Monday, March 24th, 2008

The thorough reporting job on the front page of the New York Times today (April 1) describing the depth of anti-Semitism of Hamas, in its sermons and broadcasts, should be commended by pro-Israel readers, particularly those who have complained about the coverage by the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau chief Steven Erlanger as biased in favor of the Palestinians.
But I’m not holding my breath. In fact, pro-Israel critics no doubt will respond to today’s story by exclaiming,” what took so long?”
It reminds me of an evening some years ago, at the height of the second intifada, when Clyde Haberman, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Times (and now a columnist for the paper’s Metro section), bore the brunt of anger and frustration from a large audience at an upper West Side Orthodox synagogue. He was on a panel dealing with Mideast media bias, along with Sidney Zion (a tough old-school journalist to the right of Begin on Israel), as well as a spokesman for the Israeli Consulate, and me.
There was heated discussion about whether the mainstream media was anti-Israel, and Clyde, a fine reporter (and graduate of the Soloveichik elementary school in Washington Heights) who has a low threshold for those who would put the Times in that category, was left to defend the paper, and growing increasingly frustrated.
The Israeli spokesman and I tried to make the case that there was little if any overt anti-Israel bias in the mainstream U.S. press, particularly compared to the European press, but the crowd wasn’t buying it. And most of their increasingly heated questions were aimed at Clyde.
At one point a woman asked why the Times had not covered the fact that Palestinian militants held training camps for youngsters, teaching them how to use weapons and indoctrinating them with hatred of Israel.
“Ah, but we did that story,” Clyde responded quickly, his voice rising. “In fact it ran on Page One.”
Undaunted, the woman responded, “well, why don’t you do it again?”
At that point I thought Clyde was going to explode, but he replied: “Why don’t you just stop reading the paper and save yourself the aggravation?”
(This was before the local boycott of the Times in the Jewish community. When that occurred, and I notified Clyde that a group of Jews had decided to cancel their subscriptions to the Times during the 10 Days of Repentance, he shot back: “Why don’t they do it during the 49 days of the Omer?”)
Two points here: One is that if you have it in for a publication (or radio or television network), convinced of its bias, there is little the institution can do to change your mind. Indeed, an editor of the Baltimore Sun once complained to me that “if we put the entire Torah on our front page every day,” it wouldn’t satisfy critics in the Jewish community.
Point two is that even journalists are human. They can get emotional and they have long memories – something to keep in mind when dealing with them.
If this remembrance prompts you to write a note to Steven Erlanger, complimenting on his reporting on Hamas, do it today. He is leaving his post soon after three and a half years, and will be succeeded by Ethan Bronner, who covered the region for the Boston Globe before coming to the Times where he has served on several desks, most recently as deputy foreign editor.
Bronner, who is Jewish, has family ties to Israel and is highly knowledgeable on the Mideast, is well aware that he will be closely watched for his alleged reporting biases.
But at least he’ll know he is being read.