On the first day of 2018, the publisher of the New York Times wrote a letter to his readers. Quoth A.G. Sulzberger: “The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness—because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have.” Fairness and accuracy would be paramount, he promised, “and in the inevitable moments we fall short, we will continue to own up to our mistakes, and we’ll strive to do better.”
The date of the letter suggests it would be only fair to look closely at the 12 months of journalism that followed and judge whether the Times delivered on Sulzberger’s promise of impartial, accurate reporting. That is what the media-monitoring organization CAMERA did when producing a timeline assessing a year’s worth of the newspaper’s coverage of the Arab–Israeli conflict. The timeline, alas, makes clear that the Times fell far short of those promised standards when it came to its coverage of Israel and its opponents.
Again and again, the newspaper distorted the news, downplayed inconvenient facts, and departed from journalistic norms. And while the chronological list of the newspaper’s stumbles is striking, a still more damning picture emerges when we sort those stumbles by common theme—a picture of a newspaper eager to tilt public opinion by glossing over news reflecting poorly on Palestinian actors while at the same time zooming in on perceived Israeli misdeeds.
“More Than Just Victims”
At one point during her tenure as public editor of the New York Times from 2012 to 2015, Margaret Sullivan delivered a stunning message to her colleagues. In an otherwise gentle 2014 column about the paper’s coverage of the Arab–Israeli conflict, Sullivan called on Times reporters to remember that the Palestinians “are more than just victims.” Her colleagues, don’t forget, are professional journalists at the country’s most reputable newspaper. That the public editor felt the need to impart such a rudimentary lesson about the Palestinians, a multidimensional group that has experienced but also imposed plenty of suffering, raised questions then about how much Times journalists actually knew about the conflict, or about impartial journalism.
In 2018, the newspaper demonstrated time and again that it was unwilling to offer frank coverage of news that highlighted the Palestinian role in exacerbating the conflict. In one emblematic example, Times journalist Nellie Bowles described the Palestinian Authority’s payments to families of imprisoned terrorists as a figment of the right-wing imagination. Facebook, she lamented, has been “flooded with far-right conspiracy programming like ‘Palestinians Pay $400 million Pensions for Terrorist Families.’” In fact, the Palestinian government had been perfectly open about its payments. The newspaper, at least in this case, made amends after CAMERA contacted editors. “That is not a conspiracy theory,” a correction noted.
On March 20, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, the “son of a dog.” The New York Times ignored the story, leaving readers in the dark about a dramatic diplomatic incident. You might ask whether the newspaper would likewise look away if an Israeli prime minister denounced an American ambassador. The record gives a clear answer. A couple of years earlier, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu criticized a statement by then-ambassador Dan Shapiro as being “unacceptable and incorrect.” At the time, the Times shined the spotlight on Netanyahu’s incomparably milder statement, covering it in a news story and again in an editorial that slammed Netanyahu’s critique as “unusually personal and unfair.” Apparently “son of a dog” is neither of those.
This protective censorship of Abbas’s words is part of a pattern. After the Palestinian leader delivered an inflammatory address to the PLO Central Council in which he slandered his Jewish neighbors, recited conspiracy theories, and rewrote history, the American Jewish community was united in outrage. Adding his voice to the condemnation from the left and the right, Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. peace negotiator, called the performance an “unhinged speech” that “veered into rank anti-Semitism.” Shapiro, the former ambassador, dubbed elements of the lecture “outrageous,” “bizarre,” and “shameful,” and concluded that Abbas was “out of the peace talks game.”
And the Times? A story on the speech by Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger ignored nearly all of Abbas’s incendiary claims—that Israel traffics in drugs to debilitate Palestinian children, that European persecution of Jews wasn’t religious discrimination but instead a product of the Jews’ “social function,” and that Israel was the secret hand behind the expulsion of Jews from the Arab world, to name but a few examples.
The paper’s omissions were dramatic, but not surprising. Just a month earlier, Abbas had delivered another speech citing specifically anti-Jewish passages from the Koran while telling his audience that “no one is better at falsifying history or religion” than those people. Again, the New York Times reported on the lecture. And again, its article, by Istanbul bureau chief Carlotta Gall, ignored Abbas’s casual anti-Semitism.
Why? This same newspaper thought it was newsworthy, in 2018, that the Israeli prime minister’s wife had lost her temper nearly a decade earlier. Why doesn’t it feel the same about destructive hate speech, today, by the actual Palestinian leader? Refer to the nationalities in the previous two sentences. They explain why a leader’s outburst is ignored, but a spouse’s is covered; why bigotry is swept under the rug, but a tantrum is international news.
Mahmoud Abbas was far from the only beneficiary last year of the newspaper’s selectively gentle touch. Consider this headline, published during the wave of Palestinian riots along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel: “Battle Weary, Hamas Gives Peaceful Protests a Chance.”
Hamas is the internationally designated terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip. Only a day before the Times headline described the group with language from John Lennon’s classic anti-war anthem, Israel had uncovered a Hamas attack tunnel leading from Gaza into Israel. A few days before that, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar declared to Palestinians gathered at the Israeli frontier, “We will take down the border, and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies”—a chilling and illuminating threat that Times reporters opted not to report.
That tunnel and those words are not peaceful. Nor were the rocks, firebombs, and explosives hurled at Israeli targets during what another article by Halbfinger, the Jerusalem bureau chief, nonetheless insisted was Gaza’s “experiment with nonviolent protest.”
The impulse to soft-sell border riots as supposedly peaceful protests was so strong that the newspaper chose to describe well-armed Palestinian combatants as “protesters.” After eight Hamas gunmen and three bomb-planting operatives were killed while attacking Israel, Times Cairo bureau chief Declan Walsh —and correspondents Iyad Abuheweila, Isabel Kershner, Megan Specia, Marlise Simons, and Alan Cowell —repeatedly included the attackers in a count of 60 purported protesters shot by the army. When editors were made aware that the casualties included at least 11 armed assailants, the paper’s standards editor Rogene Jacquette stood by their language. Why?
The Times left no stone-throwing unturned. Under a photo of Palestinian rioters, a caption insisted that “Palestinians threw stones in response to Israeli forces’ intervention during an anti-occupation rally near the Gaza Strip on Tuesday.”
The caption, it turns out, was cribbed from a Turkish state-owned news agency. The so-called rally wasn’t about the occupation, but rather focused on tearing down Israel’s borders. And the stone-throwing was not a “response” to Israeli forces’ intervention. To the contrary, as a Palestinian reporter noted in a piece by Germany’s Deutsche Presse-Agentur: “The demonstrators threw stones and burned tires close to the fence of the border. Israeli soldiers responded with force when the protesters tried to cut the fence’s barbed wire.”
The Times even soft-pedaled rocket attacks. In an article about a barrage of rockets that prompted Israeli counterstrikes on Hamas infrastructure, Halbfinger insisted that “on both sides of the Gaza border, civilians caught up in the fighting said they felt terrorized by it.”
Civilians on both sides terrorized? Sure. But “caught up in the fighting”? That describes Gaza’s residents, not the Israeli civilians who were, in fact, the targets of Hamas’s rockets.
Another story, about another eruption of cross-border fighting, likewise downplayed Hamas rockets by claiming without evidence they were “mostly calibrated to hit border areas rather than population centers.” That was a novel twist on Hamas’s inaccurate and indiscriminate munitions, which had indeed bombarded Jewish population centers during the exchange, and which would have hit more if not for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system. In the 1,000-plus-word piece, moreover, Isabel Kershner never bothered to inform readers that the Hamas rockets preceded and prompted the Israeli airstrikes. Why?
Is it for the same reason that the unprovoked stabbing of an Israeli embassy guard in Amman, which ended with the killing of the assailant, was later rewritten as a “confrontation involving an Israeli guard at Israel’s embassy compound in Amman, which left two Jordanians dead”? Must reporters be reminded that Jordanians, too, are more than just victims?
As the newspaper airbrushed stabbings, shootings, and rocket fire in 2018, it also provided makeovers for anti-Israel ideologies and denigrated Israel’s supporters.
Those Gaza border riots, for example, were part of what Palestinians dubbed the “Great March of Return,” an open reference to the dream of eliminating Israel and its Jewish majority by overwhelming the country with millions of “returning” Palestinians. But in an article about the border tensions, Times reporters erased that goal entirely, with David Halbfinger and Iyad Abuheweila telling readers instead that “the demonstrations were part of a mass protest against Israel’s decade-long blockade of Gaza,” period. (The language was altered after CAMERA contacted Times editors.)
Anti-Israel BDS activists, too, are open about their ultimate purpose, but were likewise laundered by Times journalists. Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, has written that his goal is to eliminate Israel and replace it with “a unitary state where, by definition, Jews will be a minority.” His movement concurs. But in the pages of the New York Times, the ugly eliminationism was transmuted into something softer and more likely to gain support from readers— Richard Pérez-Peña dubbed it a movement “to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel primarily in protest against its settlement and security practices in the West Bank.”
The BDS movement doesn’t hide its range of demands, which amount to a call for the end of the Jewish state. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has noted that BDS seeks to destroy Israel. A left-wing Americans for Peace Now official has written that “BDS’s prime motivation, if their messaging is to be believed, is not to end the occupation at all; rather, it is to end Israel.” And even J Street, a group devoted almost entirely to criticism of Israel, has acknowledged that BDS “does not … recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state.” This isn’t about “settlements.” So why does the newspaper want its readers to think so?
In 2017, Barghouti himself wrote a letter to the Times taking issue with the language that suggested his group is narrowly opposed to the occupation. “The goal of the global Palestinian-led B.D.S. movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is not only to end the ‘occupation of the West Bank,’” he protested (emphasis in original). The goal, he and his movement BDS have long made clear, is the influx of millions of Palestinians into Israel, a demographic gerrymandering meant to eliminate the Jewish majority in Israel in favor of Palestinian rule. Barghouti wiped off the newspaper’s lipstick intended to conceal his goals and recast BDS as an anti-occupation movement. So why has the Times continually applied that lipstick?
This, too, is a pattern. A student named Lara Alqasem temporarily kept out of Israel due to her former position as leader of Students for Justice in Palestine—a pro-BDS campus group that crows about how Israel’s “days are numbered”—was said by Halbfinger to have been barred merely “over a stint as an advocate for Palestinian rights.” Eliminating Israel is not a “Palestinian right.” And to confuse SJP demands with rights is to participate in partisan advocacy.
The newspaper didn’t only transform anti-Israel into pro-rights; it also insisted anti-Israel was, well, not anti-Israel. In a separate story about the SJP student, Times correspondent Isabel Kershner insisted that her “credentials as an anti-Israel activist are far from clear-cut”—as if leadership in a group that the Anti-Defamation League called “the primary organizer of anti-Israel events on U.S. college campuses,” and which “has consistently demonized Israel,” leaves room for ambiguity.
While Israel’s harshest opponents were made unrecognizable by so many coats of gloss, the newspaper applied darker shades to moderate voices. White House correspondent Mark Landler, for example, described the American decision to recognize Israel’s capital as being popular among “a segment of hard-line pro-Israel American Jews.”
In fact, as Voice of America correctly noted at the time, the decision was “welcomed by a majority of the top U.S. organizations representing American Jews.” Subsequent polling revealed that American Jews were evenly split between those supporting the administration’s Jerusalem moves and those opposing it. That’s not a “segment” of “hardliners.”
That same tactic of marginalizing support for Israel can be seen, too, in the paper’s coverage of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body whose anti-Israel bias has been, according to the Times, criticized by “conservatives.”
“Conservatives have been complaining about the council since its inception in 2006,” Gardiner Harris told readers. To make the case, he cited criticism by George W. Bush, Benjamin Netanyahu, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, and Elliott Abrams. That’s all. The takeaway? You can criticize a hostile obsession with Israel. But if you do, dear Times reader, you might just be a conservative.
This framing is a thick cloud of journalistic smoke that concealed nearly constant condemnation of the Human Rights Council from a broad cross section of observers. These include Obama administration ambassadors Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe; Democratic senators Jeff Merkley and Bill Nelson; UN Secretaries General Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan; senior officials from Human Rights Watch; and even, back in 2006, the New York Times editorial board itself, which slammed the council’s “shameful pattern” of bias against Israel.
Does the Times really believe that half of American Jews are “hardliners”? Does it believe that the Obama administration and its own editorial board were stacked with “conservatives”? Or is it using such characterizations as a tool to steer readers toward its preferred positions?
Consider the ugly characterizations the paper reached for to describe Kenneth Marcus’s advocacy against BDS and anti-Semitism. After Marcus was nominated for a position at the U.S. Department of Education, the newspaper’s Erica Green accused him of “choosing sides” against students of color because he opposed BDS and advocated for maligned Jewish students at the University of Wisconsin.
A subsequent article by Green charged Marcus with “squelching anti-Israel speech” and called him a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes” for the offense of supporting a definition of anti-Semitism consistent with the ones embraced by the Obama administration, the European Parliament, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and mainstream Jewish organizations.
So while the anti-Israel student was an “advocate” for Palestinian rights, the foe of anti-Semitism is an “opponent” of those rights. Why wasn’t she an opponent of Israeli rights? These are slippery standards. And they shift again when, in glaring contrast with all this certitude about what Palestinian rights are and aren’t, the newspaper suddenly opted for scare quotes when referring to “the Israeli ‘right’ to land” in its sovereign territory between the Green Line and the Mediterranean Sea.
Let’s add to the mix the newspaper’s description of Peter Beinart, a columnist who devotes most of his energy to deriding the Jewish state, but whom the Times introduced as someone “known for his love of Israel.” This is far from the most egregious example of the newspaper’s editorializing, but it is still worth asking: Known to whom? To the same people who know Marcus as an opponent of rights but who can’t decide whether the leader of a virulently anti-Israel student group is anti-Israel? To those who are silent about Mahmoud Abbas’s anti-Jewish rhetoric but suddenly concerned about screams by Mrs. Netanyahu? To those who insist Palestinian gunmen are “protesters” and Palestinian rock-throwers are merely “responding” to Israel’s outrageous attempts to stop, well, Palestinian rock-throwing? To those who insist that American Jewish supporters of Israel are “hard-line,” critics of the Human Rights Council are “conservative,” and those who mention Palestinian payments to terrorists are “far-right” conspiracy theorists?
These examples are but a sample of 2018’s distortions—but a large enough one to show an entrenched pattern of bias.
That pattern, of course, isn’t unique to 2018. If we had created a timeline for 2017, it would include, for example, Rebecca Flint Marx’s description of Rasmea Odeh, the convicted murderer of two Jews, as merely a “controversial activist.”
The Times has gotten off to a terrible start in 2019, too. After U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib reacted to proposed anti-BDS legislation by charging members of Congress with loyalty to Israel and not the United States, she was widely slammed for endorsing the anti-Semitic dual-loyalty charge.
“They forgot what country they represent,” Tlaib asserted on Twitter. “This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.” To which Senator Marco Rubio responded, “This ‘dual loyalty’ canard is a typical anti-Semitic line.”
Here, though, is how the exchange looked to New York Times readers:
Ms. Tlaib took a swing at anti-B.D.S. legislation this month, writing on Twitter that “this is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.” Mr. Rubio fired back, “This ‘dual loyalty’ canard is a typical anti-Semitic line.”
Reporter Catie Edmondson effectively covered for Tlaib by concealing the most contentious part of her tweet, and she simultaneously made Rubio’s criticism of her dual-loyalty charge—and similar concerns raised by mainstream Jewish organizations—appear nonsensical.
Editing errors happen, of course. But this was no mistake. Rogene Jacquette, the New York Times standards editor, explicitly stood by the paper’s characterization of the exchange.
In ad campaigns, open letters, and codes of ethics, the newspaper asks us to trust its reporting. That requires us to first assess whether it deserves our trust—and here’s the gloomy assessment: The New York Times consistently flouts the rules of ethical journalism. And it does so as part of a campaign to protect anti-Israel activists and steer public opinion against the Jewish state.