In late January 1968, after the series of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacks known as the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News and the most trusted journalist in America, came back from a trip to Vietnam to report on what was going on over there. At the end of his February 27 report, Cronkite, who rarely ventured his opinions on the air, rendered his verdict:
“[I]t seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate . . . [I]t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
It is said (with some dispute) that, after listening to that statement, President Lyndon B. Johnson said to an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” But there is no dispute that Cronkite’s judgment that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable stalemate was a breakthrough moment: it had a huge impact on the debate about the war and the course of our politics. It gave a huge boost to the antiwar campaign of Gene McCarthy; Bobby Kennedy entered the race a few weeks later with an antiwar platform; and on March 31, 1968, in an unforgettable speech to the nation, President Johnson declined to run again for President.
Today, there is no “most trusted journalist in America.” Journalism is fragmented, as we have retreated to our respective political corners in both print and cable news (and online too). But if there is any single most influential arbiter of American political opinion, it is the New York Times. It is read daily by the political class, and by liberals, progressives and centrists inside and outside the Beltway. It remains No. 1 in overall reach of U.S. opinion leaders. It has also served, “for more than a century, as the hometown paper of American Jewry,” according to former Times reporter Neil Lewis, who wrote an informative Columbia Journalism Review article in 2012 on the paper’s coverage of Israel.
Ironically, Jewish founder Adolph Ochs, after buying the paper and moving from Tennessee to New York, was determined that the Times would never appear to be a “Jewish newspaper” or a special pleader of Jewish causes. During World War II, the paper’s underreporting of the Holocaust drew tremendous criticism from the Jewish community. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Och’s son-in-law and publisher from 1935 to 1961, was no Zionist, believing, along with his grandfather-in-law, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a founder of Reform Judaism, that Jews were adherents to a religion, not a people or nation.
Neil Lewis describes how the Times’s Israel narrative changed over the years, under the influence of Israeli propaganda, or hasbara, an effort that the Palestinians could not match. “Teddy Kollek, who was mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993, knew every executive at the Times by first name.” And Times editors who visited Israel were generally “treated like visiting royalty.” Lewis also describes how Times editors reacted negatively to several instances of reporting critical of Israel in the 1980’s and late 1990’s by the paper’s Jerusalem correspondents. Former executive editor Max Frankel admitted the bias when he was editorial page editor. In his memoir (as quoted in “The Israel Lobby”), he wrote:
‘I was much more deeply devoted to Israel than I dared to assert … Fortified by my knowledge of Israel and my friendships there, I myself wrote most of our Middle East commentaries. As more Arab than Jewish readers recognized, I wrote them from a pro-Israel perspective.’
Complaints about distorted news coverage of events in Israel-Palestine have been a staple on this site for years. Former Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren palled around with Abe Foxman and showed cultural indifference toward Palestinians. At least four reporters for the paper have had sons serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. As a reader of the paper for the last 60 years, I know that Palestinian voices describing their struggle for human rights and dignity have rarely appeared in its the pages, while reliably pro-Israel commentary has come for years from Zionist Times columnists David Brooks and Tom Friedman, and more recently from Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, Shmuel Rosner and Matti Friedman.
At the beginning of last year, however, 38-year-old A.G. Sulzberger succeeded his father as publisher on January 1, 2018 (after a year’s stint as deputy publisher). Since his ascension, there appears to be change afoot at the paper on the Israel-Palestine front. Last year, newly hired op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg called the shootings at the Gaza fence a “massacre,” and she defended anti-Zionism as a legitimate position for Jews and non-Jews alike, distinguishing it from anti-Semitism.
And today, newly hired columnist Michelle Alexander called for Breaking the Silence on Palestine:
“We must condemn Israel’s actions; unrelenting violations of international law, continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, home demolitions and land confiscations. We must cry out at the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the routine searches of their homes and restrictions on their movements and the severely limited access to decent housing, schools, food, hospitals and water that many of them face.
“We must not tolerate Israel’s refusal even to discuss the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as prescribed by United Nations resolutions, and we ought to question the U.S. government funds that have supported multiple hostilities and thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the $38 billion the U.S. government has pledged in military support to Israel.
“And finally, we must, with as much courage and conviction as we can muster, speak out against the system of legal discrimination that exists inside Israel, a system complete with . . . more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians . . . ignoring the rights of the Arab minority that makes up 21 percent of the population.”
This civil rights lawyer and author of “The New Jim Crow” is well respected by progressives and centrist Democrats alike, and in the Jewish community as well as in communities of color. In shedding her silence on Israel Palestine, she has delivered a carefully structured and sourced brief which puts front and center the plight of Palestinians “struggling to survive under Israeli occupation.” Her confession of the immorality of her previous silence — because of concern that pro-Israel “smears” would compromise or discredit her social justice work on behalf of her own and other marginalized communities – will reverberate in the hearts of those like me who have also broken their silence, and by many others who know how systematic, relentless and pervasive this oppression is – and how Americans facilitate it — but have not yet summoned the courage to speak out. Alexander’s repudiation of what motivated her silence will hopefully influence others to do so, too, notwithstanding that the knives have already come out for her from the usual suspects.
Alexander’s call for support for the Palestinian struggle, and her invocation of Martin Luther King’s courageous call for the end of the Vietnam War – one year before Cronkite’s – is a breakthrough moment for the Times, as she implicitly notes:
“Not so long ago, it was fairly rare to hear this perspective. That is no longer the case.”
In giving Alexander’s piece prominence on the first page of the Sunday Review, it may be that A.G. Sulzberger’s Times is serving notice that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, Jews and Gentiles, free to debate this perspective without fear or favor, notwithstanding the influence of those who would declare it anti-Semitic or otherwise illegitimate. If so, this could be a breakthrough moment not just for the Times, but for all of us involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights and dignity.
h/t Phil Weiss.