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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