Journalists on media coverage of Israel

Journalists on media coverage of Israel

In Gershom Gorenberg and Nicholas Lemann, we have two top-notch liberal journalists. Gorenberg, a kippa-wearing American oleh who resides in Jerusalem, has been increasingly sharp in his writing and blogging regarding Israel.

Long associated with The Jerusalem Report and now with The American Prospect, Gorenberg is currently in New York as a visiting professor of Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University. Nicholas Lemann was a correspondent for The New Yorker and is now the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Lemann chatted amiably with Gorenberg before a modest-sized audience at Columbia’s J School on the evening of Feb. 22. Since the event was also sponsored by the department of Israel and Jewish Studies, Lemann felt it appropriate to point to the large portrait of Joseph Pulitzer behind them, to riff on Pulitzer’s Jewishness: How Jewish was he? “More Jewish than he owned up to.” And he went on to explain that he was “too Jewish” for the Columbia University trustees to name the journalism school’s building after; but since the prize is in his name, he got the better part of the deal.

Here’s a key observation made by Gorenberg: that when covering a story (doing “the first draft of history”), a journalist often doesn’t know what’s behind the news because he doesn’t have access to the relevant sources at the time. He illustrated this by way of the following: In researching his book on the post-1967 settlements, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, he learned from archival documents–which he had to sue to gain access to–that in contrast to what everyone had believed until then, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol used the pressure of nationalists as cover to reestablish Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz destroyed in the 1948 war, which he had intended to resettle anyway.

Gorenberg mentioned that for the first few decades of Israel’s history, journalism was mostly in the service of political ends, because most newspapers were affiliated with political parties. It was not until after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that Israel’s press began to be skeptical or cynical of government statements. By the 1990s, the era of party newspapers was basically over and most of Israel’s media was commercially owned.

When asked how “objectivity” is regarded in Israeli journalism, he said that it’s an ideal that’s hard to obtain because of the emotional intensity of Israel’s conflicts and because Israel is so small that it’s hard not to have a personal connection to your stories. He stated this in an exaggerated way, that Israelis all “know everybody.”

It is partly for this reason that when asked (in an index card I submitted) about Ethan Bronner–the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief who recently was the subject of controversy because his son has joined the Israel Defense Forces–he responded that it was a trivial matter. Lemann agreed but I was unconvinced. I’m with Clark Hoyt, the New York Times “public editor,” that Bronner should be reassigned—not because he did anything wrong, but because the appearance of potential bias is a legitimate concern.

Gorenberg does know some Israeli journalists (whom he did not name) who do not show their political biases in their news writing. He regards this as a good thing, as do I.

Gorenberg also reflected on two unfortunate truths about Israel:
1. Since–unlike most other immigrant groups–most American Jews really don’t have an “Old Country” (because of the Holocaust), Israel has been forced to fill this role for American Jews. This sentimentalizes Israel, making it hard for Jews to view it as a real country.
2. Since Jews have a place in Western Civilization that is “mythic,” things having to do with Jews have an extra emotional charge; hence Israel is a “world celebrity” that gets outsized coverage and outsized criticism. Gorenberg’s half-joking illustration: a minor demonstration may be covered in Jerusalem while a civil war somewhere else is missed.

By | 2010-02-23T21:30:00-05:00 February 23rd, 2010|Blog|3 Comments


  1. Hillel Schenker February 27, 2010 at 6:41 am - Reply

    My take on the “Bronner controversy” is that he has done nothing wrong, and that he is actually one of the best Israeli correspondents that the NYTimes has ever assigned to Israel in terms of accuracy, fairness and empathy for both sides. That’s saying quite a bit since his predecessors include Tom Friedman and David Shipler, who were also excellent.
    The fact that his son may or may not serve in the IDF has nothing to do with his ability to cover the story. Does the fact that senior Yediot commentator Nahum Barnea’s son was killed in a suicide attack on a Jerusalem bus in any way effect his excellent column? Does the fact that I served in the IDF in any way affect my ability to serve as Co-Editor Of the Palestine-Israel Journal? In many ways, it enhances it. Just as the fact that my co-editor Ziad AbuZayyad was imprisoned by the Israelis at one time perhaps enhances his ability to write about the conflict and the quest for a solution.
    Personally, I am not happy with the campaign against Bronner, and think it’s misplaced.


    Hillel Schenker
    Palestine-Israel Journal

  2. Ralph Seliger February 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    All good points made by Hillel. Neither Mr. Hoyt nor myself dispute Bronner’s good work. It’s the appearance of bias that’s at issue here.

  3. Yehuda Erdman February 28, 2010 at 8:04 am - Reply

    Dear Ralph
    Being a Jew has for a very long time exposed the individual as well as Jewish communities to far more media coverage than they either deserved or wanted. The classical example was the Dreyfus trial well over 100 years ago now. This awakened Herzl’s own feelings towards his Jewish roots (he wasa journalist reporting on the trial), and resulted later in his contribution to the creation of the political Zionist movement with all the aftermath.
    I do remember a famous joke about the SA rallies held at the time of the Nazi rise in Germany. At a public meeting a rabble-rouser was going on about the Jews being responsible for this, that and the other evil in society. Each time, a small Jew standing at the front shouted out “and the cyclists!”. After a short while a couple of hefty brownshirts hauled him to one side and before giving him a thrashing, he was asked “why the cyclists?”. He replied “why the Jews?”
    This can be inserted in to modern debates about all sorts of issues and I think the moral is to try and keep a sense of proportion.

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