When you hear it from the Washington Post, when you hear it from a source at the United States State Department, or when you hear it perhaps from a diplomat in the know, you show weary interest. But when you hear it from the New York Times, your ears perk up.
The Grey Lady, as the Times was nicknamed in a 1951 article in Life magazine on account of its penchant for circumspection in covering news, is not only the most powerful newspaper in America — indeed, the world — but is an institution that is said to wield more influence than the White House. Thus, when the paper last Sunday had an article on the front page titled ‘Trump team begins drafting Mideast peace plan’, where we were told of a “plan intended to go beyond previous frameworks offered by the American government in pursuit of what the president calls ‘the ultimate deal’”, one became particularly intrigued.
The Times has for decades been relentlessly scrutinised by advocates of Arab and Jewish causes for both its news coverage and editorial stand on the Middle East. Has it been biased against Palestinians? Has it been “good for the Jews? Both sides, it turns out, have a beef with the paper.
Consider the ruckus in the public debate.
A 2002 study published in Journalism, a publication that provides a forum for articles by academic researchers and social critics engaged in probing the journalistic enterprise, examined the coverage of the second intifada (uprising) over a one-month period by the Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. The authors said the Times was “the most slanted in a pro-Israeli direction, with a bias reflected in its use of headlines, photographs, graphics, sourcing practices and lead paragraphs”. A year later, a study in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics concluded that the Times’ reporting was more favourable to Israelis than Palestinians. And in their ground-breaking book, The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy (2007), political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claimed that though the Times occasionally criticised Israeli policies, it was “not even-handed”, identifying it as being generally pro-Israeli.
Conversely, pro-Israeli groups such as the Simon Wisenthal Center, accredited as an NGO at the United Nations, have not only accused the Times (owned since 1897 by a Jewish family of German descent) of not only being unspeakably anti-Israeli, but anti-Semitic as well. So no need here to quote any of their frothing-at-the-mouth rhetoric.
The Times’ former public editor, or ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, in a column published in 2009, asked readers (whose representative he was at the paper) to calm down. “Though the most vociferous supporters of Israelis and Palestinians do not agree”, he said, “I think that the New York Times has tried its best to do a fair, balanced and complete job — and largely succeeded.”
I for one agree.
To be sure, the Times has blundered at times, both in reporting news and in its editorial board’s opinion pieces on the subject. In 2003, as a notorious case in point, it supported the war in Iraq. True, but a year later — in a gesture of penitence reminiscent of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal — admitted that some of its articles had not been “factually rigorous” as they should’ve been, and its senior Middle East correspondent, the often haughty Judith Miller, was made to reign after criticism that her reporting, especially during the lead-up to the war, was just downright inaccurate, not to mention overly favourable to the Bush administration’s position. Back to the mistaken notion that the Times has strong biases that it has deliberately advanced on its pages over the years. In this regard, I refer to a 2012 lengthy piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, titled ‘The Times and the Jews’, by Nigel A. Lewis, a retired Times correspondent, where he referred to a survey of 300 articles in the Times about Israel from 1960 to recent years,
which showed, not bias in favour of one part and prejudice against another, but to a shift in the dialectical tension between Israelis and Palestinians, that in turn led to a shift by the paper from one phase to another in its reporting.
“In the first phase”, wrote Lewis, “in the early decades, Israel was often depicted in the paper as a struggling nation trying to thrive while surrounded by implacably hostile Arab neighbours. This reflected a picture of Israel that was prevalent in America, [where] Jews of the nascent state were heroes and the Arabs were treacherous, dangerous characters. In those early decades, the bulk of the news about and from Israel was distinctly favourable, sometimes even admiring ... but from the beginning of the late 1960s, the narrative began to change to a second, more equivocal phase.”
This is where the template of a David and Goliath no longer fitted, that is, after Israel became an occupying power that greedily expropriated and colonised its victims’ land, and that in the end became an international pariah.
In addition to that, the shift occurred also because journalists began to see Palestinians as underdogs, the true injured party in the dispute. Lewis added in his piece: “Journalism is, in the end, storytelling, and a basic tenet of the craft is that those [Palestinians] at the bottom are more sympathetic characters than the powerful. Their stories can serve as a natural stage for depictions of pathos and suffering — both winning narrative elements.”
The New York Times is not pro-this or anti-that — it’s too professional, too sophisticated, too experienced after 120 years on the job, to stoop that low. Avoid subscribing to it if you must, but don’t slander it.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.