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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