At the New York Times, Israel Coverage Must Follow the Editors’ False Narratives
By Gilead Ini, Tower magazine, January 2017
Western Sahara, according to The New York Times, is "disputed territory."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. The status of the large swath of land between Morocco and Mauritania is indeed disputed. Morocco claims Western Sahara as its sovereign territory; the international community does not agree. There is also an ongoing dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a rebel group that has declared a state of its own on the territory. And the Polisario Front has its own dispute with the international community, which does not recognize its state.
Beyond Western Sahara, the Times over the past year hasn't hesitated to tell readers about "disputed territory" in Kashmir, claimed by India and Pakistan; the Scarborough Shoal, contested by China and the Philippines; the Spratly Islands, torn between a number of southeast Asian countries; the Yirga Triangle between Eritrea and Ethiopia; Nagorno-Karabakh, contested by Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists; Bartica, claimed by Venezuela and Guyana; and even territories in Syria and Iraq.
But in its coverage of one particular dispute, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, there is a striking difference in the newspaper's language: News editors have recently acknowledged what amounts to a new policy of avoiding the term "disputed territory," even when describing the land most obviously in dispute—the ground on which Israeli settlements in the West Bank are built. In fact, editors go so far as to insist that this land rightfully belongs to the Palestinians.
This discriminatory double standard and blatant partisanship should raise red flags and engender real doubts about a post-election promise by the Times's publisher and executive editor to "rededicate" the newspaper to honestly reflecting all political perspectives.
To better understand the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over parts of the West Bank, consider the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. This cluster of small villages took root in an area long known as Judea, a testament to the area's importance to Jewish history. The houses and farms were built during the pre-state period on vacant land purchased by Jews in a British-administered territory that the international community, through the League of Nations, had set aside for "close settlement" by the Jewish people.
Under the 1947 United Nations partition plan, which called for British Palestine to be divided into a Jewish and an Arab state, the villages of Gush Etzion were slated to become part of the proposed Arab state. But the Arab world, including the Palestinian leadership, rejected the plan. The Jordanian army went to war against Israel and conquered the area, destroying the villages of Gush Etzion in the process. Jordan quickly annexed the captured territory, which would become popularly known as the "West Bank" of the Jordan River. The annexation was rejected by the international community.
Nineteen years later, Israel repulsed a Jordanian attack during the Six-Day War and took over the West Bank. Under Israeli control, with Jews again able to live in the region, the villages of Gush Etzion were rebuilt—though this too was rejected by the international community.
Attempts to resolve the status of the territories picked up with the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, during which Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to Palestinian self-rule over their population centers in the West Bank. Known under the Oslo agreements as "Area A," these lands are still ruled by the Palestinian Authority—and in that regard can be accurately described as Palestinian land.
Meanwhile, Israeli population centers in the West Bank, located in "Area C" where relatively few Palestinians reside, remain under full Israeli control. The ultimate disposition of Area C was to have occurred, as the parties agreed, in final status negotiations that included borders and settlements, among other issues. A peace plan proposed by President Bill Clinton envisioned Gush Etzion as a permanent part of Israel. Likewise, an informal agreement drafted by some Israeli and Palestinian politicians foresaw the bloc under Israeli sovereignty.
But a majority of Palestinians have expressed opposition to a peace deal that would put any settlements under Israeli sovereignty. At the same time, a majority of Israelis, including a strong plurality of two-state supporters and the head of Israel's largest center-Left opposition party, support keeping settlement blocs like Gush Etzion.
So there can be many answers to the question of "whose land is it anyway?" But there is one answer that no side could reasonably disagree with: The land is disputed.
The New York Times, however, refuses to refer to Gush Etzion and other Area C lands as "disputed."
Why? In response to enquiries from my organization, CAMERA, the newspaper's foreign desk stated that it rejects the word "disputed" in part because Palestinians and their supporters reject it, arguing that it is shorthand for "not occupied." (In reality, the two aren't mutually exclusive—one can regard the West Bank as occupied while still acknowledging the very real dispute over how the territory should be apportioned.)
Of course, the same rationale could be applied in reverse. Some Israelis reject the term "occupied" as shorthand for "not disputed." And yet that word repeatedly appears in the Times. The newspaper's responsiveness to sensitivities about shorthand, it seems, goes only one way.
But never mind shorthand. The Times is explicit about its bias, telling readers in recent months that settlement land is, in fact, Palestinian territory. In other words, it avoids the word "disputed," an objective description that encompasses both sides' point of view, because partisans see it as partisan. But then it freely uses language that is intrinsically, indisputably partisan.
In insisting that settlements are "on Palestinian territory," something the Times has done several times this year, the newspaper is not reporting. It is endorsing. It is treating as an undeniable truth political claims by one side while rejecting as fallacious those by the other side—notwithstanding the objective fact that there is indeed an unresolved dispute over the status of these territories and the location of a future border.
Israel does not view settlement lands as Palestinian territory. Nor do the Oslo Accords. Nor does UN Security Council Resolution 242, the centerpiece of peacemaking attempts since 1967. Nor do a number of respected international legal scholars, among them the late Eugene Rostow, a dean of Yale's law school and top State Department official under President Lyndon Johnson.
Clearly, biased language that accepts Palestinian territorial claims as fact while ignoring reasonable arguments to the contrary should be avoided by impartial news sources. Journalists are not judges sitting in international courts. It is not for them to unilaterally solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Washington Post understood this. In 2014, the newspaper published a correction explaining that one of its articles "incorrectly referred to Israel's occupation of 'Palestinian lands' in the West Bank." Expressing its adherence to the principle of neutrality, it cleared the record by noting that "the Israeli-occupied territories are disputed lands that Palestinians want for a future Palestinian state."
The New York Times, in contrast, has defended its use of prejudicial wording. When challenged, editors directed CAMERA to a State Department web page on which the term "Palestinian Territories" appears as a heading, as well as similar language used by the United Nations.
But the newspaper's insinuation that its language is in accord with U.S. policy is wildly off the mark. The longstanding American position, regardless of a heading on a website, is that the status of the territories, and the location of any future borders, should be decided by the parties as part of final status negotiations.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of State's Foreign Affairs Manual, an authoritative source on government policy, is quite explicit about this: "US policy recognizes...that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are territories whose final status must be determined by negotiations." This position was underscored in 2014 by Martin Indyk, then the State Department's Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, when he acknowledged that some settlements are "in areas that even Palestinian maps in the past have indicated would be part of Israel."
In other words, the Times's language describing settlements in general as located on Palestinian territory is not in line with official State Department policy. It directly contradicts it.
As for the United Nations, whose excesses regarding Israel have been repeatedly condemned, it does not create international law or set borders by virtue of its use of the phrase "Palestinian territories." Not even the recent UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which described Israeli neighborhoods in post-1967 Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank as a "flagrant" violation of international law, defines international law, as the resolution was carried under Chapter VI rather than Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and is therefore not legally binding. And the recent controversy over a UNESCO resolution that downplayed Jewish ties to Jerusalem should give journalists relying on UN language some pause. No sober news editor, after all, would now insist that it is proper to refer to Judaism's holiest site only by its Arabic name merely because UNESCO did so. And no serious newspaper would ever have defined Zionism as racism, even though an ignominious-and ultimately revoked-UN General Assembly resolution leveled that inflammatory charge.
At any rate, it's clear from the Times's coverage of other conflicts that the United Nations does not, in fact, determine the newspaper's choice of words. A United Nations tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and against Chinese claims on the Spratly Islands, but the Times still calls them disputed. Likewise, the UN General Assembly places Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, while the Times persists in calling it disputed.
Even in its coverage of the West Bank while it was under Jordanian occupation between 1949 and 1967, the Times repeatedly ignored international opinion by referring to the territory as part of Jordan. If under Jordanian occupation the territory was Jordanian, but under Israeli occupation the territory is Palestinian, then the guiding principle must not be international law or world opinion, but something else.
In short, the newspaper's defense of its use of language falls flat. So why does it refuse to adopt terms like "settlements in the West Bank" or "settlements on disputed territory," which would be impartial and accurate?
One hint as to why Times editors insist on and strain to defend clearly biased language can be found in the final column written by public editor Arthur Brisbane. In 2012, after two years of contemplating the newspaper and its output, Brisbane concluded that the paper holds a pervasive political and cultural "worldview" that, he says, "virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times" and leads journalists to view certain issues "more like causes than news subjects." Brisbane didn't specifically name the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of those causes. But the newspaper's eagerness to adjudicate a territorial dispute in favor of the Palestinians (along with other examples of such partisanship) leaves little doubt that the newspaper seeks to advocate and not merely inform with its reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Indeed, another of the newspaper's public editors, Margaret Sullivan, echoed the language of her predecessor, describing a "worldview" held by the paper, and even specifying that it underlies news coverage of Israel and the Palestinians. And although Sullivan defended the paper's coverage in general, she did feel the need to remind reporters that the Palestinians are "more than just victims."
Journalists guided by impartiality shouldn't have to be told that the Palestinians aren't "just victims." And they shouldn't have to be told that the status of the land in question is unresolved and not for journalists to decide.
But the Times is guided, at least in part, by something else: a "worldview," or in the words of Michael Cieply, who spent over a decade as a New York Times editor and reporter, a "narrative" to which reporters are expected to conform. In an article about his former employer's coverage of the 2016 elections, Cieply cited an editorial dynamic in which "talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what was often internally called 'the narrative.' We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line."
Another veteran Times journalist, Ari Goldman, used the word "frame" to describe the phenomenon. A few years ago, Goldman, who currently teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism, shared his experience reporting on the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, in which African-American rioters attacked the local Jewish community. During the coverage of the riots, Goldman said, he saw "journalism go terribly wrong."
While reporting on the riots, Goldman sent descriptions of the anti-Jewish violence he witnessed back to the Times office. The next morning, he would pick up the newspaper only to discover that, as he put it, "The article I read was not the story I had reported." His account had been twisted into a story of tit-for-tat attacks between Jewish and black New Yorkers, when in fact the violence had been entirely one-sided and directed against the Jews.
"I blamed the editors," he said. "It was clear that they had settled on a 'frame' for the story"—a frame that was inaccurate.
A worldview. A narrative. A frame. Whatever you call it, when it comes to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, The New York Times clearly seeks to steer readers toward the view that the Palestinians are, more or less, "just victims." And the necessary inverse is that Israel is, more or less, just a victimizer.
This narrative requires the newspaper to obsessively focus on the Israeli occupation, Israeli settlements, and Israeli right-wing ideologues as the explanation for the conflict in general and Palestinian attacks on Jews in particular. It must also downplay the role Palestinian hate speech, incitement to violence, and rejectionism has played in the conflict. Apparently, it also requires the newspaper to dismiss the Jewish connection to any part of the West Bank.
After all, if the entirety of the West Bank and every last settlement is legally, morally, and factually "Palestinian land," no Israeli concession to the Palestinians is a meaningful compromise. And any Palestinian accommodation that accounts for Israeli security concerns, or for Jewish historical and cultural links to the territory, would be an indulgent favor. This view excuses, and even encourages, the Palestinians' refusal to compromise.
Meanwhile, Palestinians engaging in violence against Israeli civilians are, according to this view, motivated by a defense of their objective rights, not nationalism or xenophobia. In short, every day without a resolution to the conflict is another day of Palestinian victimization and Israeli aggression. No matter what the facts may be, the frame remains intact.
This, of course, is a facile and tendentious way of understanding the conflict-one supported by unprofessional and unethical journalistic practices. To quote Goldman's piece on the Crown Heights riots, "Fitting stories into frames...is wrong and even dangerous. Life is more complicated than that. And so is journalism."
Goldman's conclusion certainly applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Times's policy of calling all of the West Bank "Palestinian territory" is factually and historically wrong. It is also dangerous, because it encourages the Palestinian rejectionism that is perhaps the major obstacle to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
In their recent "Letter to Our Readers," Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Dean Baquet proclaimed that the newspaper's journalistic promises have been and will continue to be fulfilled. "We aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism," the letter says. "That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you." The letter also assures readers of the Times's "impartiality" and "fairness."
Are these promises sincere? There is at least one way to tell: If the newspaper begins to reflect "all political perspectives" in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including an acknowledgment that in this conflict, as in so many others, the status of a certain territory is in dispute. If, on the other hand, editors stand by their new policy of describing all of the West Bank as "Palestinian territory," there will be no reason to believe in the newspaper's rededication, or its dedication in the first place, to impartial journalism.