Monday, May 17, 2010

The NYTimes Repudiates Its William Safire

In a May 14, 2010 piece, the New York Times' Public Editor (aka the ombudsman), Clark Hoyt, dealt with 'Semantic Minefields', one of which was the use of the word "settlements to describe locations of Jewish residency in the area set aside by international law - the 1923 League of Nations decision after the removal of TransJordan which still left what today is Judea, Samaria and Gaza no matter what you might call them - as the intended to be reconstituted Jewish national homeland.


...Should new construction authorized by Israel in East Jerusalem be called Jewish “housing” or “settlements”? Times journalists juggle such questions daily as they try to present the news in clear and evenhanded language. Depending on their choices, advocacy groups or individuals of one political persuasion or another accuse them of being inaccurate, retreating into euphemism or taking sides. In the war of words, there is sometimes no safe middle ground.

...No subject arouses reader passion more consistently than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and The Times navigates a semantic minefield with almost every story on the subject. When [Helene] Cooper wrote this month about a lunch that Obama had with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, she said the president was trying to mend fences with American Jews upset at the administration’s stance against construction of “Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.”

Nathan Dodell of Rockville, Md., said it was “tendentious and arrogant” to use the word “settlements” four times in the article when the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has explicitly rejected it in relation to East Jerusalem. Obama has used the term himself to refer to construction in East Jerusalem, and Cooper told me, “I called them settlements because that’s the heart of the dispute between the Israelis and the United States: settlement construction in Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for an eventual Palestinian state.”

But to Dodell, she was taking sides. He asked why she didn’t use a neutral term like “housing construction.”

Settlement is a charged word in this context, because it suggests something less than permanent on someone else’s land. Israel argues that all of Jerusalem is its undivided capital, a claim not recognized by the United States and most of the world. Articles by Times reporters in Jerusalem do generally use words like “housing” instead of “settlement.” Still, Ethan Bronner, the bureau chief, said it would be unwise to adopt a hard and fast rule, because some areas of the city taken by Israel in 1967 had long been Jewish neighborhoods while others, built more recently, had the feeling of settlements.

I think Cooper should have found a more neutral is best to use language as precise as possible. But like Bronner, I don’t think a rigid rule is the solution...

Well, Hoyt could have reviewed what a previous language maven wrote in the New York Times.

As I noted, in my piece on the term "revenant" to replace the very imprecise and pejorative "settler":-

In his August 5, 2001 column, On Language, in the New York Times Weekend Magazine, Safire has written: "Words have connotations. In the disputed territory known as the West Bank, an Israeli village is called a settlement, implying fresh intrusion; a small Palestinian town, even one recently settled, is called a village, implying permanence." Of course, his use of “disputed” rather than “occupied”, or for that matter, “liberated”, in another example of the importance of how one calls an act or a situation.

So, is Safire not good enough for the New York Times?

No comments: