No other issue causes as much angst as the Israel/Palestine question. Soj has decided to omit the subject from her PDB’s, I prefer to disguise my true feelings on the topic, and the New York Times gets so much hate mail over it, that their ombudsman, DANIEL OKRENT, has decided to make a statement:

It’s this simple: An article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot appear in The Times without eliciting instant and intense response. A photograph of a grieving mother is considered a provocation, an interview with a radical on either side is deemed willful propaganda. Detailed studies of column inches devoted to one or another subject arrive weekly. One reader, Leo Rennert of Bethesda, Md., has written to me 164 times (as of Friday) over the past 17 months to comment on the Middle East coverage. His messages are seldom love letters.

On this issue, love letters are as common as compromise, and The Times’s exoneration from charges of bias is as likely as an imminent peace.
NYT: Free Reg

He, like I, attempts to tackle the subject from a detached point of view. It may be unrealistic, and it is sure to anger people on both sides of the issue, but I think the approach has merit:

After reading thousands of criticisms (as well as insults, accusations and threats) of The Times’s Middle East coverage, I’m still waiting for one reader to say the paper has ever been unfair in a way that was damaging to both sides. Given the frequency of articles on the subject, it would be hard to imagine that such a piece has not been published. In fact, I’ve seen a few myself. But to see them, I have had to suppress my own feelings about what is happening in Israel and Palestine.

I can’t say I’m very good at it. How could I be – how could anyone be – when considering a conflict so deep, so unabating, so riddled with pain? Who can be dispassionate about an endless tragedy?

This doesn’t exonerate The Times, nor does the fact that criticism comes from each side suggest that the paper’s doing something right. But no one who tries to walk down the middle of a road during a firefight could possibly emerge unscathed.

I agree. Some people feel so strongly, that they interpret an attempt to ‘walk down the middle of the road’ as nothing less than an endorsement of the tactics of the Israelis, or a failure to condemn the use of suicide bombers by the Palestinians. However, I think such critiques are unfair.

Some things The Times does and does not do (apart from having extremely opinionated opinion pages, which color the way the rest of the paper is read but are not the issue under discussion today):

It does not provide history lessons. A report on an assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in Gaza that kills nearby innocents will most likely mention the immediate provocation – perhaps a Palestinian attack on an Israeli settlement. But, says the angered reader, what about the murderous assault that provoked the settlement attack? And, says his aggrieved counterpart on the other side, what about the ambush that preceded the assault? And so on back to the first intifada, and then to 1973 and 1967 and 1956 and 1948 – an endless chain of regression and recrimination and pain that cannot be represented in a year, much less in a single dispatch in a single day.

This is an accurate description of the form most discussions on the issue take. It starts with an objective attempt to describe an incident, and it quickly moves back in time, as people appeal to one outrage after another…until we reach 1948, the Holocaust, and then the original Jewish settlers, Theodore Herzl, and eventually the Holy Books themselves.

What’s surprising, although it shouldn’t be, is that New York Times feels more threatened by accusations of anti-Semitism, than they do by accusations of pro-Israel sentiments.

It is limited by geography. The Times, like virtually every American news organization, maintains its bureau in West Jerusalem. Its reporters and their families shop in the same markets, walk the same streets and sit in the same cafes that have long been at risk of terrorist attack. Some advocates of the Palestinian cause call this “structural geographic bias.”

If the reporters lived in Gaza or Ramallah, this argument goes, they would feel exposed to the daily struggles and dangers of life behind Palestinian lines and would presumably become more empathetic toward the Palestinians.

I don’t know about empathy, but I do know that the angle of vision determines what you see. A reporter based in secular, Europeanized Tel Aviv would experience an Israel vastly different from one living in Jerusalem; a reporter with a home in Ramallah would most likely find an entirely different world. The Times ought to give it a try.

It’s only a newspaper. It eventually comes to this: Journalism itself is inadequate to tell this story. Like recorded music, which is only a facsimile of music, journalism is a substitute, a stand-in. It’s what we call on when we can’t know something firsthand. It’s not reality, but a version of reality, and both daily deadlines and limited space make even the best journalism a reductionist version of reality.

In preparing to write this article, my conversations with Michael Brown and Andrea Levin, with various other parties of interest and with The Times’s editors consumed hours. My e-mail encounters with readers have consumed months. To all who would assert that squeezing what I’ve drawn from this research into these few paragraphs has stripped the many arguments of their nuance or robbed them of their power, I have no rebuttal. The more important and complicated an issue, or the closer it is to the edge of life and death and the future of nations, the less likely its essences can be distilled by that wholly inadequate but absolutely necessary servant, daily journalism.

A postscript:

During my research, representatives of If Americans Knew expressed the belief that unless the paper assigned equal numbers of Muslim and Jewish reporters to cover the conflict, Jewish reporters should be kept off the beat.

I find this profoundly offensive, but not nearly as repellent as a calumny that has popped up in my e-mail with lamentable frequency – the charge that The Times is anti-Semitic. Even if you stipulate that The Times’s reporters and editors favor the Palestinian cause (something I am not remotely prepared to do), this is an astonishing debasement. If reporting that is sympathetic to Palestinians, or antipathetic to Israelis, is anti-Semitism, what is real anti-Semitism? What word do you have left for conscious discrimination, or open hatred, or acts of intentional, ethnically motivated violence?

The Times may be – is – imperfect. It is not anti-Semitic. Calling it that defames the accuser far more than it does the accused.

I have always perceived the New York Times as being slanted pro-Israel. Perhaps my impression dates to A.M. Rosenthal’s reign, or perhaps I put too much weight on William Safire’s voice, and not enough on the hard reporting from the region. Either way, I do believe the Times makes a good-faith effort to be fair.

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