Israel – Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East

February 19, 2008

When Israel was occupying much of southern Lebanon in 1984, I recall reporting, in a paragraph or two in a larger story, that I’d just been in a trashed Shi’ite village where, amongst other things, a car had been run over by an Israeli tank. That evening I received a checking query from New York. “How do you know it was an Israeli tank? What proof do you have?” I reiterated that the IDF had admitted to being in the village and reminded them that only the Israelis had tanks. No one would have queried me if I had written that Hezbollah was firing rockets or blowing up cars.

For me New York’s query that night illustrated the troubling double standard that hovers sinisterly in the background of most reporting on the Middle East by the mainstream US press, then and now. It’s most obvious in  reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Friel and Falk convincingly set out in this scathing analysis of six years of coverage (2000 to 2006) of this conflict by the New York Times. Friel and Falk are no newcomers to challenging the high and mighty in the US media. Friel took on the Wall Street Journal in Dogs of War, a polemic on how the paper’s editorial page openly (and wrongly) supported a right wing crusade against international law. With Falk, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California, he authored the companion volume, The Record of the Paper.

Friel and Falk’s issue with the New York Times is not so much that its reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inaccurate on a story by story, fact by fact, basis. The reporting is skewered by the paper’s refusal to give proper credence to both history and the relevance of Palestinian rights under international law in regard to reaching a fair and sustainable solution.
For example, during the Camp David negotiations, The Times was fulsome in its praise for Prime Minister Barak’s generosity in being prepared to withdraw from slightly more than 90 per cent of the West Bank. At the same, time it portrayed Arafat as a stumbling block to peace when he refused. That, the authors argue, was incorrect in fact and under international law. The Palestinians were dispossessed of most of their land by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the 1967 war took the remaining 22 per cent of their original territory. Barak’s purported offer was hardly generous – 90 per cent of 22 per cent – and required the Palestinians to accept that UN resolutions on the illegality of Israel’s occupation of any part of the West Bank and Gaza was suddenly legalised.

History, as we all know, is something that many Americans, especially their newspapers and administrations, find bothersome at best and irrelevant at worst. This may be why the US is bogged down in Baghdad and about to be seriously embarrassed in Afghanistan. And why President Bush has no chance of brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians before he leaves office.

Reviewer: John Borrell was Time magazine correspondent in the Middle East and bureau chief in Latin America.