The New York Times on Thursday described Israel’s military occupation in dismissive quotations (i.e “occupation”) in a story concerning Israelis and Palestinians and the Democratic National Convention. The story was about Sanders sending pro-Palestine representatives (James Zogby, Dr. Cornel West, Rep. Keith Ellison) to help write the Democrats’ 2016 platform, and how much of an inconvenience that will be for everyone. Read it for yourself here. In another breathtaking example of digital illiteracy and editorial discombobulation, the Times removed the insensitive quotation marks a few hours afterwards. In the words of Homer Simpson, the Times decided “to hide under some coats and hope everything works out.” Well it didn’t, with screenshots on social media documenting the change. Even now, there is no editorial explanation. Maybe it was all some kind of innocent misunderstanding. But there’s plenty of reason not to believe that.
Just a few months ago, they did it with a Sanders story that saw positive paragraphs removed and replaced with more negative “context.” In journalism, “context” is code for “my opinion.” The Civil War happened in the context of “ending slavery.” To some people, it also happened in the context of “federal tyranny” and “Northern Aggression.” That’s their “context.”
Anybody see how “obnoxious” these needless quotation marks are?
The Times’ “occupation” quotation marks aren’t an accidental style error. There was some kind of intentional clusterfucking up happening. I’d bet good money that these punctuation marks were an all day long discussion that consumed some editors’ afternoons.
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) May 26, 2016
I also believe the Times journalists want to tell the truth, but the absurd disorganization of their editorial policies makes that difficult. And it’s no one’s fault in particular, it’s a question of groupthink. Blaming people is pointless. What matters is fixing the problem. I have some advice for The New York Times: When writing news about Israel/Palestine, call or email some Palestinians and ask them how they feel about the issue.
Palestinians have the same feelings as everyone does, including Israelis. Palestinians don’t like seeing their children get shoved into vans by police. Nobody likes that. Nobody likes living under a military occupation. That’s why it’s important to identify it as such.
Here’s what one Palestinian-American activist had to say when I called him about the Times’ quotation mark flip flop.
“The New York Times handling of its coverage of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and the Palestine question has fallen short across the board,” said Andrew Kadi, co-chair of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation. “The Times has a history of dehumanizing Palestinians or downplaying their oppression,” added Kadi.
“Even in comparing the coverage of a Palestinian funeral held in Gaza by The New York Times to The Washington Post, one sees a Times perspective that believes Palestinians are emotionless and hollow when it comes to the death of their family members,” he said.
“Beyond that, the language choices that editors have made reflect a poor understanding of the issue, as is evident by the placing of the word occupation, a status recognized internationally by every country and the United Nations, in quotation marks,” said Kadi.
See, Kadi doesn’t put occupation in quotation marks.
The Times also fails to investigate the reason why Sanders, who is Jewish, might have picked these people. And, more than that, fails to look at one kind of upside these folks bring to the table. Sanders managed to get the trust of Muslims and Christians and fellow Jews, some of whom went bonkers with excitement when he stopped through Brooklyn. Honestly, what Sanders has done is a win for multiculturalism by any measure of it. The Times, however, treats it as a troublesome alliance that gets in the way of harmony at the convention.
His other two picks were Native American activist Deborah Parker and environmentalist Bill McKibben. It will be interesting to hear what Parker has to say about the plight of the Palestinians, whose plight some compare with the indigenous people of the Americas. Victims of genocide colonized, poor, ignored, sad and unsafe. Suicide is a top killer on Native American reservations. That self destructive reaction to powerlessness and hopelessness bears itself out in Palestinians charging soldiers with knives. Depression is as deep as it would be for any human in a desperate situation. I’m not excusing violence, by any means. I’m just pointing out that it doesn’t come out of nowhere.
As the Times and other publications have done, they forget that Sanders has motivated Arabs and Muslims to vote and campaign for him. Activists like Linda Sarsour and others. This isn’t happening in an ahistorical vacuum. It’s happening, in part, because Donald Trump has sought to terrify American Muslims and Arabs, and they’ve responded by rallying around a leader who never attended Trump’s wedding or laughed at Duh Donald’s jokes, as Clinton did, or voted to bomb their families’ homelands in pursuit of cheap oil. Or democracy. Or something. Nobody really remembers. Terrorism?
The Times needs to understand that Sanders is critical of Israel because a new generation of progressive Arab Americans have become energized like never before by a presidential candidacy. That’s an important piece of physical reality that’s nowhere to be found in this story. Sanders is serious. He’s not just doing this as a prank. He’s doing it because his constituents, especially Arab and Muslim Americans, have asked him to take a stand.
Zogby for his part, he described a calm, cautious approach to the committee, saying it reflects Democrats’ views. Polls support that contention.
“Any honest assessment would say that the debate on this issue has shifted over the last 30 years and the platform has reflected that but lagged slightly behind, and it’s now time to catch up,” Zogby told the Times. “Clearly most Democrats agree. But we will see what happens.”
For the reader, here’s a bit more backstory. The Sanders appointees in question are the Arab American Institute’s Zogby, a Democratic party veteran, public intellectual and seminarian Dr. Cornel West and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) one of two Muslims in Congress. He only gets a couple clauses of description that barely tells us anything.
In the Washington Post Op-ed in 2014, Ellison called on Israel to end its siege of Gaza for the sake of peace. As another non-Christian religious minority in politics, Sanders and Ellison have a lot in common. In some ways, Ellison is the most interesting character among the three, but the Times treats him like an afterthought. He’s not quoted, and only appears in reference to a pro-Israel lobbyist’s concern that dangerous affections for Palestinian rights would undermine the long-running relationship between Israel and the United States. Here it is in full:
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he found the inclusion of Dr. West on the committee “disturbing.” He said that the presence of other representatives of Mr. Sanders on the platform committee, including Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Muslim who has supported the rights of Palestinians, raised concerns that the party could “adopt positions that could be seen as hostile to Israel.”
“For us, the concern is that it legitimizes and potentially puts into a major party platform” a point of view “that undermines the principles of the Israeli-U.S. relationship that have been bipartisan for decades,” Mr. Hoenlein said.
Why doesn’t the Times reach out to Ellison? Half the fun of journalism is listening to two strangers throw shade at each other as politely as possible. If Ellison declined to speak, then that should be in there. I guess no one called him. Again, just like not talking to Palestinians in a story about Palestinians, that’s making the mistake of not talking to any Muslims in a story about Muslims.
I’m going to stop just about here, although I could continue. A final observation: The Times treats as a massive mystery why American liberals have become less fawning over Israel and more critical of it. The story treats it as a thing a Pew study found out, but doesn’t ask anybody why this is happening.
And the Times doesn’t even explore the obvious answer: Social media has let Americans speak directly to people in Israel/Palestine, and see the record of abuses and crimes committed by Israel against Palestinians and non-conforming Israelis. No longer is the membrane of the news media necessary for people to try to guess at the feelings of people on the other side of the world. The Times editorial board needs to start listening to what these people are saying, or its coverage will continue to be misleading and incomplete.