In a recent article for FrontPageMag.com, Kenneth Levin (whose most recent contribution to The Jewish Press was the April 20 page-one essay “The Empty Rage of Jewish ‘Progressives’”) took off on Steven Erlanger, the putrid Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times. In the course of his critique, Levin recalled a particularly egregious example of biased reporting by a former Times Jerusalem correspondent named William Orme.
Levin’s mention of Orme triggered memories of when the Times’s coverage of Israel reached an all-time low, thanks in large measure to Orme and wife Deborah Sontag, who happened to be the Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief.
How bad was Orme? On Oct. 1, 2000, he began a front-page story in the Times on the recently launched Palestinian intifada by writing that the violence had been “set off by the defiant visit on Thursday of a right-wing Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, to the steps of the ancient mosques atop Jerusalem’s Old City.”
The article only got worse as it went on, a textbook example of advocacy journalism. To start with the highly subjective lead, if Orme’s use of “defiant” isn’t a clear-cut instance of editorializing, nothing is. (Orme would use the same word to describe the Sharon visit three days later in another front-page piece.)
Note also how Orme described the site of Sharon’s visit: “ancient mosques atop Jerusalem’s Old City.” Not a word about the Temple Mount or its central place in Judaism.
Orme was just warming up. Describing the tragic shooting of Mohammed al Dura, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy caught in a crossfire between Arab snipers and Israeli soldiers (the circumstances of the incident would be the subject of fierce debate for years afterward), Orme painted a graphic word picture – “The excruciating scene … the boy’s screams … the father’s cries of horror” and dutifully quoted a senior adviser to PA Chairman Yasir Arafat who condemned the “killing in cold blood [of] an innocent child.”
Orme then immediately followed with this loaded line:
“There was little reaction [to the boy’s slaying] from Israelis, many of whom spent the day strolling to synagogues and family gatherings on the Rosh Hashanah holiday….”
By juxtaposing the “excruciating scene” of gunfire and bloodshed with an almost pastoral image of “strolling” Israelis oblivious to the nearby turmoil, Orme managed to convey a startling contrast of horror and holiday – dueling images with Israel, as usual, ending up on the sharp edge of the shiv.
But Orme’s most blatant bit of editorializing appeared toward the end of the piece, in this extraordinary paragraph:
“Israeli army spokesmen said the troops came under fire from the Palestinian police. But television footage of the incident, including the shooting of the 12-year-old boy, and the absence of any serious Israeli casualties, served to reinforce the Palestinians’ belief that the Israelis were responding with disproportionate force.”
Notice Orme’s wholly subjective tone and transparent agreement with Palestinian claims, as in his clever use of the phrase “served to reinforce.” It happened that much of the footage in question could best be characterized as chaotic and confusing (as is usually the case in tense and dangerous situations), and therefore the one thing it could not do was “reinforce” anything other than perhaps some preconceived notions on the part of a New York Times correspondent.
Orme passed the Israel-bashing baton to his wife the next day. In her October 2 article, Deborah Sontag claimed “It is widely believed [in Israel] that the present violence was touched off by Mr. Sharon’s visit on Thursday.”
What, precisely, does “widely believed” mean here? Did Sontag take a poll? Did she speak with the left-wing editors at Haaretz? Did William Orme suggest it over breakfast?
But what could one have expected from Sontag, who upon Sharon’s election as prime minister a few months later described him as an “unreconstructed Zionist” – a curious choice of words, seemingly suggesting that unadulterated Zionism is something enlightened individuals are expected to outgrow, if not disassociate themselves from. You know – enlightened individuals like the ones at The New York Times.
Point of reference: the executive editor of the Times during the heyday of Sontag/Orme’s almost daily journalistic assaults on Israel was Joseph Lelyveld, who in a recent article in the left-wing New York Review of Books essentially justified Jimmy Carter’s application of the term “apartheid” to Israeli policies. The pieces eventually come together, don’t they?