Inside the Times Road Map Phobia
Bronner: We'll Do Better Next Time
Several times over the past few months, most recently here and here, I've noted the New York Times's refusal to mention Palestinian obligations under the Road Map to dismantle terror organizations -- even to the point of deleting a reference to the Road Map from a correspondent's story. Any outside observer can point to the pattern of bias at work here, but one party has not been heard from: the Times itself.
Well, a reader has passed on to me a revealing series of emails from Times correspondents and editors. So now we know the reason: The Times has deliberatedly omitted references to Palestinian obligations under the Road Map, as a way of punishing Israel.
Yep, the Times takes the position that Israel's behavior is so horrible, that it has been so unfair to the poor, poor Palestinians, that it is basically OK for the Palestinians to keep the terrorist organizations alive -- in direct contravention of their obligations of the Road Map. Oh, and when the Times's position is logically pointed out, the Times's deputy foreign editor admits he's wrong. And gosh, he's going to do a better job next time!
Really. Here are some excerpts from the exchange of emails, which was prompted by Steve Erlanger's recent pro-Palestinian news analysis, which I fisked here.
Erlanger, I should point out, is amply qualified to cover the Middle East -- as epit0mized by his famous reference some months ago to Yasir Arafat's "heroic history" -- which, as you can imagine, warmed the hearts of the passengers of the Achille Lauro and other victims of Black September. But I disgress. Anyway, the exchange:
Our reader first wrote Erlanger to question Erlanger's use of the phrase "committed to non-violence," in referring to Mohammed Abbas. Said the reader: "Has he, for example, ordered Palestinian state media to cease all anti-Jewish diatriabes--which are by their nature, violent? Has he ordered Palestinian schools to cease teaching Palestinian children irredentist dreams...? Don't readers deserve the whole story here?"
"Second, you characterize the roadmap as a 'rough outline'. While that may or may not be the case, certainly, with respect to violence against Israelis, the roadmap is crystal clear. The Palestinians are REQUIRED to undertake visible, sustained actions to arrest, disrupt and restrain individuals engaging in violence against the Israelis." He went on to point out that Israelis have "the legal right to stick to their guns. And, by the way, since they have pulled out of Gaza, they also have an unquestionable legal right to conduct reprisals against terrorists. (A sovereign state does not have to tolerate cross-border incursions. That is a fixture of international law, the real kind, not the made-up nonsense that various organizations like to spout. Perhaps, just once, the NY Times should note that when Israel attacks terrorists.)"
Here's Erlanger's response:
From: Steven Erlanger (email@example.com)
Subject: Re: "Committed to Non-Violence"
Date: Fri, 14 Oct 2005 17:58:38 +0200
we don't disagree here on very much. but he [presumably Abbas] has ordered the palestinian media to do that - with some success, not perfect success by any means. schools, i think no progress... not that i know. and i dont disagree with you on the road map -- as you describe it, as opposed to the way mr. sharon usually does. begin to dismantle is the language for the first stage... and yes, they are committed to it, and it's not just some israeli demand. i do try to keep all this straight, but i can't write footnotes to every article.
allbest, steven erlanger"
Aw, gee. Poor guy. Tries to get it all straight. Tough job. Anyway, Palestinian obligations aren't very important. Just stuff you'd put in a "footnote."
It gets better.
Our reader wrote back:
"I certainly understand the limitations of space, but I really think that the Abbas 'committed to non-violence' thing is a bit of a whitewash--given his obvious softness with respect to terror attacks against Israel--he whines every time the Israelis attack terrorists, something which they have EVERY RIGHT, as a sovereign state to do. And I think that asides like, 'as the roadmap makes clear' would go a long long way. It also wouldn't hurt to actually quote the roadmap.
The articles, I notice, read a bit like 'those meanie Israelis are being intransigent'. Let's not forget that this country captured these lands in a war it did not start (remember, the Egyptians, by instituting a blockade, created the casus belli, and blockades are an act of war)."
The reader, having heard nothing for a couple of days, wrote again to point out that "I am not sure of the accuracy of your article."
He quoted from the article and then observed,
"Isn't the Palestinian position, i.e., parallel negotiations on a final peace settlement in direct conflict with the road map?. . . I don't know the Times' corrections policy, but this seems to warrant, at the very least, a clarification. You have characterized the dispute as one about how to implement the roadmap, when actually there seems to be an attempt by the Palestinians (whether they are justified or not) to change the roadmap. And if the Israelis' position (whether justified or not) is that of the roadmap, why isn't that simply stated?"
"very quickly, because of time: both sides hate the road map as written. sharon has numerous amendments to it. abbas hates the option of the pal state in prov. borders. sharon keeps saying israel wont even enter the road map until abbas dismantles terrorism. but you can read the thing for yrself: the first stage is simultaneous obligations, and calls for abbas to begin to dismantle.... while israel is supposed to stop all new settlement activity, which sharon
absolutely refuses to do."
As you can see, Erlanger has dropped the humble pie act and we see here the Erlanger of his articles -- arrogant and clueless. Essentially he is saying that the Times has no obligation to point out Palestinian violations of the Road Map, even when relevant to the article. Why, because Israel is in the wrong!
Our reader responded:
"Just seems to me that the reporting looks a little crabbed. The violence issue is a substantial irritant and it's a retrade for the Palestinians to ask the Israelis to tolerate it while negotiating towards final status. If Sharon is retrading as well, then that should come out in the reporting too. But I think that your article is technically inaccurate as written, in that the dispute about the roadmap vis a vis the violence is not about two different paths, but about whether the parties will change the roadmap." He also noted that "re: settlements, it's my understanding that settlement activity has lessened considerably."
Erlanger's response tried to change the subject, noting that "the real drama as you know is between the green line and the separation barrier." But our reader wouldn't bite. "the more I think about it, the more I think you should clarify your characterization of the disagreement over the implementation of the roadmap," he wrote back.
By now, Erlanger's patience was at an end: "well, you're wrong," was the totality of his next response, and then "i'm sorry. i dont have time to have a pen pal. there is absolutely nothing wrong with what i've written. if you have a problem, take it up with the foreign desk or the ombudsman."
Which makes sense. After all, Erlanger isn't some lone wolf. His writings are very much a Times corporate product, and Times bias is very much a corporate institutional thing.
So our reader wrote the deputy foreign editor, Ethan Bronner, saying, among other things, that Erlanger's article omits an essential "fact, namely, that the Israeli position with respect to the violence is already enshrined in the 'road map.'"
Bronner wrote back:
"Thanks for writing. But you do miss an important point. According to the road map, Israel is supposed to dismantle illegal settlement outposts and freeze all existing settlement growth at the same time that the Palestinians are supposed to dismantle terror groups. Both sides say the other should go first. Neither has acted on its clearly stated commitment. Mr. Sharon has explicitly stated that freezing settlements is something he will not do no matter what it says in the road map. When you say to him (as I did last month), but you are committed to the road map, he says, yes I am committed to the road map. He makes no attempt to square the circle. Therefore it is quite right to say that while both sides say they are committed to the road map, they don't agree on the path."
Our reader, who apparently has the patience of a saint, calmly wrote back to this moron as follows:
"I think that you missed my point, and I think that you are substituting evenhandedness for accuracy and you take the path statement way out of context (since it is embedded in a discussion of the violence issue and nothing more). With respect to the violence issue (which is what the quoted language was talking about), the road map IS clear. The Palestinians have obligations on that front (to say nothing of their obligations under Oslo) under the road map itself, and the Israelis can point to the road map and say, 'that's the path set forth in the road map"--first violence is addressed and then we'll deal with final peace resolution.
"Now of course, the Palestinians have a rejoinder on the settlement issue. But it is not correct to portray this dispute as one where both sides are fighting over the path. The road map is clear (which belies the "rough outline" characterization) on the violence point. They are fighting to change a path that is already there, not create a new one, and there is no way that an intelligent reader with no a priori knowledge would have any idea of this reality based on the article.
"Which gets me to my point: The article should have noted that the Israeli position vis a vis violence is the "road map" and that the Palestinians are trying to change it on that point--that is a fact, and one which is not in the reporting. And the article is affirmatively misleading--both the Palestinian position and the Israeli position are treated equally vis a vis the road map, and that is simply false. On this issue, the Israelis can point to the road map and the Palestinians can't, and the reporting does not address that salient fact (surely, you're not arguing that readers shouldn't be informed of whose position is consistent with the road map and whose position is not, are you). And if the justification for 'while both sides say they are committed to the road map, they don't agree on the path.' is that settlement issue (not even mentioned in the article) roughly balances the respective deviations of the two sides from the road map, what should have been written is something like this:
"'Although both sides say they are committed to the road map, both sides have taken positions that deviate from the terms of the road map. Israel, consistent with the road map, has insisted on the dismantling of terrorist groups like Hamas, which remain an armed challenge to Palestinian governance and Israel's existence as a precondition to negotiations on a final peace. The Palestinians want immediate parallel negotiations on a final peace and say that the Israelis have not adhered to all the terms of the road map, particularly with respect to settlements.'
"That accurately characterizes the situation. It also does not imply, as does the quoted language, that the road map is somehow silent on the point of whether the violence needs to be addressed before a final peace."
Whew! What could Bronner say in the face of such logic? Here is Bronner's response, in full:
"From: Ethan Bronner (firstname.lastname@example.org)">
Subject: Re: Further to My Previous Email
Date: Thu, 20 Oct 2005 18:13:19 -0400
Well I must agree that your rewrite is better. I guess all I would say is that we often find that the problem with a daily news report is that it could have been better -- but the deadline arrived and the presses had to roll. We do try to make it as clear and accurate as possible but, alas, we do fail.
best regards, ethan bronner"
What could Bronner say? The Times's refusal to mention Palestinian obligations under the Road Map is patently indefensible. And the Times doesn't really have much to say in defense of itself except, in essence, "Sure we're wrong. And what are you going to do about it?"
This reader has brought this whole thing to the Empty Suit. Don't hold your breath. What we see here is a longstanding policy of the New York Times, first enshrined by the current publisher's grandfather. It ain't changing.
Oh, and one parting note--this reader has had quite a bit of correspondence with Times editors over the years. Far too much for one item. Stay tuned.