More on the New York Times, Israel and Neil Lewis in CJR

Last week, I posted a short piece on an article by Neil Lewis in the Columbia Journalism Review, discussing whether the New York Times reporting is hostile to Israel. As I noted, Lewis gets the basic story right–the Times’ isn’t anti-Israel, as such, but its reporting on Israel tends toward the adversarial, for two reasons. First, for several decades the Times’s Israel correspondents have typically had views on appropriate Israeli policy well to the “Left” of the governments in power in Israel. And, second, reporters find it naturally appealing to take the “David” (Palestinian) side in a David vs. Goliath (Israel) story. I should have added a third factor, noted by Lewis: the growth of leftist domestic NGOs in Israel strongly opposed to government policy (and often to Zionism), which–though Lewis doesn’t mention this–are typically staffed by English-speakers, often Americans, and that, because they are so far out of the mainstream of Israeli opinion, tend to focus on feeding stories to a more sympathetic international media.

The problem with the article is that Lewis seems to think that this is more or less the end of the matter. If the Times isn’t affirmatively anti-Israel, it doesn’t matter whether the Times’s reporters are nevertheless implicitly opposing Israeli government policy and/or supporting Palestinian claims by virtue of the stories they choose to pursue, how they frame those stories, what photographs they choose to run with the stories, and so forth–none of which he analyzes in any detail. Other critics, some much more vociferous than I, have noticed the same thing.

Indeed, even though Lewis acknowledges the points noted in the first paragraph, and he cites critics of the Times (including critics who think the Times is too favorably inclined to Israel), he manages to avoid acknowledging any instance where he agrees that pro-Israel critics of the Times’s coverage have had a valid objection. Instead, the piece comes off as suggesting that the only folks who could reasonably object to the Times’s coverage are right-wing Orthodox Jews who support the settlements. [FWIW, I'm neither Orthodox nor support the settlement enterprise, yet I've found the Times's coverage wanting on many occasions.] And he spends an awful lot of time on other matters that are peripheral to the issue he was supposed to be writing about, including the Times’s failure to adequately report the Holocaust as it was happening, and gossipy matters perhaps of interest to media insiders, such as confusion within the Times’s hierarchy over whether former Israel correspondent David Shipler is Jewish (he’s not, but who cares?)

Meanwhile, it turns out that I gave a poor, indeed, incorrect example of something that I said Lewis didn’t mention, but should have: that the far leftist Chris Hedges, who we now know as a vociferous critic of Israel, was the Times’s Middle East Bureau Chief from 1998-2001, when the Times’s coverage of Israel by Deborah Sontag was subject to particular criticism. It turns out that I was relying on misinformation from several websites that identified him as bureau chief at that time. In fact, Hedges was Middle East Bureau chief earlier in the decade (a fact that, oddly enough, Lewis didn’t know, as he acknowledged to me). So mea culpa on that.

It was Lewis himself who alerted me to my error via a response he asked be posted here. Here it is, with a bit of additional commentary from me following it.

here is my comment as i would like it published/posted:

i am the author of the cjr piece abt the times and israel.i try not to respond to the range of comments it has produced — people are entitled to ….etc. if someone thinks i failed to analyze specific articles enough, i think they did not read my article thoroughly, but that’s their view and i have no need to try and rebut.

but i found the comment [by prof. bernstein] so exquisitely typical of the ignorance of many i have read, i thought i would respond.

the facts: chris hedges, heartily disliked by fervent supporters of israel, was not debbie sontag’s superior or supervisor. ever. he was, for a time, the correspondent based in cairo (and i am not sure their times much overlapped if at all).

but mr bernstein says he was “middle east bureau chief” and thus he extrapolates he was sontag’s supervisor. this is a “salient” fact to explain her coverage, he writes that i omitted.

this has all the elements of the conspiracy-spinning mind that snatches at odd facts (and untrue notions) and puts them together in a way to confirm some previous notion.

as i suggested above, it has been heartily dismaying to read so many nonsensical comments — from people who come at the issue from both sides– as it demonstrates the obstacles such obduracy presents to honest, or even minimally intelligent discussion

From this comment, one can perhaps see the origins of the problems with Lewis’s piece. First, Lewis implies that Hedges is apparently not reasonably considered hostile to Israel by anyone except “fervent supporters of Israel.” Recall that Hedges has expressed a strong preference for Hezbollah and Hamas in their conflict with Israel. I should think that any person who values liberal democracy over Islamic theocracy and terrorism would find Hedges’s views objectionable; Lewis apparently disagrees. Moreover, it’s hardly just supporters of Israel, much less just “fervent” ones, who have objected to his radical foreign policy views. But Lewis’s attitude is consistent with the notion implied in his article that only the fringe is likely to see anything worth criticizing in the Times’s Israel coverage.

Second, while I can understand why Lewis was annoyed by my misstatement of fact, it’s a long way from such a misstatement to being “ignoran[t]” and having a “conspiracy spinning mind” incapable of “intelligent discussion.” (Mr. Lewis, did the Times never have to issue a correction for any of your articles? If so, does that make you ignorant etc.?) This, however, is apparently what Lewis thinks the Times’s more vocal critics, an attitude that occasionally reveals itself in his article. Indeed, Lewis is so caught up in what he sees as the unreasonableness of his critics that he failed to note that I started my post by agreeing that the basic thrust of his piece was correct, i.e., that its general take on the Times’s coverage reflects what every “fair-minded observer already knows.” But hey, I’m just a simple-minded ignoramus.

Finally, what does Lewis’s piece say about the attitude of the MSM toward its critics on the right? Lewis seems to acknowledge that the Times’s coverage of Israel has a point of view (i.e., a “bias”), but seems perplexed that anyone cares or objects when that bias manifests itself in the Times’s reporting.