The question is where precisely on the 37-acre Temple Mount site the temples had once stood, not whether the temples had ever existed there.

Not whether but where.

Big, big difference. And as far as critics were concerned, too little too late.

So the pounding in Jewish circles, particularly on the political right, continued unabated. (Interestingly, the online version of the story lacked a comment section. Probably a smart move by the Times that saved it from even more, but perhaps warranted, grief.)

Here's just one example of that scathing criticism. It comes from Tower, a Jewish-oriented Web magazine with a right-of-center slant:

... Never mind the fact that among scholars who actually study this stuff, there is no controversy whatsoever about the existence of Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, anymore than any controversy that exists between Judaism and Islam on this point, or the fact that there is no contradiction between Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Roman or pagan sources. Don’t bother the Times with any of these facts: Just as long as it is possible to make any Jewish claim on Judaism’s holiest site seem like yet another irrational piece of fiction invented by feverish religious Jews, Zionists, and other troublemakers who are very unlike the good and logical and educated and clean Jews who read and write for the Times.

Of course the headline also fell short in that it left unanswered the question, to whom is this the "holiest place." For Jews and Muslims, sure. But the many thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Garden Tomb might beg to differ. This, however, is a minor quibble compared to the story's content.

Let's establish a few things for the record.

Covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very, very difficult and requires great reportorial sensitivity and a good deal of knowledge about what happened before you showed up on the beat.

The passions on both sides are at such a fever pitch that the slightest error or word choice that allows partisans to perceive a bias favoring one side over the other produces a frenzy of criticism. Spend any time reading the often bigoted, hateful and uninformed Web postings on the conflict -- not so much on the Times' site, which is monitored by editors, but on the many sites that are not monitored and amount to free-for-alls -- and you'll understand.

It's even more difficult covering the conflict for the Times, given its global influence, the level of scrutiny its readers bring to the newspaper's every-turn-of-the-screw coverage, and the undeniable fact that Jews --  New York's influential Jewish community in particular -- have a long-running love-hate relationship with the newspaper. 

This 2012 Columbia Journalism Review piece on the relationship between the Times and the Jewish community provides some great background.

I'm a confirmed Times reader and I think it's Israel-Palestine coverage is as good as that of any daily newspaper and better than most. Just not on Oct. 8, 2015.

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