Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Hottest Button: How the Times Covers Israel and Palestine

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Hottest Button: How the Times Covers Israel and Palestine

Article excerpt

LET ME OFFER two statements about this paper's coverage of the conflict in the Middle East. First: I find the correspondents at The Times to be honest and committed journalists. second: The Times today is the gold standard as far as setting out in precise language the perspectives of the parties, the contents of resolutions, the terms of international conventions.

Neither of these comments is my own. The first is a direct quotation from Michael F Brown, executive director of Partners for Peace, an organization that seeks, it says, "to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories." The second comes from Andrea Levin, president and executive director of the Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America, the muscular pro-Zionist media monitor. With partisans on each side offering respectful appraisal in place of vituperation and threat, you would think that we had reached a milestone moment in The Times's coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

You would be wrong. Less temperate groups on each side find The Times guilty of felonies ranging from outright dishonesty to complicity in the deaths of civilians. A group called the Orthodox Caucus has led boycotts of The Times for "simply not telling the truth." I have met with representatives of If Americans Knew, an organization that says The Times conscientiously reports on the deaths of Israeli children but ignores the deaths of Palestinian children-children, they say, usually "shot in the head or chest" by the Israeli soldiers.

On the edges, rage and accusation prevail; nearer the middle, more reasoned critics still find much to criticize. Michael Brown and Andrea Levin can cite chapter, verse, sentence and punctuation mark. They watch this paper with a truly awesome vigilance.

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 I 7 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.

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.

Critics will say The Times attempts nothing of the sort, that it has thrown in its lot with one side in the conflict. But let's keep motive out of this discussion. Neither you nor I know what the motives of the editors might be. Nor should their motives even matter. We can judge them only on what they do.

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. …

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