How The New York Times Erased Anti-Semitism from the News
It's hard to fight anti-Semitism or other bigotry if media outlets airbrush it out of stories. That's what happened this past week.
On May 9, Valerie Plame announced that she would be running for Congress in the Democratic primary for New Mexico’s 3rd district. Many know Plame as a former CIA officer who rose to anti-war fame in 2003. (Her cover was blown after her then-husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, publicly questioned the U.S. rationale for going to war in Iraq.) Fewer people know that Plame largely receded from public life in 2017 after she repeatedly tweeted anti-Semitic material:
At the time, Plame defended her tweet, calling the article “provocative, but thoughtful.” She later apologized, claiming that she hadn’t read the piece whose contents she’d just been defending. Of course, given that the headline—which she tweeted—was “America’s Jews are Driving America’s Wars,” this was not a very convincing excuse. Moreover, as the indefatigable journalist Yashar Ali quickly uncovered, this was not the first time Plame had shared anti-Semitic material. In another instance, she had promoted the notorious conspiracy theory that a group of Israelis celebrated while 9/11 transpired (a canard that candidate Donald Trump later revived and applied to Muslims):
In the wake of her anti-Semitic outburst, Plame was promptly booted from the board of the anti-war Ploughshares Fund, and eventually deleted her Twitter account.
Now, this would all seem to be pertinent information for anyone considering Plame’s candidacy for Congress and seeking to evaluate her judgment and character. But they would have no way of knowing about it if all they read was the New York Times coverage of her announcement. That’s because the paper’s story—which managed to find the space to mention the movie adaptation of her memoir starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn—made absolutely no mention of Plame’s bigotry.
Which raises the question: how can people of good faith combat anti-Semitism if the paper of record won’t inform them about it? The Plame puff piece got nearly 10,000 likes on Facebook, and undoubtedly fueled donations by unknowing individuals to her campaign.
Why this matters
As you might recall, the Times recently dealt with an anti-Semitism scandal of its own, after its international edition published an anti-Semitic cartoon. To its credit, the Times opinion section quickly owned up to the mistake. They dropped the syndicate that provided the cartoon and published a searing editorial committing themselves to doing better against rising anti-Jewish hate. Both the publisher and editorial page editor then met with 12 rabbis to discuss the paper’s coverage, in what was both an important gesture and the premise for my new TV sitcom “12 Angry Mensches.”
In their piece apologizing for their mistake, the Times editorial board wrote:
In the 1930s and the 1940s, The Times was largely silent as anti-Semitism rose up and bathed the world in blood. That failure still haunts this newspaper. Now, rightly, The Times has declared itself “deeply sorry” for the cartoon and called it “unacceptable.” Apologies are important, but the deeper obligation of The Times is to focus on leading through unblinking journalism and the clear editorial expression of its values. Society in recent years has shown healthy signs of increased sensitivity to other forms of bigotry, yet somehow anti-Semitism can often still be dismissed as a disease gnawing only at the fringes of society. That is a dangerous mistake. As recent events have shown, it is a very mainstream problem.
The Holocaust example here is instructive. After all, the problem in the 1940s wasn’t that the Times failed to cover World War II. It’s that it failed to cover the anti-Semitic genocide that was going on during the war. The anti-Jewish bigotry was airbrushed from the story.
This is what happened with Plame—and it was not an isolated incident. The Times went through a similar debacle when Alice Walker promoted a heinously anti-Semitic book in an interview, and the paper published her recommendation without comment or challenge. Even after my story exposing this failure went viral, they nonetheless defended their decision not to alert readers to the anti-Semitic nature of the material, claiming that they were limited by the format.
This is not just a moral failure, it is a journalistic failure. When it came to Walker and Plame, the news was that a prominent public person had been expressing anti-Semitic ideas. That was the story, and any serious publication should treat it as such. If a congressional candidate or literary luminary has made explicitly racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or other bigoted remarks, the outlet needs to put that in the story, or it is not practicing responsible journalism.
The Times has done some superb reporting specifically about anti-Semitism. But properly covering anti-Semitism means recognizing that it is not its own story, but an essential part of many different stories. Bigotry does not exist in a vacuum, and neither can journalism about it.
This is a global journalistic problem
The same week that the Times omitted anti-Semitism from its reporting, the BBC did one worse: it deliberately obscured it. On May 14, the service aired a documentary about the 2018 protest against the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, titled “One Day in Gaza.” In it, the filmmakers interviewed an array of Palestinians about their experiences and what led them to confront Israel at the Gaza border that day.
One interviewee, 24-year-old Bader Saleh, explicitly referenced anti-Semitic incitement as a motivating factor, saying: “I’m not one for fighting or burning tires, but when I went I was convinced by it. The revolutionary songs, they excite you, they encourage you to rip a Jew’s head off.” But while Saleh used the Arabic word for Jew, “yahud,” the BBC translated him as saying “they encourage you to rip an Israeli’s head off.”
Now, as critics of Israeli policy like myself have reiterated for years, criticizing Israel does not necessarily equate to criticizing Jews. But this was an explicit reference to Jews, which the BBC filmmakers then sanitized and misrepresented as referring to Israel, knowing that their non-Arabic speaking viewers would have no idea.
Again, this is both a moral failure and a journalistic failure. One cannot understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if one erases one of the components—anti-Semitism in Palestinian society—from the equation. Anti-Jewish prejudice is not the only factor—and its existence does not negate the need for peace or justify Israeli human rights violations—but it is an important one for understanding why the conflict has proved so intractable. (Among other examples, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas literally wrote his doctorate denying the Holocaust.)
Here, as in the New York Times, failing to report forthrightly on anti-Semitism leaves readers in the dark and prevents society from confronting it. In these turbulent times, with Jews being gunned down in their synagogues, it is incumbent upon our elite media outlets to do better.
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