With Times under siege, Jewish reporters hit back

With Times under siege, Jewish reporters hit back

Hard ‘Times’: Jewish communal reaction to recent cartoon of President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu was virtually universal in condemnation. Wikimedia Commons
Hard ‘Times’: Jewish communal reaction to recent cartoon of President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu was virtually universal in condemnation. Wikimedia Commons

How does it feel for Jewish reporters and editors at The New York Times to read and hear in recent days the kind of vitriol aimed at “the paper of record”?

Outspoken critics include leading figures like Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who called the Times “a cesspool of hostility,” and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, who expressed “revulsion” at the paper and asserted it “has no place in our home or, for that matter, in any respectable home, Jewish or not.”

These expressions of outrage came after the Times last month published a cartoon, widely condemned as anti-Semitic, depicting a dog-like Benjamin Netanyahu leading an apparently blind, yarmulke-wearing Donald Trump. But for many critics who have long considered the newspaper anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic, the cartoon was simply the last straw.

A rally in front of the Times’ headquarters in Midtown was held recently by several small pro-Israel groups to protest the cartoon. A number of speakers called for subscribers to cancel their subscriptions and reminded the several hundred attendees of the paper’s shamefully limited coverage of the Holocaust during World War II and its ambivalence toward Zionism leading up to Israeli statehood. Many pro-Israel supporters are convinced the Times’ current coverage of the Mideast — in news stories as well as editorials and op-eds — is biased against Israel.

For an insider’s perspective, I spoke with several Jewish reporters at the Times this week for their reactions to the recent outpouring of angry condemnation.

‘Not self-hating Jews’

Joseph Berger, whose parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants, is well-known for his extensive coverage in the Times of Jewish-themed issues — most notably his reporting on local chasidic communities. He joined the Times staff in 1984 and primarily covered local affairs, education, and religion until he officially retired in 2015. His byline continues to appear regularly; he is often called on for stories of particular interest to Jewish readers. Most recently he wrote obituaries for two prominent chasidic rabbis and reported on touring the major new Auschwitz exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage with Roman Kent, a prominent Holocaust survivor.

We met at a midtown kosher restaurant, and over deli sandwiches, he made clear at the outset that he believes the charges of anti-Semitism against the Times are “absurd.”

“Abe Rosenthal, Max Frankel, Joe Lelyveld, Jill Abramson — that’s four Jewish executive editors” [the top editorial post] in the three decades he was on staff, Berger said, listing the names rapidly and with emotion in his voice. “These were not self-hating Jews,” he added, noting that Rosenthal was the first executive editor to assign a Jew [Tom Friedman, in 1984] to serve as chief of the Jerusalem bureau, considered the most scrutinized and controversial overseas assignment of all at the paper.

Though best known for his local reporting, Berger noted that he had covered Israel first-hand on three different occasions during his Times career for periods of between three and five weeks. During those stints, he was aware that in reporting on, and from, the Mideast, his words “were closely watched [by readers] and every nuance interpreted. But I always had the freedom to write what I wanted. No one told me what to write.”

He acknowledged that he, like others in his position, received criticism at times from readers for alleged bias in his reporting.

For some Times reporters who covered Israel, the degree of disapproval still stings, even years later. Clyde Haberman, who attended a New York yeshiva through eighth grade and later served as Jerusalem bureau chief for several years, once told me how upset he was to receive an angry letter from New York at his Jerusalem office addressed to “Clyde Haberman, y’mach shemo,” translated as, “may his name be cursed,” a phrase Jews employ to refer to the Nazis.

It should be emphasized that partiality in reporting is subjective and difficult to measure. While many pro-Israel readers believe the Times’ coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict favors the Palestinians, those who favor the Palestinians disagree with the same degree of fervor. And efforts at more systematic studies of the reporting have different conclusions. Pro-Israel advocacy groups like CAMERA and Honest Reporting, which focus on media coverage, are generally critical of the Times, while a 2003 study by the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics found the Times more favorable to Israel than the Palestinians.

Berger said the media watchdog groups perform an important service by “checking our reporting and keeping us honest. They want to make sure we’re accurate and balanced, though sometimes they go overboard” in their criticism.

He said he felt his strong Jewish background and identity — he was born in Russia to Yiddish-speaking parents and had a Jewish day school education in New York City through 10th grade — resulted in his reporting from Israel in a manner that “was probably shaped by my growing up in the 1950s with a sense of Israel’s vulnerability, the feeling that it was on the edge of destruction.”

Berger noted that Israel in its early years was widely viewed as the heroic underdog in its conflict with the mighty Arab world, but that between the period of the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Lebanon War in 1982, those perceptions were reversed.

Recalling Yasir Arafat’s walking away from the Camp David talks in 2000, and “the suspicion that the Palestinians wanted all of the land of Israel, not just the West Bank,” Berger said that “given my experience, I came at it a bit differently [in reporting on Israel]. Perhaps a younger reporter views Israel as Goliath rather than David, and may not be as sensitive to the early history.”

He noted that in assessing the reasons why Israel is viewed more critically today, one had to take into account that Israeli politics is “far more corrosive today” under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing government is highly popular in Israel and reviled by many outside the country, including many American Jews.

Berger asserted that while reporters and editors strive for balance, the Times editorial staff, like most in the profession, has “a soft spot for the underdog, for people who are suffering. And the fact is that Palestinians are an oppressed people. Living in the West Bank, they are poor, they’re hemmed in, can’t travel, etc. What may get lost [in the reporting] is that the situation is due to the foolishness of their own leaders, but the suffering needs to be reported. And some read that as anti-Israel. I don’t.”

Berger said he didn’t “keep a scorecard” in deciding what to cover when he reported from Israel. He recalled writing about suffering on both sides, including a story from Sderot, the Jewish community in southern Israel whose residents are frequently under rocket attack from Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, and another, in 2006, about Israeli doctors who went to remote areas of the West Bank to treat Palestinians there.

“No one [in the home office in New York] said, ‘Why are you writing a pro-Israel story?’ I was free to write what I thought were good stories that people would read, that would help them understand the world better.”

Many of Berger’s stories over the years were about chasidim in New York, a community that he feels is too often stereotyped negatively as “an insular, somber encampment in our midst”; he has sought to “make them come alive because I know them as warm, smart, and often worldly people.” He said that perhaps his ability to speak “kitchen Yiddish” is helpful in getting chasidim to open up, but he notes that not all of his stories about the community have been benign. For example, he mentioned that he has covered intra-chasidic rivalries and problems between the chasidim of Rockland County and their neighbors, including Jews, over housing and public education.

As for the cartoon that precipitated the most recent round of anti-Times fervor, Berger said it was the yarmulke on Trump’s head that “made it about Judaism and put it over the edge.” But he acknowledged that had he seen the same cartoon published in Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli daily, he and others might not have seen it in as harsh a light.

The fact that in addition to an apology, the Times published an editorial, “A Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism” (April 30), which said that by publishing a cartoon that was “bigoted” and “appalling,” the newspaper “ignored the lessons of history, including its own.” Berger said he could not recall such a self-critical editorial in the Times; it stated that its failure to adequately report on the anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1930s and ’40s is “a failure” that “still haunts this newspaper.” It also said that it is “a dangerous mistake” to dismiss anti-Semitism today as “a disease gnawing only at the fringes of society.”

In emphasizing the virtual wall that exists between the editorial and news reporting staffs of the Times, Berger said that, “Yes, some of the editorials on Israel take a tough approach, saying that Jerusalem could do more toward an agreement that expands the rights and prospects for the Palestinians.” But expressing views on the Mideast conflict “is not the job of reporters,” he said, adding that he tries to keep his opinions on the matter to himself.

Israel ‘not without blame’

Ethan Bronner was a correspondent based in Israel for 12 years, reporting for Reuters in the 1980s, the Boston Globe in the ’90s, and as The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief from 2008 to 2012.

“I don’t believe for one second that the Times is anti-Semitic,” Bronner told me. He also asserted that the paper is not anti-Israel.

“The premise of the news coverage is that Israel is an ally of the U.S., a triumph of history, and homeland of Jews, all of which is praiseworthy.” But that doesn’t mean Israel should not be held responsible in part for the plight of the Palestinians. Bronner, whose wife is Israeli and whose younger son served in the Israel Defense Forces, said: “I have been witness to a great deal of Palestinian suffering, and while I agree that the Palestinian leadership and ideology haven’t made it easier, the case is not closed and I don’t believe that Israel is without blame.”

He explained in detail why political cartoons in general are “by nature very problematic” in seeking to make a point through a single visual image — especially depicting humans as animals — and why the cartoon in question was especially challenging.

Bronner said he believes the theme of the cartoon, that President Trump is unduly influenced by Netanyahu, is “a legitimate topic of commentary and satire.

“The problem is that there is virtually no way to depict Jews or the State of Israel in a cartoon without using liturgical elements of Judaism — a Jewish star, yarmulke, menorah, etc. — and the result is you’re mirroring anti-Semitic cartoons of an earlier era.” He added that if the same cartoon appeared in an Israeli newspaper, it would not have caused such a sensation.

Bronner made a point of noting that the cartoon syndicate in question is in Europe, where criticism of Israel and its policies is more vocal than in the U.S.

The Times canceled its subscription to the syndicate as a result of the cartoon controversy.

“Given the serious history of anti-Semitism and the growing concern that it is returning, it may be impossible to do satire about Israel in a cartoon without echoing anti-Semitic tropes of an earlier era,” Bronner concluded.

Currently an editor at Bloomberg, Bronner said that during his tenure as bureau chief in Israel for the Times, his editors generally “let me do my own thing” in terms of the stories he chose to write. “I tried to be fair to all sides, both within each story and in general over a period of time. The goal is to create a balanced body of work.”

He noted that in his four years on the job, he never received a complaint from the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority. But “I ran into the biggest trouble over the choice of photos, captions, and story headlines, none of which I had anything to do with,” said Bronner, who noted that today, since the Times no longer has a dedicated copy desk, reporters often suggest their own headlines. He also pointed out that as newspaper articles have grown significantly shorter in recent years, “what often gets lost are the paragraphs of background information that can soften, explain, or mitigate” a situation.

Committed to change

Despite the Times publishing its own columnist, Bret Stephens, taking the paper to task for its seemingly clueless attitude toward anti-Semitism today (“A Despicable Cartoon in The Times”), an apology and a lead editorial on its own failure, criticism of the Times’ Mideast coverage isn’t going away anytime soon. Those who feel that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is solely the responsibility of one side or the other will not be swayed. And in the current climate, it was likely considered an act of courage for a congregational rabbi, David Fine of Temple Israel and the JCC in Ridgewood, to write a blog for The Times of Israel called “Why I am keeping my subscription to The New York Times.” (More points for an Orthodox rabbi to write such a piece.)

The rabbi credits the paper for its “self-reflective and self-critical” editorial that commits the Times to “stand in opposition” to anti-Semitism. Further, he asserts: “The way we read The Times is at least in some ways comparable to the way we read the Torah.” Not in terms of “quality” or “genre,” he hastens to add, but in both cases, he writes, the experience of reading is “self-reflective,” so that “when we discover our voice, we feel self-validated. When we encounter dissonance, we are uncomfortable and pained. That’s a worthy process.”

Worthy, indeed, but it doesn’t take into account whether the dissonance is warranted — based on uncomfortable facts or an uncomfortable bias.

On May 1, the Times’ publisher issued a statement to the staff, outlining its commitment to prevent future controversies like the one over the cartoon. It calls for increased oversight, disciplinary actions for the production editor who chose the cartoon, and “updating our unconscious bias training to ensure it includes a direct focus on anti-Semitism.”

Will those steps make a difference? For that you’ll have to keep reading the Times — whether or not you subscribe.

Gary Rosenblatt is the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.

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