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Israel just ‘lost Cronkite’ — the struggle for Palestinian rights at ‘The New York Times’

Media Analysis
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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.

Robert Herbst

Robert Herbst is a civil rights lawyer. He was chapter coordinator for Westchester Jewish Voice for Peace from 2014-2017,

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28 Responses

  1. JWalters on January 21, 2019, 12:26 am

    Thanks for this inside story on the evolution at the NYT. I too was reminded of Walter Cronkite’s famous assessment of the Vietnam war when I read Alexander’s column. In both cases a vast deception became unsustainable.

    In both cases there were horrific human casualties of a manufactured war. And there were also casualties of truth and democracy itself. The Vietnam war was never properly investigated. The war profiteers rolled on. Similarly, current wars in the Middle East have yet to be properly investigated. For instance, although documented it is not yet a widely accepted fact that George W. Bush LIED to the American people in order to invade Iraq, to a great degree at the behest of Israel, dragging the US into Israel’s so-called “War on Terror”.

    Most people can handle the truth. People deserve the truth. Democracy requires the truth.

    • Citizen on January 21, 2019, 11:51 pm

      Yes. The Never Trumpers now look on that Bush as a relatively good POTUS. They are frightened by Trump, yet they themselves frighten any aware American.

  2. Elizabeth Block on January 21, 2019, 9:58 am

    Yes.
    People have asked me if I want to see Israel destroyed. No, I say. I just want to see regime change.
    The late Jack Layton, when he was leader of the federal New Democratic Party, kept his mouth shut about Palestine, because he didn’t want to commit political suicide. Lots of lesser people do the same. There are plenty of Jews who, like a friend of mine, a long-time Zionist, say they don’t support the settlements – but they won’t say it to their family, or their co-worshippers, or their rabbi – and if they are rabbis, they won’t say it to their congregation.
    Not yet! but soon.

    • Citizen on January 21, 2019, 11:56 pm

      Not to worry, not to panic, we will soon get you something to relieve your tooth ache. Try to get some sleep. It’s good for you.

  3. Misterioso on January 21, 2019, 11:24 am

    Meanwhile, the Zionists continue to bribe our politicians:

    https://israelpalestinenews.org/mccaul-introduces-house-bill-to-give-israel-billions-of-dollars-combat-bds/?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=57528278-17e8-4a1d-b6d7-7fd0c1bb69ad

    “McCaul introduces House bill to give Israel billions of dollars, combat BDS”

    “A powerful Congressman with ties to a controversial donor has introduced a House version of S.1, the Senate bill that would give Israel $38 billion, etc.”

    By Alison Weir
    “On January 8th Republican Congressman Michael T. McCaul of Texas introduced H.R. 336, reported to be a companion bill to S.1, the Senate bill that would cement a $38 billion package to Israel, combat the movement to pressure Israel to adhere to international law known as BDS, and other measures.

    “The text of the bill is not yet publicly available since McCaul has not published it on his Congressional website, issued a press release about it, or informed his regional offices about the bill. The Congressional website also does not yet contain a summary or text almost a week after the bill was introduced.

    “The bill has been referred to the Committees on Foreign Affairs; the Judiciary; Financial Services; Science, Space, and Technology; and Armed Services.

    “Pro-Israel PACs & controversial donor
    “McCaul has a long record of supporting Israel and has received $90,000 from pro-Israel political action committees that give to both Republicans and Democrats.

    “In 2018 he was endorsed by ‘Citizens Organized,’ a pro-Israel PAC located in Los Angeles (most of its contributors are from Beverly Hills) and NorPAC, headquartered in New Jersey, which says it is the largest pro-Israel advocacy organization in the country.

    “A NorPAC fundraiser with McCaul in October was hosted by Munr Kazmir, a Jewish Pakistani-American whose mother is Israeli.

    “Kazmir, a major political donor, has been the focus of several controversies.
    In 2014 Kazmir filed for bankruptcy protection, saying he was $16 million in debt, and defaulted on a $2.5 million government loan.

    “In the 1990s, according to NorthJersey.com, he was investigated by the state Division of Consumer Affairs for allegedly helping therapists working for one of his health care companies cheat on the national licensing examination.

    “In yet another controversy, in 1991 Kazmir was connected to a political donor accused of medicare fraud. And in 2014 the Daily Mail reported that a house Kazmir owned was being used as a brothel by Chinese sex traffickers, although Kazmir said he was unaware of the renters’ activities.

    “According to Kazmir’s website, he serves on the Board of Governors of the Republican Jewish Coalition, American Jewish Congress, Chabad House, Anti-Defamation League (ADL). He was also a former member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPC) and former Chairman of the Board of the Middle East Media Research Institution (MEMRI).

    “Additional cosponsors of H.R.336
    “Other co-sponsors of the bill are Patrick T. McHenry (R-NC-10]) and Will Hurd (R-TX-23). Both also have strong pro-Israel records; McHenry has received over $102,000 from pro-Israel PACs.

    “The full title of the current bill is “H.R.336 – To make improvements to certain defense and security assistance provisions and to authorize the appropriation of funds to Israel, to reauthorize the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act of 2015, and to halt the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people, and for other purposes.”

    • genesto on January 21, 2019, 1:22 pm

      Thanks for the Alison Weir reference. Now that JVP has formally, and finally, declared Zionism to be racist, and we are starting to see more and more of Alison’s fine work showing up on sites that had ignored, or intentionally censored, her in the past, it may be time to bury the hatchet once and for all and move on as a unified force against the evil of Zionism. It’s certainly something we all need to maximize our potential, not to mention irritate the hell out of the hasbarists!

      • Citizen on January 22, 2019, 12:29 am

        Agreed.

    • RoHa on January 21, 2019, 7:04 pm

      “Meanwhile, the Zionists continue to bribe our politicians:”

      A dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

  4. Davnew on January 21, 2019, 11:24 am

    If it is true that the NY Times has become a level playing field for an honest discourse about Israel and Palestine it is perhaps the biggest breakthrough for Palestinian Justice that I can remember. I have been sensing a shift in the Times for a while and thanks to this insightful article I now understand the story behind what I barely dared to believe was true. Uncharacteristically, I am almost giddy with optimism “For the times they are a-changin”

    • Helena Cobban on January 23, 2019, 10:47 am

      It is not yet a level playing field at all! Just look at all the Zionist talking points that remain deeply embedded in the way people on the “news” side and most people on the “opinion” side still refer to events relevant to Israel and its neighbors– including the recent Halbfinger piece on Razan al-Najjar’s killing, as I documented here. The best we can say at this point is that the strong pro-Zionist tilt that the NYT has displayed since forever has now been readjusted just a tad toward being less extreme.

      Let’s see if (and hope that) Michelle Alexander retains her gig as a regular columnist? Let’s stay vigilant watching for Zionist weasel-words and weasel-arguments still regularly being deployed throughout the whole paper– and call them out whenever we can!

  5. James Canning on January 21, 2019, 12:16 pm

    The NYT has facilitated Israel’s effort to retain the West Bank permanently, thus requiring an endless suppression of the Palestinians. A change of posture would be very welcome indeed.

  6. echinococcus on January 21, 2019, 12:27 pm

    Mr Herbst must be Philip Weiss’ twin. It’s enough to see the occasional swallow and it’s spring all of a sudden. I’m not saying things don’t change. But calling it every week or so, or more often, for many years on end, with no measurable change to show, is starting to get very tiresome.
    Come back whan you have verified that we reached a visible, real tilting point. Otherwise, what you guys are doing is worse than the boy crying wolf.

    • annie on January 21, 2019, 1:23 pm

      better yet echi, why don’t you come back when you have verified that we reached a visible, real tilting point.

      • echinococcus on January 21, 2019, 3:57 pm

        Annie,

        If you read what you write, you may see your last remark’s total absurdity in defense of undue optimism-mongering.

      • festus on January 21, 2019, 4:15 pm

        He’s not the one proclaiming we have reached the tipping point every few days for years now. That would be Phil and a few others.

        Why put the onus on him?

      • annie on January 21, 2019, 5:08 pm

        maybe we just read things differently echi. i don’t recognize you as having any agency here except for yourself. the only people who decide what gets published here (and when they get published) is phil and adam. if it’s “very tiresome” for you — don’t read it and come back when it is relevant for you. that seems like kind of a no brainer to me.

        it’s not absurd, it’s common sense. but i can take it up with the management and ask them what they think of you telling one of our contributors to come back when they meet your standards of verifiable visible, real tilting point. you never know, maybe they value your opinion so much they’ll give you editorial control.

      • echinococcus on January 22, 2019, 12:31 am

        “the only people who decide what gets published here (and when they get published) is phil and adam”
        §Precisely. By setting a discussion board they invite critique. They are being taken to task, perhaps wrongly, perhaps not. So now address the substance, instead of attacking relentlessly on unrelated stuff, and prove they are right, please.

      • Mooser on January 22, 2019, 3:58 pm

        ” So now address the substance”

        Okay, here goes: ‘An optimist and a pessimist walk into a bar and…’

      • annie on January 23, 2019, 5:00 am

        the pessimist trips on the threshold, loses balance due to the weight of his ten gallon hat and falls flat on his face. no one else, including the optimist, notices.

        [cue canned laughter]

      • annie on January 23, 2019, 4:42 am

        They [MW] are being taken to task, perhaps wrongly, perhaps not. So now address the substance, instead of attacking relentlessly on unrelated stuff, and prove they are right, please.

        does that approach work for you at haaretz, +972, EI, or literally anywhere? you’ve instructed one of our (cherished) contributors to basically get lost until he can “verified that we reached a visible, real tilting point” (of a 70+yr [or 50+ given ptv] occupation) and now you’re ordering us to address the substance of your compliant.

        how amusing.

    • Mooser on January 21, 2019, 1:53 pm

      ” It’s enough to see the occasional swallow and it’s spring all of a sudden”

      Like the song says: “You Must Believe it Might as Well be Spring”. Gorgeous song, btw.

    • RoHa on January 21, 2019, 7:07 pm

      How many swallows are necessary?

      • echinococcus on January 22, 2019, 12:20 am

        RoHa,
        §
        That, of course, is a serious question. I suppose the test is simple in the case of the metaphor’s referent: even oodles of swallows won’t do if mean temperature, plant and animal life, etc. are firmly in winter mood yet. A good exercise would be to list the criteria that ensure the change of political climate.
        §One thing is sure: announcing the general change as already there or imminent every hour on the hour is not justified when conditions do not improve at all over several years, especially if the general climate of censorship is getting heavier rather than more favorable, on the whole.

  7. Lillian Rosengarten on January 21, 2019, 12:34 pm

    What a wonderful hopefully article, Robert. Thank you , thank you!

  8. annie on January 21, 2019, 1:27 pm

    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.

    thank you Robert Herbst

  9. Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi on January 21, 2019, 1:49 pm

    Thank you Bob. I agree on how the tide is turning (one of my lawyers phrase) though I’d like to see a shift in New York Times reporting from Israel and the rest of the world. The paper of record continues to advance racist and white supremacist subtext and sometimes over text. I would therefore hold the Times accountable. Two excellent editorial page unbiased voices on Palestine along with a small number of African Americans does not alter the overall message.

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