Next week the Monitor will examine aspects of the media coverage of Israel’s war on Hizbullah. This week, we take a stroll down memory lane, revisiting an early Monitor column from October 1998 (yes, the Monitor’s been around for nearly eight years now). The piece was titled “The Times Reverts To Old Hab-its,” and its conclusions should be kept in mind as one reads the paper’s editorials on the current fighting:
Up until a few years ago it was a truism that the only thing more rare than a nice word about Israel in a New York Times editorial was a Times endorsement of a Republican presidential candidate. (The latter hasn’t happened since Eisenhower in ‘56, trivia buffs.)
And then in 1992 the newspaper’s attitude brightened considerably with the ascension of an Israeli government whose diplomatic initiatives were more in tune with the policy preferences of the Times’s editorial board.
The kinder, gentler treatment of Israel even survived the defeat of Shimon Peres in 1996 and car-ried over into the administration of Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the paper’s editorial writers clearly disdained.
Disagree with Netanyahu as the Times most emphatically did, there was no return, during Netanyahu’s first two years in office, to the blatantly antagonistic rhetoric that characterized the paper’s editorial commentary during the Begin-Shamir years.
All that changed last week, however, with the news that Ariel Sharon had been appointed Israel’s foreign minister. In one fell swoop the Times reverted to the full-blown hysterics that in years past had been its trademark when Israel was the subject of discussion.
In an editorial remarkable for its name-calling and general nastiness, the Times on Oct. 10 described Sharon as “an implacable foe of the Palestinians”; “reckless”; “leaving destruction in his wake”; and “capable of wrecking the entire peace effort.”
It was as if the Times editorial board had been visited by an apparition of Menachem Begin and spooked into recycling its favored stock phrases about Israel circa 1982.
Responding to the knee-jerk vituperation, reader Stanley Adelsberg of the Bronx, in a letter published in the paper’s Oct. 13 edition, asked the Times, simply but eloquently, “How one-sided can you be?”
Adelsberg also charged that PLO chairman Yasir Arafat “is the reckless one who is capable not only of wrecking the peace process but also of continuing terrorist activity,” and that it is Arafat, not Sharon, “who has to change his ways for the peace process to move forward.”
But it was another letter to the Times that, given the political perspective of its author, really underscored just how far out on an ideological limb the paper had gone.
“I have known Ariel Sharon…for 30 years,” the letter began, “and despite our political differences, I know that he has never been ‘an implacable foe of the Palestinians.’ True, he considers the Palestine Liberation Organization an enemy of Israel, but he harbors no ill feelings toward the Palestinian people, save those who engage in terror.”
Insisting on the necessity of understanding that distinction, the letter-writer went on to describe Sharon as someone “deeply concerned about Israel’s security, and he will oppose anybody, if often mistakenly, who he perceives as inimical to the state.”
And that, concluded the offended Times reader, “is a far cry from seeing the Palestinians as an enemy.”
The letter was signed by Moshe Kagan, vice president of Meretz U.S.A., an organization nobody has ever accused of being part of some vast Likud conspiracy – at least not the last time the Monitor checked.
If the Sharon editorial signals a reversion to old habits at the Times, readers can expect once again to be subjected to constant jeremiads on the shortsightedness of Israeli policy; on why enlightened progressives (presumably like those who write Times editorials) need to save Israel from its own government; and on why any Israeli insistence on Palestinian accountability constitutes needless provocation.
And should the need arise, just about any military action taken by Israel in just about any context will be treated with skepticism at best, outright condemnation at worst – no matter who or what the target.
After all, it was The New York Times that in June 1981 led the chorus of media vilification when Israel destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor – a “sneak attack,” screeched the Times, one that constituted “an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression.”