The newspaper of non-record

September 19, 2013

Nicole Colson reports on the failure of the New York Times to cover revelations about the connection between the U.S. surveillance apparatus and the Israeli government.

YOU KNOW your newspaper is messing up big-time when your own public editor takes you to task in print.

That's what happened at the New York Times. Public editor Margaret Sullivan, the in-house critic and monitor of the Times and its journalistic practices, criticized the paper's failure to report on a major development in the National Security Agency (NSA) spying scandal--that the NSA routinely shared unfiltered raw intelligence data with its Israeli spy counterparts.

Sullivan commented on the issue after many readers contacted her to ask why America's "newspaper of record" had nothing to say about this particular revelation published in the Guardian on September 11. According to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill:

Details of the intelligence-sharing agreement are laid out in a memorandum of understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart that shows the U.S. government handed over intercepted communications likely to contain phone calls and e-mails of American citizens. The agreement places no legally binding limits on the use of the data by the Israelis.

The disclosure that the NSA agreed to provide raw intelligence data to a foreign country contrasts with assurances from the Obama administration that there are rigorous safeguards to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens caught in the dragnet.

NSA Director Keith Alexander
NSA Director Keith Alexander

NSA officials suggest there's nothing wrong with such data sharing, even though it directly contradicts what most Americans believe their government is doing. "Any U.S. person information that is acquired as a result of NSA's surveillance activities is handled under procedures that are designed to protect privacy rights," an NSA spokesperson told the Guardian.

At the Times, Sullivan described being contacted by "dozens" of readers like Phyllida Paterson, of Silver Spring, Md., who wrote:

[Forty-eight] hours and there is still nothing in The Times about how the NSA shares U.S. citizens' raw communications data with Israel. This explosive story ought to be front-page news. Word is spreading and The Times is losing credibility by the hour. Friends of mine who never before believed that newspapers suppressed news are shocked by the evidence before them.

Sullivan says that when she asked Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet about the ongoing lack of coverage five days after the Guardian story broke, Baquet brushed off the concerns. "He told me that The Times had chosen not to follow the story because its level of significance did not demand it," Sullivan wrote. Baquet added: "I think the more energy we put into chasing the small ones, the less time we have to break our own. Not to mention, cover the turmoil in Syria."

When Sullivan pointed out that the paper could have picked up the Guardian story, or some version of it, without the need for much, if any, additional reporting, Baquet rejected that idea. "In a world with many news outlets, [Baquet] said: 'We can spend all our time matching stories, and not actually covering the news. This one was modest and didn't feel worth taking someone off greater enterprise.'"

But "modest" is in the eye of the beholder. Those Americans, including Arab Americans and people of Middle Eastern origins, whose e-mails, phone calls or other information could have been turned over to the Israeli state, may not have felt the story was "modest."

Sullivan herself wrote: "I disagree...with Mr. Baquet's conclusion on this one. I find it to be a significant development and something that Times readers should not have to chase around the Web to find out about."

WHILE SULLIVAN'S comments are welcome, critics have pointed out that the New York Times has a long history of bias in favor of Israel in its reporting. In 2010, for example, it was revealed that the Times' Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, had a son in active military service in the Israel Defense Force. At the time, then-Public Editor Clark Hoyt suggested this conflict of interest might be cause to reassign Bronner, but Executive Editor Bill Keller disagreed, and Bronner remained.

Lysandra Ohrstrom, writing in the Huffington Post, documented several instances of Bronner's biased reporting. One that was especially telling: In September 2009, when the 575-page Goldstone report was released, documenting, among other things, war crimes committed during Israel's 2008 offensive in Gaza, Bronner didn't cover the Goldstone findings. He only wrote about them when Israel had prepared a rebuttal months later. Ohrstrom quoted Bronner's report:

"The rebuttal will be given to United Nations officials in the coming weeks and its contents will remain under wraps until then," he wrote. "But officers involved in writing the report gave some details."

He proceeds to quote at least seven different Israeli sources and not a single Palestinian or independent human rights group about the details of a document he presumable has not read. The sources refute a few of the specific findings related to infrastructure damage detailed by the commission, but mentions the gravest alleged breaches at the heart of the report only in passing.

The left-wing magazine Adbusters has also extensively documented pro-Israel bias at the Times, including reporter Isabel Kershner. According to Matthew A. Taylor:

When Kershner reported on Palestinian refugees in Syria who, in June 2011, nonviolently marched into the Golan Heights to protest, she failed to mention that the Golan Heights is Syrian territory illegally occupied by Israel. No government in the world recognizes the Golan Heights as legitimately part of the state of Israel. Kershner also omits the fact that the Palestinian refugees' right of return to their homes is enshrined in UN resolutions and that Israel has consistently violated international law in preventing the refugees from returning to their homes.

Let us also not forget that at this nonviolent protest, the Israeli army killed 22 Palestinian and Syrian protesters. In addressing the apparently overwhelming violence against unarmed protesters, Kershner reports: "Israeli officials say they tried every nonlethal method of crowd control at their disposal" before they opened fire "at the feet of the protesters," implying that the killings were unintentional, and unavoidable, and defied the laws of physics. Kershner quotes none of the protesters as to what they saw.

There's plenty of slanted coverage throughout the mainstream media, not just at the Times. This reflects the pervasive bias in support of Israel throughout the U.S. political establishment, both its liberal and conservative wings--and the almost unquestioned acceptance of the idea that "little Israel" is the only democracy in the Middle East and remains under constant threat by the "Arab hoards." The humanity of Palestinians is barely, if at all, acknowledged--let alone their right to fight for liberation against the Israeli state.

Failing to question the role of the U.S. in propping up an apartheid state--and the way the Obama administration is violating the rights of U.S. citizens in the process--is another consensus in the media, as this latest debate over the Times shows.

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