The New York Times’ decision to run an op-ed by imprisoned Palestinian political leader Marwan Barghouti in its international edition raised many eyebrows and sparked a vigorous reaction. The article, penned to commemorate hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners on Palestinian Prisoners Day, pulls no punches against the regime that has imprisoned Mr. Barghouti. Barghouti assails Israel’s imprisonment of near 40 percent of Palestinian men, its systematic violation of the laws of war, and the lack of basic due process in Israel’s military tribunals.
The backlash that ensued included the former Israeli ambassador accusing the Times of being complicit in terrorism, while the Israeli prison authorities moved Barghouti into solitary confinement. Under intense lobbying pressure, the New York Times updated the article by describing Barghouti’s convictions in the Israeli court system following his abduction by the Israeli military. Now, readers of the article are introduced to Barghouti’s insightful perspective alongside a byline that slanders him as a convicted terrorist and a murderer. There is no mention of the fact that Barghouti’s convictions, although carried out through a civilian rather than military court, similarly lacked basic process-related protections and was widely viewed by observers as a political show trial that violated the guarantees of international law. Further, Barghouti’s defiant refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Israeli court proceedings–an act of civil disobedience–is left unexplained.
Other commentators have criticized the deference that liberals have given to the Israeli military occupation courts with regard to Palestinians. When liberal Zionists criticized feminists who supported Palestinian-American community leader Rasmea Odeh due to her convictions by an Israeli military court, Noura Erakat wrote, “Perhaps if Odeh was from Guatemala, Uganda, Nepal, or even Kashmir, [liberal Zionists] may be more sympathetic because, unlike in Palestine, a national security framework has not twisted and bludgeoned fundamental human rights issues.” Indeed, in a similar vein, one might ask if liberals would describe other political prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, by their convictions at the hands of the regimes that imprisoned them. In Mandela’s case, that would likewise include accusations of “terrorism.”
But while the New York Times decided to poison the well for Marwan Barghouti, it has taken the opposite position in disclosing the backgrounds of many of its pro-Israel commentators. In 2014, the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan responded to concerns about the Times’ failure to disclose that one of its contract writers, Isabel Kershner, was married to pro-Israel lobbyist Hirsh Goodman when the former wrote extensive puff pieces sanitizing Israel. Omitted from the response was the additional fact that Kershner’s son was actively serving in the Israeli army during its 2014 Gaza massacre. But according to the public editor, such background details about a writer of the Times’ primary coverage–rather than its opinion pieces–was “unnecessary”. Kershner has since gone on to write dozens of articles for the Times about Israel, including those that portray it as a technological miracle and one that attempts to control the damage of Donald Trump’s statement that his widely criticized policies resemble Israel’s.
Likewise, in 2010, the New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt responded to concerns about the fact that the Times’ then Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Ethan Bronner, had a son serving in the Israeli military, which Bronner separately admits he did not intend to disclose. According to Hoyt, this was a familial issue rather than a direct conflict-of-interest, so there was no reason to reassign Bronner. In an even more extreme instance, the Times’ David Brooks not only writes extensive puff pieces defending Israel while his son serves in the Israeli military but also wrote op-eds in other publications defending his son’s enlistment and the Israeli army’s behavior in Gaza. Again, the Times public editor did not think it was necessary to stop asking for Brooks to write about Israel; Brooks’ familial ties to the carnage he has defended do not appear in the bylines of his Israel-related articles. Instead, given the extreme nature of the conflict of interest, Sullivan remarks that it would be reasonable for the Times to make issue a one-time publication of his familial ties.
While Barghouti did not issue a defense in his trial, he did separately deny the charges that were alleged against him: that he was the commander and founder of a Palestinian armed group whose members, in turn, carried out various attacks on civilians. Indeed, one wonders what Barghouti’s alleged involvement in acts that took place over a decade ago reveal about him that is not already obvious from the rest of his commentary, in which he mentions being imprisoned by Israel and is open about his support for the Palestinian liberation movement. The only apparent reason to update the headline is to undermine the author’s credibility. In contrast, the Times’ omissions about Bronner and Kershner are deliberately misleading, creating the impression that those authors have no stake in the armed conflict about which they write. Perhaps that is the point.