On Tuesday, Dec. 11, I attended a debate at the Alwan Middle East (basically Arab) arts center in downtown Manhattan, about how the New York Times covers the Israeli-Arab conflict. Sponsored by the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, it pitted Howard Friel (the co-author of two books published by Verso, which argues a far left-wing critique of how the NY Times “misrepresents” US foreign policy) against Ethan Bronner, deputy foreign editor for the Times and designated to be its Jerusalem bureau chief in the spring.
Despite the heavily pro-Arab leanings of the audience, Bronner defended the Times quite ably. Basically Friel argued that the Times doesn’t use the only fair objective criteria for covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would be the standard of international law. To Friel, the be all and end all of the issue is that Israel violates international law (specifically, Article 49 [paragraph 6] of the Fourth Geneva Convention) by the building of settlements and other structures (such as the security barrier) on occupied Arab lands in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Bronner does not dispute this and cited frequent editorials and articles in the Times that criticize Jewish settlement activity in these areas.
But Friel expects a certain ideological purity and political engagement that would not be suitable for a general newspaper. I’ve always found the NY Times imperfect but fair-minded and well-intended in its coverage, which is why it’s subject to such strident and emotional attacks from extremes on both sides.
Friel was arguing the conflict instead of looking at what is proper journalism. Like Bronner and Friel, I too believe that settlements are illegal under international law, but articles become dry repetitive propaganda if they constantly repeat this refrain instead of covering real news as Bronner surveyed from examples of recent NY Times coverage.
Friel also knows nothing about the Israeli government. He evidently has no idea that the weak coalition framework that defines Israel’s proportional representation system produces governments in which ministers are free to spout errant nonsense that has nothing to do with actual government policy. Hence Lieberman has views that are generally deplorable, but he has in fact also endorsed a two-state solution, including the incorporation of Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem into a Palestinian state. He may be too fond of the perks of power as a minister to oppose an agreement.
And, contrary to Friel’s assertion (and a further example of his arguing about the conflict instead of journalism), Israel has not rejected the Arab League/Saudi peace plan; that’s what’s on the table in the negotiations inaugurated at Annapolis. In fact, sources close to us say that a Geneva-style agreement is in the offing, if only Olmert and Abbas would have the political courage to follow through. Click for Part 2.