Meta Media Crit

In Defense Of The New York Times Magazine Intifada Piece

03.19.13 4:30 PM ET

Everyone expected Ben Ehrenreich's New York Times Magazine piece on the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh—where Palestinian activists have mounted years of protests, often including stone throwing, against a nearby settlement's attempted takeover of their natural spring—to come in for an array of criticisms. But some of them have come from the surprising places: namely, publications with a liberal bent. One such criticism caught my eye. In the Forward, perhaps the most revered institution of the liberal American Jewish press, editor Jane Eisner attacked by claiming that "Ehrenreich is hardly a disinterested observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." After pointing to a 2009 Los Angeles Times op-ed where Ehrenreich declared that "Zionism is the problem," Eisner remarks that, "Now, I’m not one to outright condemn every writer for what he or she has written before. But Ehrenreich’s politics are so evident and his sympathies so decided that it is difficult not to see his bias running through the long magazine story." Oh? Where, exactly? "My second criticism illustrates that point," Eisner answers. "It is not until well into the story that Ehrenreich acknowledges that the 'unarmed' resisters routinely throw stones at the Israel security forces."

Eisner's blogpost—headlined: "Real Non-Violence Doesn't Look Like This"—fails to acknowledge that Ehrenreich never actually dubs the protests "nonvioelnt" (that phrase only gets used when Ehrenreich reports that an Israeli military spokesman "took issue with the idea"). In fact, Ehrenreich uses nearly a tenth of his story—800 words, which is more than Eisner's whole blogpost—to discussing various perspectives on the stone throwing, including those of the Israeli military and its soldiers. He reports on exactly the same questions Eisner has about the place of hurling rocks in "unarmed" demonstrations and how this turns them violent, and even directly confronting the protest leader about it. Ehrenreich "only glancingly raised this point and just as quickly dismissed it," Eisner says—quite a statement about a discussion at such length. That leaves only the objection that stone throwing doesn't get discussed "until well into the story." That's it: an editorial quibble with the structure of an 8,000-word story, based on which Eisner would have us believe that Ehrenreich's anti-Zionism manifests itself as a perfidious "bias running through the long magazine story."

But the hollowness of her objections to Ehrenreich's treatment of stone throwing wasn't the most galling thing about Eisner's post. Instead, it's that she claims his anti-Zionism makes him an unfit source of reporting on this conflict. She writes that his reporting will "will now be discredited," but doesn't say why beyond implying that an anti-Zionist can't be a "disinterested observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." But neither being an anti-Zionist nor a Zionist precludes good reporting, which should be judged on its journalistic merits, not the scribe's ideology (personally, I think the notion of "disinterested observers" in journalism is passé). Ironically, the pro-Israel right wing engages in a mirror image of Eisner's attack, demanding for example that New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren declare whether or not she is a Zionist (Rudoren refused to answer). And most Palestinians are anti-Zionists; would they be wholesale excluded from reporting on the conflict? Given Eisner's apparent Zionist bent, she's not even purporting to dismiss the notion that one must be "disinterested" to do good reporting, just that they must have the same interests as her (or at least those that do not clash with hers). This is a clear example of what one might call, to borrow an oft repeated pro-Israel argument, a double standard: it's just as simple to discredit any Zionist who writes on these issues. Not only is Eisner's evidence of bias thin, the logic behind it would damn her and much of her staff's own reporting on the conflict.