NY Times Public Editor Begins

Daniel Okrent took to the cockpit in his (and the paper’s) new position of Public Editor at the New York Times on December 1. He begins with rhetorical flourish:

Reporters and editors (the thickness of their skin measurable in microns, the length of their memories in elephant years) will resent the public second-guessing. The people who run the newspaper may find themselves wondering how they might get away with firing me before my 18-month term is up. Too many combatants in the culture wars, loath to tolerate interpretations other than their own, will dismiss what I say except when it serves their ideological interests.

But those are their problems, not mine. My only concern in this adventure is dispassionate evaluation; my only colleagues are readers who turn to The Times for their news, expect it to be fair, honest and complete, and are willing to trust another such reader — me — as their surrogate.

Okrent’s even willing to provide some “full disclosure,” which, as Jeff Jarvis says, is something more journalists should emulate:

By upbringing and habit, I’m a registered Democrat, but notably to the right of my fellow Democrats on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When you turn to the paper’s designated opinion pages tomorrow, draw a line from The Times’s editorials on the left side to William Safire’s column over on the right: you could place me just about at the halfway point. But on some issues I veer from the noncommittal middle. I’m an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O’Connor was a great man. I believe it’s unbecoming for the well off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action. I’d rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore. I go to a lot of concerts. I hardly ever go to the movies. I’ve hated the Yankees since I was 6.

Yankee fan or not, Okrent is a welcome – and long overdue – presence on the Times’ staff. His introductory piece is important, so you’re encouraged to read it in its entirety here.

You can reach Daniel Okrent at: public@nytimes
And telephone messages are taken at: (212) 556-7652

December 10, 2003 10:23 By Category : Backspin

Coverage of UN Vote

Most of today’s Israel coverage centered on the UN vote to refer the security fence question to the International Court of Justice (a.k.a. the Hague). In the General Assembly, 90 countries voted in favor, 8 voted against, and a whopping 74 countries abstained. 19 other countries didn’t even vote. So the proposal didn’t muster a legitimate majority of the General Assembly.

Reuters buries the abstentions in the 14th paragraph and you have to do the math yourself to figure out the truth behind the meager majority. Moreover, two paragraphs beforehand, reporter Megan Goldin writes that only eight countries voted against the resolution without mentioning the 74 abstentions.

For contrast, AFP prominently noted an Israeli reaction to the vote:

The Arab-backed resolution was passed with 90 votes for, eight against and 74 abstentions.
Ambassador Dan Gillerman said the near-even split between the yes votes and the no votes and abstentions was a kind of win for Israel, which is regularly criticised by assembly resolutions.
“Israel regards this vote as a moral victory and so should this chamber,” he said, branding those nations which voted in favour of it “mostly tyrannical dictatorships, corrupt and human-rights defying regimes.”

For further contrast, the BBC attributed the abstentions to ambivalence:

The BBC’s correspondent at the United Nations, Greg Barrow, says the abstentions were a clear sign of the ambivalence felt about taking this contentious issue to the court, which could find itself compromised politically if it finds in favour of the Israeli or the Palestinian side.

December 9, 2003 21:27 By Category : Backspin

Student Activism in Dallas

In July, we noted that an enterprising group of Dallas teenagers met with the President and Editor of the Dallas Morning News to discuss the paper’s problematic coverage of Israel.

The student activists — Jordan Hirsch (10th grade), Daniel Bonner (8th grade), and Steven Rosson (11th grade)– have now had another session with the paper’s editorial board, which was written up in the Texas Jewish Post .

By all accounts, the meeting went very well. Hirsch, the group’s chairman, said “The meeting was productive but there’s still alot to be accomplished. We will continue to put pressure on the Dallas Morning News and other media outlets to report fairly about Israel.”

December 9, 2003 15:53 By Category : Backspin

Mendoza Report on PA Funding

The British Parliament’s International Development Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into “Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” This committee is investigating the effectiveness of European aid to the Palestinian population and the impact of the current war conditions on the Palestinian population.

Until a few weeks ago, the list of submissions to the committee was entirely skewed towards a pro-Palestinian view of the issues. Now several new submissions present a countervailing view. One of them, submitted about a week ago, was made by Terry Mendoza. The new website EUFunding.org has just posted a complete copy of that outstanding, highly detailed submission, which should reach an audience outside of British parliamentarians. An excerpt:

Based on a plethora of sources (both media, governmental, and non-governmental), it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Palestinian Authority has systematically been funneling money according to their own purposes and to the detriment of the their own people. It has also become clear that international aid, including European Union funds, is falling into this abyss and thus being misused as well. Even the Palestinian people have become aware of this problem and have demanded change.

Israel, responsible according to the Oslo Accords for providing specified amounts of aid to the Palestinians, has found a way to ensure that their funds are received by the intended parties. The European Union, the World Bank and other donors have still not focused on the need for this supervision. This allows funds to continue to fall into the wrong hands, ultimately to be used for the wrong reasons.

As a taxpayer, it is my right and obligation to demand that all funds be used for proper educational materials, real and improved living conditions, development of infrastructure and more.


December 9, 2003 15:20 By Category : Backspin

Tom Friedman Goes Ballistic

Steven Weiss at Jewsweek reports on an evening at the Israel Policy Forum, featuring Geneva architects Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abbed Rabbo, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. After his talk, Friedman was approached by a critic, and this is how he handled it:

I run over to the stage to catch Tom Friedman for that question-and-answer he promised I’d get after his speech. Harvey Schwartz, a Manhattan lawyer, greets Friedman and with a smile on his face tells him he learned two things from Friedman that night: That the columnist, “Supports drilling in ANWR,” and is, “willing to sacrifice Israel on the altar of Iraq.”

Friedman yells “F**k you,” hits the guy with his right hand, and then shoves him into a small crowd of people with their backs turned. Schwartz has a good foot and 100 pounds on the diminutive Friedman, but he went about three feet backwards from Friedman’s push.

Friedman turns around and sees me with my notebook and tape recorder. Deer in the headlights. Schwartz goes, “Did you get a picture of that?” Still under the lull of the truth is untrue/up is down nature of the event, I consider for a moment whether I’m a photographer. Friedman runs over to an IPF executive, the one who said he does “the most unbelievably insightful reporting ever,” (sans an adjective) to tell on Schwartz. Like those wimpy nerds in grade school, he hits first, tattles second, screaming about “that asshole,” who apparently is so mean that his innocuous comment deserves a whack.

Finally, I have Friedman cornered. Can he answer some questions? “No, no.” But I’ve got one question I think he’ll have a cool answer to: What do you think your role is for the Geneva Accord? “I’m a journalist, I’m a columnist,” he says and then runs away. Sure, he is those things, but only in the loosest sense: more, he’s an actor, a trader, and a fighter.

The man who spent the past few hours pronouncing how we need to see past the present, the rhetoric, and the attacks to achieve peace has just gone violent on some random guy.

You couldn’t ask for a more fitting ending.

December 9, 2003 10:00 By Category : Backspin

Worth Reading Today

* Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren have an article in The New Republic against the Geneva Accord (req. registration):

The Sharon government was elected in a landslide victory to pursue a policy fundamentally incompatible with Geneva. The losers of that election are now trying to circumvent the electoral process and, together with the PA, impose their will by summoning international pressure for the Accord in order to delegitimize the Sharon government. Geneva is the product of Israelis who have forgotten how to defend their nation’s most basic interests. (full text in “Continue reading” below)

* Hamas leaders speak: Rantisi says suicide bombings will begin again soon, and Sheikh Yassin says Israelis should all move to Europe.

* Robert Levine claims in the Washington Post that the oh-so-disturbing European poll that found Israel to be the greatest threat to world peace was completely misunderstood by the world press: “All the survey says is that most Europeans believe that countries at war are threats to world peace. Surprise!”

* IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon told a cabinet meeting Sunday that Damascus is conveying clear and precise instructions to perpetrate terror attacks in the West Bank and Gaza, and is also transferring cash to banks in Nablus to fund these operations.

* Bernard Goldberg, who wrote the book on liberal media bias, did an interview with Right Wing News:

I’ve never said these media elites are bad guys or evil guys. I’ve specifically said there is no conspiracy. They’re living in their lives in this comfortable bubble with like minded people in it. It includes the people in their newsroom with like-minded liberal people in it and after a while they think everything to the right-of-center is conservative and everything to left-of-center is middle of the road. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how they see it.


December 8, 2003 21:22 By Category : Backspin

Burchill, part II

Julie Burchill, the Guardian columnist who’s leaving due to the rampant anti-semitism there, has now published the second part of her statement: The Hate that Shames Us.
(If you missed the first part, here it is: Good, Bad and Ugly.)

December 8, 2003 20:57 By Category : Backspin

Over-reporting Israel

We at HonestReporting spend alot of time scratching our heads over particular articles on Israel, but there’s another aspect of the coverage that’s no less bewildering: the sheer volume of it.

Harvard’s Ethan Zuckerman has a remarkable web page that monitors in real-time the Global Attention Profiles of major media outlets, mapping out what parts of the world the major news services deem important.

Though Israel is certainly a “red zone” (very high interest), it’s telling that one can’t even see the red of Israel on Zuckerman’s color-coded world map, since Israel is so small. So click through to the tables format, where you find that on the AP wire today, Israel and the West Bank’s coverage-to-population correlation are by far the highest, at over 3000%.

The over-reporting of Israel, now quantified, is an important element of biased coverage of the conflict. A few reasons why:

1) The prominence “granted” to Israeli power distorts the geographical reality: Israel is a tiny nation surrounded by Arab states that, at best, coldly tolerate Israel’s existence. This military reality fades behind the barrage of “Israel Kills…” headlines.

2) Faulty and misleading reporting (such as this) is amplified beyond compare.

3) Israel’s conscientious anti-terror effort is scrutinized in a manner no other nation is forced to confront.

4) The thousands of reporters in Israel have to file lots of stories to keep their editors happy, and dramatic writing grabs the most attention. Drama, in this context, almost invariably means exaggerated portrayal of Israeli aggression (unless Palestinian terrorists have recently struck, in which case Israel gets a momentary reprieve).

Now the question is, why is Israel so disproportionately over-reported?

December 8, 2003 0:28 By Category : Backspin

Israel’s Predicament

Imagine the American forces in Iraq tolerating this from hostile locals:

A Palestinian teenager hangs a tire
on the barrel of an Israeli army tank
during clashes in Balata refugee
camp near the West Bank city of Nablus

(December 6, 2003. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini)

Here’s this scene in a nutshell:

If the tanks don’t pursue the terrorists, they murder more innocent civilians.
If this Palestinian’s tire is filled with explosives, the tankists die.
If the tankists shoot the Palestinian as he struts right up to their tank, Israel is condemned worldwide for cruelty.

That’s Israel’s predicament today.

December 7, 2003 14:25 By Category : Backspin

Losing the TV War

Two Hebrew University lecturers say Israel is being defeated on the news’ “TV war”:

There are many reasons for this daily thrashing on the world’s screens. A major one emerges from the contrast between the striking invisibility of terror and the salience of daily images of Israeli military action.

The media know that clashes are attention grabbers: Squaring-off turns audiences on. Contests draw attention, as family feuds, shouting contests at the office, or brawls on city streets daily demonstrate.

One protagonist is the terrorist sporadically striking out of nowhere at vulnerable civilian populations; the other is a powerful organized army systematically confronting Palestinians as the terrorists vanishes into crowded urban habitats.

Television indeed gets repulsively exciting footage of one side of this satanic equation: impregnable tanks storming stone-throwing children, hellfiring helicopters targeting decrepit station wagons, young soldiers, armed to the teeth, confronting the elderly, the pregnant, the infant, at security checkpoints, too frequently with undue violence.

But on the other side of the equation, when the terrorists play their hand, television is impotent: It can show no dramatic contest or realtime violence: Terrorists strike where they are least expected. Unlike tanks and infantry battalions, they cannot be identified, let alone filmed, until it’s too late.


December 7, 2003 14:03 By Category : Backspin