Sam Ehrenhalt no doubt would have thought it ironic that The New York Times gave him such a laudatory send-off a few days after he passed away on May 31 at age 83.
The Times may have had nice things to say about Sam, but he would not necessarily have returned the sentiment.
First, to reiterate what was said in an introductory editor’s note and a closing tagline on his front-page essay for The Jewish Press on the history of French anti-Semitism, published posthumously in the paper’s June 19 edition, Sam was a longtime official at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and served as the bureau’s New York regional commissioner from 1980-1995. But it was as an activist for Israel and Jewish concerns that many of us came to know him.
A careful reader of The Jewish Press, he made it a habit to pass along tips and suggestions gleaned from his wide and varied reading. A number of Sam’s op-ed articles and letters to the editor graced the paper over the years, until he was forced to focus his attention on the illness that eventually took his life.
In a June 3 obituary, The New York Times noted, among other flattering tidbits, that Sam “was routinely consulted by the news media on an array of subjects…. Mr. Ehrenhalt by all accounts brought to his work an articulate wit and, when needed, a keen dramatic flair. To him, statistics did not exist in lifeless isolation; instead, they reflected the web of contingencies that forms the narrative of everyday life.”
But what did Sam think of the Times? Back in 2003 he shared with the Monitor a note he had recently dispatched to Times Executive Editor Bill Keller.
Sam began by informing Keller that “after close to 65 years as a reader…I cancelled my subscription last year because of [the Times’s] unfair reporting on the Middle East conflict, its inadequate reporting on the upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe and other parts of the globe, and its failure to report on the raging incitement of hatred of Jews inundating media, schools, mosques and government institutions of Arab lands.”
He noted to Keller that he’d sent some 200 letters to the Times “detailing specific concerns on Middle East reporting,” and that they “failed to elicit any substantive reply.”
His letters, he explained, “cited unquestionable errors of fact, pejorative or other loaded language usage, misleading headlines, failure to include essential context, presentations unbalanced by pictures accompanying the reporting. The Times response, basically, was that its staff was as good as they come and doing ‘a masterly job.’ ”
But, Sam continued, “except for a few corrections or editorial notes, often inadequate, there was no indication that the Times was at all willing to consider the issues of accuracy, fairness and balance I raise. From the early days of the new Intifada on, Times reporting established a narrative of determined advocacy, interrupted only for the short time that Clyde Haberman was assigned to Jerusalem, evidenced by what was reported and what not, how it was reported, emphasis, placement, pictures, headlines – all the components of news presentation.”
Sam next offered what he called a “small, telling example” of Times-style bias:
“When the Times got into the situation of the Temple Mount its reference to Muslim concerns was finely calibrated: ‘the third holiest site in Islam.’ The Jewish connection was dismissive: ‘The site is also holy to Jews.’ That locution managed to elude the fact that the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, that it has been the holiest site for Jews since 1,500 years before the birth of Islam…. There was never a correction; reporting of this sort became a continuing pattern.”
And Sam told Keller that “after a particularly atrocious report on the annual Israel Solidarity March in New York, I concluded that I could no longer in good conscience continue my subscription.”
The Monitor doesn’t know whether Sam ever subsequently renewed his subscription to the Times, though if he had he probably would have shared with us his reasons for doing so; his silence on the matter was telling.
There are those – the Monitor included – who feel the Times’s Israel coverage, while still leaving a lot to be desired, has actually improved somewhat over the past few years. Would anyone dispute that the forceful and articulate voice of a disgruntled Sam Ehrenhalt played a not inconsiderable role in that improvement?
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org