Off balance

Off balance

usually defend The New York Times against charges that it is biased against Israel. I know its journalists will occasionally write a headline that seems to minimize Palestinian responsibility in terror attacks, or reverse cause and effect in what many media lazily refer to as the “cycle of violence.” But I’ll also note that, on the whole, the Times’ coverage of Israel matches reality. And unlike many other news outlets — which seem to report only on violence and strife in Israel — its pages feature Israelis who are working, playing, and creating outside of the narrative of “conflict.”

And then the newspaper will publish something so bizarrely one-sided or mischievously inaccurate — and I find myself about to speed dial CAMERA. 

On Oct. 8, Times foreign editor Rick Gladstone published a piece in response to the violence surrounding Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, under the headline “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place.” According to the article, “The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered,” is whether the Temple Mount is “the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.”

A rush of commentators pointed out that that is not the question at all. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina, one of the experts interviewed for the article, was moved to point this out in a letter to the editor. “The only real question,” Magness wrote, “is the precise location of the temple(s) on the Temple Mount.” The key word there is “on.” Without that simple preposition, Gladstone’s article seems to support the Palestinian narrative that the temples, if they existed at all, never sat on or near their “Noble Sanctuary.” 

The Times knew it had blundered. It issued a correction acknowledging that “this article misstated the question.” The question, it continued, “is where precisely on the 37-acre Temple Mount site the temples had once stood, not whether the temples had ever existed there.” For want of an “on,” a Jewish kingdom was lost.

I don’t know what was going on in the heads of Times’ editors, but I can guess. Anti-Semitism? I doubt it. Incompetence? Liberal bias? Maybe — but of a certain type. The article seems to be a product of a headlong quest for objectivity, in which the author overcorrects in pursuit of “even-handedness.” The Mideast conflict invites this pursuit. Both sides have been fighting the same battle for so long, and each side has such a compelling “narrative” that it follows that there must be two sides to any issue they are fighting over. Wary of appearing to take sides, the reporter looks for balance where there actually is none. The pitfalls of such “objectivity” have plagued mainstream coverage of the climate debate and the dangers of tobacco. 

The article also suggests a tendency of the Times to reflect their image of their idealized reader. Like many of the Times staffers themselves, these are highly educated, superbly informed, and (stay with me) disproportionately Jewish readers who appreciate a story that rejects the one-sided narratives of the “pro-Israel” community. In truth, the so-called media watchdogs often confuse propaganda with journalism. Most of these groups are clearly ideological. As a result, reporters and editors feel brave in standing up to the hasbara, aiming their stories instead at the “cool kids.” 

I also suspect that journalists bristle at the sameness of the Israeli-Palestinian story — interchangeable attacks and counter-attacks, peace talks and diplomatic failures. I have been writing the same headlines since the 1980s. “Israelis, Palestinians in violent clashes.” “White House aims to restart peace process.” “Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister.”

Tedium can lead to a search for fresh angles where there often are none. Editors often demand this. The two sides have been fighting about the Temple Mount for years. Maybe there is a new way to think about this ancient grudge? 

And then there is the “If both sides are angry, we must be doing something right” defense. No doubt, the Times does hear it from both sides — just as many Jews think the paper has it in for Israel, Palestinians complain that the Times ignores “the broader narrative of colonization and resistance,” as a pro-Palestinian website puts it. Standing up to this anger and goading the critics becomes a point of journalistic pride.

But these are merely temptations to be resisted. Perhaps some Times editors and reporters have an animus toward Israel, or toward Jews, or an animus toward Jews disguised as an animus toward Israel. That doesn’t mean that, on balance, the paper doesn’t provide deep, comprehensive, and nuanced coverage of a vital issue. It does. But it also allows too many examples of shoddy journalism and baffling choices. You can’t expect a major news outlet to ignore legitimate claims on both sides of a major dispute. But you can demand that they get their facts straight.

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