Public Editors and Structural Bias
The tenure of Margaret Sullivan as Public Editor of the New York Times (NYT) ended on April 16, 2016, with her column “Public Editor No. 5 Is Yesterday’s News.” This followed four years of challenging work and the 691 columns and blogs she produced in carrying out her role, which she describes as “spokesperson for readers.” Sullivan was the fifth and best of the paper’s public editors, but there were serious limits to what she did or could do in that position, and she must have known and accepted them in advance. The Times officials who hired her would have vetted her carefully–she had edited the Buffalo News for over a decade– and known that she would operate within acceptable limits. She is moving on to the position of media columnist at the Washington Post (WP), And her NYT replacement, Elizabeth Spayd, worked for some years at the WP and comes directly from the editorship of the Columbia Journalism Review. Both the NYT and WP are top level establishment institutions: both supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003; both have been durable supporters of the U.S.-Israel alliance and Israeli policy; and neither has paid significant attention to the war on, and slow decline of, labor unions in the United States over the last 35 years.
Sullivan claims that the NYT has and should maintain “abiding attention to society’s havenots.” To the war on labor and decline of labor unions, which they have scanted for years? She doesn’t speak about treatment of this society’s external victims and those of our client states, which are so commonly treated in the NYT and elsewhere as “unworthy” victims, but Sullivan does mention the importance of “values,” “journalistic integrity,” “balance,” and the “core mission… to find and tell the truth ‘without fear or favor’.” These are fuzzy and leave lots of room for ideological and other forms of bias. She also stresses the danger of pushing news defined by the algorithms and priorities of the increasingly important news operations of social media. This is a good point, but more important is the threat of accepting as news and specific interpretations of the news alleged facts and interpretations that are pushed by governments and powerful interest groups in their own perceived interest. Recall once again “the lie that wasn’t shot down” by the NYT in 1983 on the shooting down of KAL-007, in service to a Cold War propaganda program. There is a very good case that this same kind of lie has been pushed by the NYT as regards the July 17, 2014 shooting down of Malaysian airliner MH-17 over southeastern Ukraine.1
Where powerful political interests are involved and a party line has been established, ”balance” and “truth telling …without fear or favor” go out the window. The war party, which includes the members of the military-industrial complex and pro-Israel interests, led to the party-line acceptance by the NYT and WP of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction threat in 2002-2003 and the major aggression that followed. For many years Israel has been able to engage in a steady and theoretically illegal process of ethnic cleansing in Palestine, punctuated by major acts of war and war crimes, with the steady support of the United States and its allies, and hence the NYT and WP.
There was no “balance” in the news or editorial coverage of this process. Language was adapted to support this political bias—most notably, the Israelis “retaliating” to the “terrorism” of the victimized and terrorized unchosen people who regularly upset a mythical “peace process.” The evidence of imbalance in the NYT coverage is massive. Take this small pair of illustrations: First, in the course of a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Israel on May 5, Major-General Yair Golan, deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, gave a speech in which he denounced “revolting trends” that occurred in Nazi Germany and were now taking place “among us, in 2016.” These remarks caused an uproar in Israel, with Golan both denounced and defended. His statement was made shortly after a judicial exoneration of an Israeli soldier who had shot dead a wounded Palestinian prisoner. The shooting and decision were widely condemned, but also widely praised. In this context, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who had denounced this assassination and decision, and said of their supporters that they “don’t back our laws and values,” resigned, with his defense portfolio given to the extremist rightwinger Avigdor Lieberman.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak entered this controversy, stating on a TV interview that “extremists have taken over Israel” and that the country has been “infected by the seeds of fascism.” This was reported by Haaretz on May 20, which, among other things, published a satirical piece by one of their regular contributors, B. Michael, entitled “Why would that general compare Israel to 1930s Germany? Hmm…” (May 16). Michael goes on to list 25 possible reasons that might have passed through “that anti-Semitic general’s head” when he made his comparison: To take just two as illustrative—“(13) The brilliant legal sophistry that prohibits the ‘unchosen’ from purchasing state lands. Only the chosen people may do so.…. (24) A state that insists it is the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East, whereas it is actually the only ‘military theocracy’ in the entire world.”
The NYT failed to mention the much debated Golan statement, or the followup remarks of Ehud Barak. They also failed to reprint Michael’s piece!
The second illustration is the small Israeli controversy over the Independence Day festival’s soldiers’ performance where the soldiers formations depicted a peace dove, a Star of David, and then suddenly formed the phrase: “One Nation, One People.” Some observers found this disquieting, too close to the old Nazi formula of “One Nation, One People, One Fuhrer.” There is a large minority non-Jewish population in Israel, and a majority in the occupied territories that Israel has gradually and de facto absorbed into a greater Israel. In this connection it is notable that Culture Minister Miri Regev, who organized the ceremony, said that ”The phrase ‘one people, one nation’ is an expression of the just aspiration of the Zionist movement since its inception to establish a Jewish state.” This would seem to make the link to Nazi usage more salient. Commentators in Israel, while mainly stressing the great distance of Israel from the Nazi model, are more frequently calling attention to the threat of trends in the same direction, as did Yair Golan and Ehud Barak.2 The NYT chose to play dumb on this story.
It is not just an angry Israeli critic like B. Michael you are not likely to see in the NYT, you will very very rarely see those outstanding Haaretz reporters Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, or U.S. analysts like Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk and Norman Finkelstein. Of these five, there was a single byline by Amira Hass in 2001 and one each for Chomsky and Falk in the years from January 1, 2000 to May 30, 2016 (grand total, 3). On the other hand, strong supporters of the Israeli establishment and Israeli policy Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross and Bernard-Henri Levy had 19, 16 and 9 bylines in the paper during the same period, for a grand total of 44. Balance anyone?
This imbalance and bias is not confined to the opinion pages. Another important Times-related source on Israel and Palestine is the web site TimesWarp, run since late 2012 by retired journalist Barbara Erickson. She has produced a steady stream of critiques of NYT news coverage of Israel/Palestine, her rather short pieces appearing roughly once a week. Her latest at time of writing is “The NY Times Plays the Israeli Army’s Game: Hyping Threats, Shielding Criminals” (May 30, 2016). The first three paragraphs proceed as follows:
The New York Times reports today that Israel faces ‘monumental security challenges’ and is now caught in a debate over just how tough the military should be with those who threaten to harm its soldiers and civilians.
The story, by Isabel Kershner, is framed around ‘months of Palestinian attacks’ that have left some 30 Israelis dead. She makes no mention anywhere of the more than 200 Palestinians killed by security forces over the same time period, nor does she say anything about the brutal conditions of the occupation that provide the impetus for Palestinian assaults.
Kershner briefly notes that Palestinian and human rights groups have accused the Israeli military of ‘excessive force,’ but she fails to say that the charges go beyond this vague reference: In fact, numerous groups have accused Israel of carrying out ‘street executions’ of Palestinians who posed no real threat to soldiers or civilians.
Erickson’s critiques of the NYT news reporting have been detailed and crushing, yet they have not had any observable impact on the paper’s coverage of this area, and Erickson’s name has never been mentioned in print by the public editor. Israel’s ethnic cleansing is protected by the United States and thus by the editors of the Newspaper of Record. This is how a unified and effective power system does its job.
- See Robert Parry, “More Game-Playing on MH-17 ?” Consortiumnews.com, May 24, 2016
- See Asher Schechter, “’One People, One Nation’: A Visual Representation of the Ignorance That Threatens to Consume Israel,” Haaretz.com, May 13, 2915
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