My correspondence with NYT’s Rudoren

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This post appeared lately on Jerome Slater’s site.

In the last few days I have had an interesting email exchange with Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times, concerning in the first instance her August 17th profile of Dani Dayan, but more generally the larger issues concerning the responsibilities of serious journalism.  Rudoren is a clear improvement over Ethan Bronner as the Times’ chief Israeli correspondent, and she comes across as a serious and well-intentioned journalist–and one willing to engage with a blunt critic–but also one who has a long way to go in her understanding not only of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also of what serious journalism must include.

If you haven’t read Rudoren’s profile, here’s the link:

Rudoren has generously given me permission to publish our correspondence, so (with a few deletions dealing with minor or irrelevant matters) here it is.  I must also say that she is clearly a most courteous and admirable gentlewoman, responding to my no-holds-barred bluntness with great restraint.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that she is wrong on the merits of our disagreement.

I’ll be glad to hear your reactions.

On August 18th, I wrote the following:

Dear Ms. Rudoren: 
I am a retired 77 year old political science professor, still active in writing for both professional journals and the general reading public.  My father was one of the generation of Russian Jews who escaped the pogroms and grew up in the lower East Side of NYC in the early 20th century.   Growing up in New York in the 1940s-1950s I experienced plenty of anti-Semitism and was a passionate Zionist.  In 1970, after serving three years as an anti-submarine warfare officer on a U.S. destroyer, I volunteered my services to the Israeli Navy in the event of war with Egypt (which had recently acquired four Soviet subs).  In 1989 I was a Fulbright lecturer at Haifa University, and I have visited and lectured in Israel on many other occasions.

I trust these facts establish my Zionist credentials. However, for the last forty years I have specialized, both in my writing and teaching, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and as a consequence I now regard Israel as a moral disaster–a betrayer of what we have long believed to be  Jewish rationalism, enlightenment, and commitment to the highest values of civilization.   It is a disgraceful state, and an increasingly ignorant and in many ways disgraceful society, a pariah state that fully deserves its pariah status.  Aside from its moral evil, it is also insanely self-destructive, and it will be something of a miracle if it survives.

I am no longer in a tiny minority in holding these views; they have become increasingly common among American Jewish intellectuals, and indeed among the best Israelis–people who you would be sure to (or already do) respect and admire.  And all of us are in deep despair of what Israel has already become and is well on the way–probably irreversibly–to becoming worse yet.

All this by way of background to my comment: your story of Dani Dayan today is simply shameful.  He represents nearly all that is not merely “wrong” or “self-destructive” about Israel, but what is evil.   It is entirely irrelevant if you find him to be pleasant, “worldly,” and “pragmatic,” nor whether he genuinely believes–or purports to believe–that he is serving the true interests or security of Israel.   It is also irrelevant that he might not be quite as evil as some of the people that he represents.

When evil, insanity, violence, thuggery, and self-destructiveness reach a certain level, it longer matters how “worldly” or “pragmatic,” or  personally seemingly genial and pleasant some of its leaders may  be, and any discussion of them that focuses on such trivialities is not merely irrelevant but dangerously misleading.   I’m sure you can think of some of the obvious examples.

Those of us–in the U.S. and in Israel–who had given up on the NY Times in general and Ethan Bronner in particular, and who had hoped for awhile that you might make a real difference, are already in shock at your apparent naivite.   I hope you will come to grips with the reality and with your own responsibilities as soon as possible.  Even Thomas Friedman is finally beginning to grasp the full realities; I hope it won’t take you as long.

Rudoren responded:

I chose to profile Dayan because I think he is both interesting and important, the main two criteria for journalistic relevance. The fact that you think he represents all that is evil in Israeli politics to me does not undercut the need for profiling him, it only enhances it; that view, I think, was represented in my piece by Yariv Oppenheimer, who spoke of the importance of “exposing” Dayan’s agenda from beneath his palatable exterior.

You may have seen that I also recently profiled Michael Sfard’, Israel’s leading left-leaning human rights lawyer. My choice of both men is not about ideology, obviously I can’t agree with both of their perspectives. I chose to write about each of them because I think they’re important figures in Israeli society, and because I think their personal stories, perspectives, etc, are intriguing (and somewhat surprising) for readers. I completely disagree that delving into newsmakers’ backgrounds and personalities is irrelevant or dangerous; I find such profiles to be among the most revelatory types of journalism, and I gravitate toward them as both a reader and a writer. I think it is absolutely critical to understand who these people are, what motivates them, how they live, who they hang out with, in order to make sense of their doings in the public sphere. One of the key pieces of advice I got when covering the 2004 presidential campaign was that revealing what kind of people the principles were would help people know what kind of president they would be, and I wrote many profiles of the candidates and the people around them that are among the most memorable work I have done.

It is of course painful to hear that you or anyone has “given up on The New York Times,” or that people think I am naive. As you know, I do not have particular background in the Middle East, but extensive experience in American journalism. I can assure you that I am devoting myself fully to, as you put it, coming to grips with the realities around me and with my responsibilities. I hope I will not continue to disappoint you, but my coverage will continue to include all ideological perspectives.

I responded:

I appreciate your taking the time and effort to explain your position.  I continue to vigorously disagree with it.  Your answer suggests that my critique implies that I have a different view of the function of journalism than you do, in particular that what I think is irrelevant or dangerous is “delving into newsmakers’ backgrounds and personalities.”  That is hardly the case, since that is obviously an important part of normal  journalism—such as covering a presidential campaign.   But much more importantly: the more serious the issues, the more important serious and informed substantive analysis becomes, as compared  with personal profiles of the contestants.

It is that kind of analysis that was precisely what was lacking your piece.   On the contrary, you painted an essentially positive picture of Dayan, regardless of what he represents or the consequences not merely of his views, but of his power.

Let’s test your argument with a different case.  Let’s say you had been assigned to cover South Africa in the apartheid era.  Would you wish to write a profile of, say, the head of the secret police that was torturing and murdering  ANC activists,  implying that he was really a pleasant, pragmatic family man with a nice home, with a view of Cape Town, which he saw himself as protecting?   Do you think that would be appropriate, or would have been counterbalanced if you had also profiled, say,  Mandela? 

Undoubtedly you will protest that Israel today isn’t as bad as South Africa, but even if that is marginally the case, the differences become slimmer nearly day by day–including the secret police torturing and murdering Palestinians fighting in a just cause.  Do you think I am exaggerating?   And with a little thought you could come up with even more revealing cases that would undermine your argument.

I’m afraid your most revealing comment is that you think it should be “obvious” that you can’t agree either with Sfard–who represents what is best about Israel–nor Dayan, who represents the worse.  As you say, you have no particular background in the Middle East, and I do hope you learn quickly.   Like most other  liberal Jewish Zionists, including me before I became aware of the realities, you have a picture in your head of an “Israel” that never existed and is now so far removed from Herzl’s vision as to be a nightmare. 

I imagine you will think that I am expressing mere “ideology,” and that would be a grave error.  The facts about Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians are overwhelming, past and present, and you need to immerse yourself in them as soon as you can.  Even if you lack the time for serious historical reading, at the least you should read Haaretz with great care–Eldar, Levy, Hass, Sarid, Burston, Bar’el, Burg, the editorialists, etc, etc..  And you might ask them about what they–journalists all–thought of your Dayan piece.   

Please bear in mind that we are dealing with matters of the highest gravity, and you occupy a position of enormous responsibility and potential consequences.   Nearly everyone–especially on the Israeli left–understands that there is no prospect of serious change in Israeli policies in the absence of serious U.S. pressures, and there is no prospect of such pressures in the absence of change in the views of the  American Jewish community.  

The Times in general, and you in particular, have a major role to play in influencing those views.  
Israel is heading straight to catastrophe of one kind or another.  I used to think–and write–that its policies were beyond comprehension, for even leaving aside the moral issues–which we Jews, of all people, cannot do–what do they think will be the outcome of the hatreds they provoke in a region replete with fanatics who sooner or later inevitably will acquire nuclear or other wmd?  

What I did not anticipate was that the catastrophe could also take the form of the collapse of liberal democracy.   You don’t want to tell yourself sometime in the dark future that you were in a position to have done something about it, but failed.

Rudoren responded:

In terms of your South Africa analogy: I would absolutely want to profile the head of the secret police if I were covering apartheid. What that profile would look like would depend what kind of person he was. I do think your analogy gets problematic when you include the torture and murder. Settlements are of course extremely controversial, and many believe illegal, and many settlers do act abusively towards their Palestinian neighbors, and the Israeli occupation government does restrict their rights, but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that my profile of Dayan is akin to describing a torturing murderer as pleasant. Also I never said he was pleasant. Yes, I described his home and his relationship with his daughter and brother. Yes, I described his strategic approach and his educational and professional background. But search again; I described these things and did not judge them.

My biggest concern in your note is your assumptions about me and my views. You seem to include me in a group called “liberal Jewish Zionists” and I don’t know why you do. I’m a journalist. Yes, I’m Jewish, both by birth and by choice in terms of how I live my life. But otherwise, I’m pretty category-free beyond being a professional observer. So please don’t make such assumptions.

As for Haaretz, I’m a subscriber and read it daily  I am not only reading the columnists you mention, but I have spoken with and met many of them and will continue to do so. Similarly with the leading writers at other Israeli newspapers. I have not asked any of them what they thought of the Dayan piece, as I don’t tend to go around asking colleagues what they think of my work, but for what it’s worth, I had coffee this afternoon with someone from Human Rights Watch — someone who certainly believes all West Bank settlements are illegal and worse –  and he (unsolicited) said he thought the profile was terrific. Which, I know, does not mean that all people who care about human rights violations, or whatever other buckets you might throw him into, would think that, too.

Look, you have a side in this conflict, you are passionate about it. Kol hakavod, your passion is impressive and your positions well articulated. But I do not have a side in it, I am interested in telling about all sides. What I am perhaps most interested in exploring is what lives between the sides. And I don’t think it’s fair to assume that my doing that means somehow I am not taking my responsibilities seriously enough. I am working hard and long, consulting widely and deeply, and absorbing everything as fast as I can.  The two profiles we’re discussing were two of dozens of stories I have filed since arriving.  A lot of them have been in the “serious and substantive” vein. Others have been lighter, more featurey. I believe strongly in a diverse, balanced, well-rounded report, and will continue to try to do major analyses as well as profiles, even if the news cycle grows more intense.

I’m certain that if you publish your parts of the exchange as well as mine, it will be clear to those who appreciate the role of mainstream journalism that the crux of our disagreement is that you are speaking from the position of advocacy and I from the point of observation.

My followup: 

You close by contrasting your “observation” with my “advocacy,” but you are mistaken on both grounds in suggesting that you are driven by the facts and I am driven by some kind of pre-factual or non-factual “advocacy.”  But it is quite clear that you are far from fully aware of the facts and their implications, and my “advocacy” is the outcome of forty years of reading and writing that has made the facts and their implications impossible to ignore.  

And finally, Rudoren:

I did not mean to say, by defining yours as a position of advocacy and mine as one as observation, that I am the only one interested in facts. I have not read your work yet, but I have no reason to suspect that it is devoid of facts. Only that you are seeking to use facts and evidence to build an argument based on an advocacy position. That it is one derived from your observation of facts in my view makes it more respectable, but still in the realm of advocacy, which is not where I work.

After I sent the last email, I did have two more thoughts I wanted to add. One was regarding my Human Rights Watch reader. I should have explained what he said about why he liked the profile, which was that it told him things that he did not know about someone who he reads about/deals with all the time. That was very gratifying, because it is exactly the point.
Also, if you do decide to publish the correspondence, I hope one of the things your readers will take from it is that I am willing and eager to engage readers and critics. Ultimately I am here to serve readers, and I believe that engaging with them is part of the job.

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I like her , she gave good honest replies.
The professor indeed mixes his advocacy with journalism as do many
journalists unfortunately.Apparently Rudoren is not one of them.

The lack of moral clarity of this woman is bad enough, but put all that aside. How is it possible in 2012 that a major American paper– better yet THE American newspaper– sends such a person to cover such a complex region, when that person lacks any education or background in the region in question? Here is a reporter who presumably knows not a word of Arabic or Persian– does she even speak Hebrew?–, does… Read more »

Slater’s essential point is irrefutable: that by profiling a state or person and to omit informing the reader that this connoisseur of fine wines is living the high life on land that has been ethnically cleansed of its indiginous population, is not presenting an accurate reality. Imagine presenting Joseph Stalin as a doting father who weeps when his dog dies and omit the fact that he was paranoid mass murderer of millions of his own… Read more »

“a painful observation for a Jew who follows the Judaic precepts of rationality, enlightenment, and the goodness of helping one’s fellow man.” Sure, he’s a great guy and all that, but what about the rest of us? If that’s how holy you must be to admit a degree of Israel-critical thought, Zionism will continue to reign triumphant. This whole idea that we will be giving up something, performing a philanthropic act, by criticising Zionism, is… Read more »

The bottom line is that the New York Times, by having policies like ensuring foreign correspondent positions for members of a particular ethnic group, is effectively in violation of the spirit, if not the letter of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Does Rudoren have bona fide occupational qualifications that an Arab scholar or Christian American journalist bilingual in Hebrew, and versed in regional affairs do not? Of course not. We’ve become inured to… Read more »