Jewish Press (August 13, 2014)
Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who succeeded his father-in-law Adolph S. Ochs as publisher of The New York Times in 1935, embraced Ochs’s determination that the Times would never appear to be a “Jewish newspaper.” It would publish “all the news that’s fit to print.” A month before Israel declared independence Sulzberger lamented: “JEW is to be the common denominator for everything we do. God help us!”
The Times remains faithful to Ochs-Sulzberger dogma. The unrelenting Hamas missile assault against Israel, punctuated by deadly tunnel invasions of Israeli territory, provoked a fierce – and eminently justified – Israeli air and ground response. It also triggered the repetitive Times story line of moral equivalency that equates Israeli retaliation with Hamas provocation.
The Gaza war afforded the Times a perfect opportunity to highlight Palestinian suffering from Israeli responses to Hamas assaults. The benefit to Hamas from using human shields to protect its command centers and rocket storage sites was evident: Israel would be blamed. As Prime Minister Netanyahu declared: “We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using civilians to protect their missiles.” The Times carefully ignored that distinction.
Israel received little credit for warning Gaza civilians to evacuate neighborhoods where Hamas fighters sought refuge and rocket launchers were stored, often adjacent to – or inside – hospitals, mosques and schools. While a bevy of Times journalists reported from Gaza not one was posted in Sderot or kibbutzim in southern Israel, the constant target of Hamas rockets long before the current attacks began.
Neither combatant, the Times inaccurately reported (7/14), was prepared to “signal interest in international appeals for a cease-fire as they continued their barrages.”
In fact, Israel accepted the Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Hamas instantly rejected. Times reporter Anne Barnard reported (7/15) that Israel was to blame (so her Palestinian sources asserted) for its continued “occupation” of Gaza – which, Barnard failed to note, ended nearly a decade ago.
Times columnist Nicholas Kristof demonstrated his mastery of moral equivalency. It is “hard-liners on each side,” he wrote (7/16), “who are driving events.” To be sure, he conceded to Israel “a right to respond” to Gaza rockets – but only “with some proportionality” that he did not demand from Hamas, which launched rocket attacks unprovoked by anything other than Israel’s existence. Only a “minimalist response” from Israel to Hamas rocket attacks could end the conflict. He imposed no such constraints on Hamas.
The Times became so transfixed by Gaza suffering that even its photographers became partisan journalists. Tyler Hicks’s self-proclaimed responsibility “to document… the news” expanded to include editorial commentary. After photographing the tragedy of four young boys killed by an Israeli missile, he wrote (7/17): “Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes … don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters.”
The Times refrained from exploring in any depth the location of Hamas missiles in civilian neighborhoods, in or near schools, hospitals and mosques, the better to trigger wrath against Israel for the civilian casualties that inevitably resulted from its retaliatory strikes. Indeed, it was revealed that United Nations Relief and Works Administration representatives discovered rockets stored in a Gaza school, only to turn them over to Hamas.
After enduring nearly two weeks of constant rocket assaults, the Israel Defense Forces spotted armed Hamas terrorists exiting a tunnel inside Israel to attack a nearby kibbutz. Israel then launched a ground assault into Gaza to destroy the tunnels. The Times response, co-written by Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren (7/18), predictably focused on the toll exacted on Palestinian civilians by Israeli retaliation for the Hamas invasion. Hamas responsibility for the suffering of its own people was ignored.
In a Times opinion column (7/17) Nathan Thrall claimed that Israel’s refusal to ease its “suffocating border closures” in Gaza, and its attempts to isolate the Hamas government internationally, forced Hamas into “seeking through violence” what it could not obtain otherwise. Two days later the lead Times editorial approvingly cited Thrall’s blame-Israel approach. Conceding that Israel could not be expected to tolerate bombardment, for which “Hamas leaders deserve condemnation,” it nonetheless emphasized that “innocent Palestinians are being killed and brutalized” – largely, to be sure, because Hamas aggression exposed them to danger. But military action, it advised, “is not a long-term solution.” Jodi Rudoren, evidently enthralled by Thrall, insisted that it was “somewhat dangerous” for Netanyahu to emphasize demilitarization of Hamas as the Israeli objective.
The Times continued to provide variations on the theme of moral equivalency. Asking “Who’s Right and Wrong in the Middle East,” Nicholas Kristof (7/20) began with “Israeli troops again invading Gaza” before moving to “cross-demonization” by “two peoples who each have plenty of right.” In the end, for Kristof, it is “a conflict between right and right.” Rejecting “equivalence,” he prefers “symmetry” – between Hamas terrorism and Israeli democracy.
In an opinion column (7/31) Timothy Egan blamed “extremists on both sides” for the war Hamas initiated. The Israeli response, not Hamas aggression, remained the centerpiece of moral equivalency in Times reporting, commentary and editorializing – and the difficulty a reader might encounter trying to distinguish one from the other.
As the Gaza war reached a crescendo of violence, moral equivalency shaded inexorably into palpable anti-Israel bias. In one lead story (7/21), Anne Barnard and Isabel Kershner skimmed quickly past the tunnels that transported Hamas fighters into Israeli territory in search of civilian and military targets. Barnard wrote poignantly about the plight of Gaza civilians without mentioning Hamas responsibility for launching the rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel that caused their hardship.
With the increasingly heavy toll of Hamas aggression on Gazans, civilian suffering – but not the Hamas rockets and terror tunnels that provoked it – became the virtually exclusive focus of Times coverage. It focused on the morgue in Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, not the Hamas command center below where its leaders took refuge. Its endlessly reiterated update on Gaza “civilian” deaths, provided by UNRWA, did not disclose how many were combatant-age males.
The Times’s barrage against Israel was encapsulated in an opinion essay by Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer (7/22). He succinctly described Gaza, where “nowhere is safe. Not a mosque. Not a church. Not a school, or even a hospital.” He did not say why: because Hamas rocket attacks from those locations provoked and sustained the conflict. Mentioning damaged and destroyed homes, he noted the impossibility of rebuilding because cement is “severely rationed” by Israel, which “suspects” that it is used to build tunnels for Hamas attacks. Only “suspects”?
Rudoren finally reported from Sderot (7/22), one mile west of Gaza, whose residents have been targeted by rockets ever since the total Israeli withdrawal nearly a decade ago. There she discovered Koby Hill, where middle-aged men (occasionally joined by women and children), seated on a sofa and beach chairs, contentedly munched watermelon and cheered the spectacle of the Israeli rocket “show.” (To be fair, that was a journalistic improvement over the CNN reporter whose Twitter post described the hilltop Israeli spectators as “scum.”)
Defending its Gaza coverage, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy responded to a sharp critique in The New York Observer (which I authored) by asserting that it “was written by someone with a particular point of view on the subject of Israel” – as though the Times itself has none. She airily dismissed critics “because they’re not interested in fair reporting” – disregarding the palpably slanted reporting in the Times.
Ms. Murphy ignored the glaring reality, documented by Noah Pollak in The Weekly Standard, that Times coverage all but ignored pictures of Hamas fighters, tunnels, rockets, and human shields. Virtually its only photos exposed the civilian casualties caused by Israeli retaliation for Hamas attacks. These are “balanced” by photos of Israeli tanks and soldiers. It is not difficult to discern who, according to the Times,are the aggressors.
Even its front-page headline “Israel Says Hamas is Using Civilians as Shields” (7/24) implied doubt about what could not be more obvious. Although Israel “says” so, Barnard and Rudoren wrote: “Nothing is ever so clear in the complex and often brutal calculus of urban warfare.” The Times reporters claimed “There is no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack — the legal definition of a human shield under international law.” False. The Geneva Conventions assert: “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”
“At the root of the dueling allegations,” they wrote, “are the two sides’ very different views.” The retreat to moral equivalency was blatant. It ignored the reality that justified the Israeli bombing of Al-Wafa hospital in Gaza City, which housed a Hamas military command-and-control center and access shafts to its tunnel network. The Israeli attack triggered damaging secondary explosions, suggesting a substantial arms cache beneath the hospital.
The death of Sergeant Max Steinberg, the Golani Brigade “lone soldier” who made aliyah from Los Angeles and was killed in battle fighting for his adopted homeland, reverberated throughout Israel, and in media outlets worldwide. In a remarkable outpouring of sorrow and respect, 30,000 Israelis attended his funeral at the Har Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. The Times, however, mentioned his name (7/24) only in the caption of a photograph taken far from the burial site showing nothing more than two dozen spectators and an Israeli flag. Given the Sulzberger legacy,an American Jew fighting and dying for Israel could only arouse primal anxiety at the Times over allegations of divided loyalty.
It took three weeks of rocket attacks before Times coverage displayed any sign of moderating the paper’s prevailing narrative of blaming Israel for responding to Hamas aggression. There was a discernible shift in its coverage (7/25) of terrible explosions at a UN school killing 16 Gaza civilians who had gathered there for safety. The page 1 story by Ben Hubbard, its young Cairo-based reporter, was distinctive for its refusal to fault Israel, noting “the source of the blasts was unclear.” Even the lead Times editorial conceded that Israel “has reason” to respond with “strong military action” against rocket attacks while Hamas deserved “the strongest possible condemnation” for locating weapons in densely populated areas.
But the Times quickly recovered its equilibrium. Editorial board member Serge Schmemann, hewing to Times dogma, proposed (7/27) the creation of “two separate states” as the “only solution,”with the United States as “the only viable mediator.” Rudoren, who had returned to Jerusalem, glibly described her underground tunnel “tour” as “part of the propaganda push” conducted by the IDF (7/29).
Only displaced Gaza civilian victims of Hamas warfare were deemed worthy of Times attention. Nearly four weeks into the fighting the Times still ignored the mass exodus from border kibbutzim as thousands of Israelis fled Hamas rockets for safety elsewhere. Nor had it mentioned Hamas responsibility for the deaths of scores of Gaza children who had died in “workplace accidents” while building its tunnels. It also ignored the rocket fired from the parking lot of Al-Shifa hospital, a war crime reported by a Finnish TV journalist despite Hamas warnings of retribution for such revelations. The booby-trapped UNRWA clinic whose explosion killed three Israeli soldiers was not mentioned. Similarly, only near the end of a lengthy Page 1 article (8/3) did Times reporters refer to five mosques concealing Hamas weapons attacked by Israel.
Barely one hour into the cease-fire announced by Secretary of State Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on July 31, Hamas suicide fighters killed three Israeli soldiers including 2d Lt. Hadar Goldin, initially believed to have been kidnapped. President Obama and Secretary Kerry – but not the Times – denounced that “outrageous” cease-fire violation. Rudoren and Kershner merely noted that “neither side” is ready to end the conflict until its goals are met (8/2). Columnist Roger Cohen (8/3) preposterously blamed “the open-air prison of Gaza” on Israel’s “failing to reach out to Palestinian moderates and extending settlements in the West Bank.” After all, “millions of Palestinians are oppressed” under “Israeli domination.” About Hamas oppression and domination in Gaza he remained silent.
One month after Hamas launched its war against Israel the Times spearheaded the media chorus of denunciation of the Jewish state. Two lengthy front-page articles (8/4) were devoted to Israeli damage to Gaza civilian sites and harm to their inhabitants. Buried near the end of one came the brief, but hardly irrelevant, aside: “Israel said that 55 rockets were fired from Gaza” the day before. But that was not a story line the Times cared to pursue.
On the first day of the first August cease-fire, the Times ran a poignant article about a traumatized Gaza psychologist and lengthy wartime diary extracts by a Gaza writer. By then, however, even the pretense of moral equivalency had vanished. There was no mention of Israelis, traumatized by incoming rockets and underground tunnels, who had fled their homes for safety. No interviews with Israeli psychologists treating terrified children were included.
But two weeks earlier, in its Sunday Travel Section (7/20), readers were invited to participate in a forthcoming “Times Journey” through “the geographical, cultural, historical and political landscapes of Israel and the West Bank.” Its leader was identified as a “featured expert” – none other than Hanan Ashwari, a member of the PLO Executive Committee. So much for Times objectivity.
No careful reader of the Times could be surprised by the anti-Israel tilt of its reporting and editorializing. The newspaper that buried the Holocaust on its inside pages, whose publisher resolutely opposed Jewish statehood, and whose editors, reporters, columnists and op-ed contributors routinely engage in Israel-bashing, undermines Adolph Ochs’s commitment to “all the news that’s fit to print.”
Its current translation means all the news that fits its unrelenting castigation of Israel.