Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Think I Was Ignored

Among the topics addressed by Susan Chira, who was named foreign editor in January 2004, in answering reader questions recently was the Conflict in the Middle East (click here to open to a single page) and there you can this query of mine

Q. The foreign news in The New York Times is not an island unto itself. Foreign news resonates in editorials, op-eds and special profile stories in the Sunday Magazine. How do you as editor assure that the readers of the paper are not overwhelmed by the newspaper's slant? For example, Jewish communities, "settlements" in the disputed territories, are a major item of the foreign news agenda but for the past two decades and more that I can personally recall, not one op-ed by a resident of those communities, providing a different perspective, was ever published. Is not the overall foreign news presentation lacking in such a journalistic framework?

— Yisrael Medad, Shiloh, Israel

among these:

Q. Until recently I had no idea that Israel's policies were subjecting so many Palestinians to such a limited life. Foreign reporting is so skewed on this subject that I believe it is influencing and encouraging the separation between the two peoples and thus the continuation of division and war.

We 50-something's have been basically spoon-fed the Israeli propaganda our whole lives. I was totally unaware of the specifics of the situation, I operated under the assumption that Israel was the good guy promoting peace. Through my own research, I find that the situation in Gaza is ultra-oppressive, I learn about the checkpoints, the water rights, the divided road — how many U.S. citizens would really think that is a viable solution for peaceful relations?

Many of your readership has no special relationship with Israel, we've never given it much thought. So you have two types of readers — the people protecting everything about the policies and the people who are semi-interested in world affairs. Both people need the hard and true facts in order to be informed and in order for policies to evolve which would benefit peace and the long term security of Israel. I believe few people realize that Israel is actually illegally occupying much of the Palestinian land preventing movement, development and the general feeling of respect, hope and well being.

Won't you please address the bias and begin to let the path of the situation be paved with truth in reporting for the good of all.

—Joellen Aviza

Q. What steps do you take to ensure The Times presents a balanced view of the Israel-Arab conflict?

— Benji Gabler, Kochav HaShachar, Israel

Q. Is there covert agreement among editors to never or rarely mention Israel's nuclear arsenal? Iran seems to be doing what the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, Pakistan, and India did, namely to acquire nuclear weapons as soon as a potential adversary has them. Israel introduced them into the Middle East and thereby kicked off proliferation in that region. Western measures to stop that aim at putting pressure on Iran to prevent it from doing what Israel and others did. The problem, however, is systemic, not idiosyncratic to one nation. Discussion of a systemic solution, striving for a nuclear-free region and involving the nuclear disarmament of Israel, seems to be off limits for The Times and other media.

— Sepp Meier

Q. Why has The Times mostly failed to follow up on the withdrawal of Charles Freeman's appointment to the national intelligence board, and the continued hammerlock of AIPAC, and some other influential private citizens, on balanced coverage of the Israel/Palestine Gordian Knot, including the increasingly admitted implausability of a so-called "two-state solution?"

— Charlton Price

Q. Why do you not press the administration about Israel? If well informed, the American public would demand withdrawal of support, and probably demand aid to rebuild the area and promote peace. Why does our press avoid the voice of reason and peace?

— Eric Stephens

Q. Why can't The Times give an honest view of the situation in Palestine? For a paper that holds itself out as the "paper of record," I find I can't trust anything pertaining to the Middle East that comes out of The Times. As an American I'm incredibly ashamed of our support for the genocide we support by sending our tax dollars, weapons and political clout to the failed state of Israel. If Israel wants to survive in the long run, they must stop this march to insane destruction of the indigenous people who lands they have and continue to steal today. Why can't The Times give Americans an honest view?

— Sarah Smith Redmond

Q. You recently ran a front-page article, “Soldiers’ Accounts of Gaza Killings Raise Furor in Israel”. The accounts discussed were all from anonymous soldiers. However, it was clear from the article the reporter did not himself speak to the anonymous sources. Rather, the accounts came from a second-hand source, the head of a military academy. Was this in keeping with The Times’ policy on anonymous sources?

— Daniel Barenholtz, Teaneck, N.J.

Q. Why hasn’t your paper insisted on an independent investigation of the massacre at Gaza — by fascist Zionists. Or won’t your Jewish handlers let you?

— Bert DeMars

and here's her reply:

A. Without a doubt, the subject of Israel and the Palestinian territories is the one that enrages the largest number of our readers -- and is probably the topic on which words, phrases and articles are chosen and scrutinized most thoroughly by reporters in the field and by editors on the desk. The question of Times coverage of this issue -- how we label the combatants, how we characterize the conflict and its history, when we use the word terrorist and when we do not, our use of photographs -- all these have been examined and addressed thoroughly by Bill Keller, the executive editor, Jill Abramson, the managing editor, and Clark Hoyt, the public editor. There is little that I can add to Bill and Jill's remarks; they reflect my assessments as well.

As an editor, I keep several principles in mind when examining articles written about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Each side's history of grievances stretches far into the past. We try, when reporting on an attack, to say as crisply as we can what cycle of events preceeded or provoked it -- thus, in Gaza, apart from Israel's attacks, we reported that Hamas had been firing rockets at Israeli civilians for years. We try to explain as fully as possible the ideological stance of our sources and the motives they may have to skew the truth. As a rule, we try to describe actions, rather than to label them. We try to pull back and assess whether we are consistently reporting from both sides of the conflict. To cite another Gaza example, we checked in periodically with Israeli victims of Hamas rockets even as we reported the rising death toll, including that of civilians, in Gaza. And we also reported that Hamas fighters deliberately positioned themselves among civilians and placed weapons in civilian and religious buildings. But fair does not mean absolutely equal. If the number of deaths is far higher on one side than the other, you are going to read more articles and see more pictures of that toll.

To address a few specific questions: we wrote a substantial front page article about the Charles Freeman controversy. If further developments occur, we will report them. And we wrote a front-page article about the increasingly shaky prospects for a two-state solution. We have mentioned Israel's nuclear arsenal when relevant, and we have no informal taboos or agreements not to do so. That's not how journalists work.

We need to assume that readers understand the divide between the editorial page and our news pages. I know that can be confusing, but journalists for the news pages do not take sides and are not influenced by the positions of the editorial page.

The accounts of soldiers describing killings in Gaza first appeared in two major Israeli newspapers, and set off a furor in Israel. The army announced a criminal investigation into these specific incidents -- the only such investigation resulting from the Gaza war. Every major Israeli news organization reported these accusations extensively.

We reported the accusations with significant and prominently displayed caveats: that the accounts were anonymous, that they were leaked to the newspapers by someone who felt the military was not taking them seriously, hinting at motive; that soldiers and reservists immediately said they did not recognize the stories being told as accurate. Some of the anecdotes involved accusations of shooting women; the article noted that Israeli soldiers had in the past been targets of women suicide bombers.

When the accusations appeared, our Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, had been in the process of interviewing soldiers on that very topic; the article included an interview he conducted with a soldier who described being given instructions to shoot and not worry about the consequences -- instructions that he described as significantly less careful about the prospect of civilian casualties than ever before in 12 years of his reserve duty. During and just after the Gaza war, senior commanders acknowledged that they were giving more aggressive instructions than they had in the Hezbollah war of 2006, where they felt they had taken such pains to avoid civilian casualties that it hampered their conduct of the war.

During the war in Gaza, The Times reported several incidents of civilian casualties. So the assertions of these soldiers was consistent with other reporting.

When Mr. Bronner learned that doubts were circulating about the soldiers' reports, we published another article; when the army investigations concluded that the specific accounts were secondhand, we reported that, too. Since the Israeli Army is not in Gaza, and cannot investigate on the ground there, its findings on what happened in Gaza — civilian death counts, alleged abuses — are not necessarily the last word. As with so many other incidents in this conflict, it is very difficult to come to a definitive conclusion.

I can assure our readers that we take all criticisms seriously, and that we strive to provide the deepest, most reflective, most thorough and most honest coverage that we can. I am very proud of our correspondents' work. It is brave and unflinching. But we do not lull ourselves into believing that just because both sides are angry at us, we are off the hook — to borrow a coinage from James Bennet, a former Jerusalem bureau chief who is now editor of The Atlantic.

And yet, again and again, we offend and outrage many of our critics, on either side. I have thought long and hard about why this is so, why we remain so far apart from a segment of our readership. I believe the source of the deep anger I encounter so frequently is the fundamental divide between advocacy and journalism.

Many of our readers judge our coverage by whether it helps or harms the cause that they believe in, whether it reflects well or badly on the side they champion. This includes many readers who try to maintain civil discourse, but are honestly troubled by what they see as bias. And it includes some whose passion will not allow shades of gray.

To some of these critics, to speak of balance is a moral dereliction, a willfull blindness to evil. Supporters of Israel believe that we fail to condemn those who seek the eradication of Israel itself and who kill and maim innocents in that quest. Supporters of the Palestinians believe that we fail to condemn an oppressive occupying power that kills and maims innocents to maintain its grip on their land. Every incident we report, every tragedy we document, is seized on by this segment of our critics as proof of one of these theses.

Our job, as we see it, is to provide the evidence from which readers can make up their own minds. I'm afraid we will never be able to satisty those who want us to come down firmly on their side.

I think, if you got this far, that you'll notice that Ms. Chira doesn't respond to my query.

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