Thursday, January 6, 2011

NY Times journalism -- the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Leo Rennert

On New Year's Eve, a weekly protest at a West Bank Palestinian village against Israel's security barrier turned violent. The barrier was breached in three places and demonstrators hurled stones at Israeli security forces. Israeli troops responded by firing tear gas to disperse the crowd. The next day, Palestinian officials announced that a Palestinian woman was sickened by the tear gas during the demonstration. taken to hospital and died on New Year's Day. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas immediately blamed Israel for a "crime" against the Palestinian people." And the dead woman was turned into a "martyr" for the Palestinian cause.

The New York Times published a dispatch by Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner on Jan. 2, which flatly declared that Israel's use of tear gas had killed the woman. Kershner relied entirely on Palestinian accounts and failed to inform readers that the IDF has asked to be included in a joint investigation with Palestinian medical personnel into the woman's death -- an offer immediately rejected by the Palestinian side.

In the ensuing couple or three days, Israeli military officials raised a series of questions about the circumstances of the woman's death -- whether she had other ailments requiring strong medications that might have been contributing factors. After all, there were about a thousand protesters at this weekly demonstration and nobody else seemed to have been seriously harmed or dealt a lethal blow from the tear gas. Israeli officials also pointed to inconsistencies in medical records released by Palestinian doctors, lack of an autopsy and a hurried process to get her quickly buried.

All these questions received prompt attention from Israeli media. But the Times, like most Western media, kept silent. Until three news cycles later, on Jan. 5, when the paper published a follow-up dispatch by Kershner under a headline that reads : "Israeli Military Officials Challenge Account of Palestinian Woman's Death."

To a Times reader, the headline seems at first blush a welcome initiative by the Times to make up for its exclusive reliance on Palestinian sources in the original Kershner piece and finally to present what Israel had to say. Better late than never.

Except that Kershner's story unfortunately does not comport with the straightforward headline about Israel challenging the Palestinian account of the woman's death.

Instead, Kershner makes it clear that, in sum, she's more than willing to believe what the Palestinians tell her and to disbelieve what the Israelis tell her.

So, she puts great weight on the fact that the Israeli account is based on unidentified sources -- something that otherwise doesn't bother Times correspondents very much -- and that Palestinian medical records about the woman's death are unassailably true.

Here's Kershner's lead paragraph:

"BILIN, West Bank -- Clashing narratives over the case of a 36-year-old Palestinian woman who died on Saturday is [sic] fast making her a new symbol of the enduring conflict here, with the Israeli military anonymously casting doubt on Palestinian accounts -- backed by medical documents -- that she died from inhaling tear gas."

Quite a clumsny [sic], convoluted lead -- but it tells us where Kershner is headed. Note Kershner's emphasis on the anonymity of Israeli sources and the presumed reliability of Palestinian "medical documents."

In fact, a few paragraphs farther down, Kershner peremptorily dismisses Israel's skepticism about the Palestinian account of events as based on "anonymous conjectures."

When Israeli officials question whether the woman had pre-existing medical conditions that might have contributed to her death or whether there had been medical negligence in the treatment she received from Palestinian doctors, Kershner will have none of it.

"Dr. Mohammed Aideh," she writes, "said her death was caused by 'unknown gas inhalation after an 'attack by Israeli soldiers as the family said.'''

Here's a Palestinian doctor filling a death certificate and he finds it obligatory to stress that everything happened "as the family said." The official Palestinian narrative already was in full sway and this doctor felt obliged to fall in line. Yet, it doesn't register with Kershner that the doctor might have been coached in what he was supposed to say and write. After all, what reputable medical examiner would go out of his way to signal that his conclusions were based on what "the family said"? Kershner, however, swallows this Palestinian doctor's report hook, line and sinker.

Kershner also would have Times readers believe that there were only two "narratives" about the woman's death -- a credible Palestinian one and a conjectural Israeli one. Actually, there are three "narratives" in her piece. Not just what the Palestinians said and what the Israelis said, but Kershner's own special narrative that tilts heavily toward the Palestinian side and is thoroughly dismissive of questions raised by IDF officials.

I was not in Bilin when this incident occurred. Neither was Kershner. Short of exhuming the woman's body for a thorough post-mortem, there can be no certainty about this event. Under these circumstances, when faced with conflicting versions, it behooves a news reporter to dispassionately lay out what one side claims and what the other side claims. But this is not Kershner's modus operandi. She's determined to ram her "truth" down readers' throats.

When it comes to Palestinian veracity, there's also no awareness on her part that, while Israeli officials may occasionally fall a bit short, that's nothing compared to the shameless lies that are part of the Palestinians' stock in trade. After all, the doctor who signed the death certificate works for a regime that, as part of its official creed, proclaims that Jews have no historical or religious ties to Jerusalem and that Jesus was a Palestinian.

With that kind of a record, one would think that any professional journalist would take with a grain of salt self-serving Palestinian assertions when reporting second-hand about a disputed, murky event. But not Kershner, who vouches for Palestinian veracity without batting an eye.

Bottom line: The only part of this Times report that qualifies as good journalism is the headline. The bad part is Kershner's determination to steer readers to believe the Palestinian version and dismiss as "anonymous conjectures" important points and questions raised by Israel. The ugly part is that Kershner and the Times peddle such blatant editorializing as fair, balanced, accurate and objective news reporting.

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Leo Rennert

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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