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Skewing The Shalit Deal, New York Times-Style


I’ve been reading The New York Times pretty much every single day since I was ten years old. That’s more than a half-century by now.

Along the way, I’ve been informed, inspired, and occasionally infuriated.

Last week, there were several causes for infuriation.

The first came on Monday, in the form of four photographs that appeared on the first page of the International section.

The largest of the four, 6 x 9 inches, was at the top of the page and immediately caught the reader’s attention. It was a poignant picture of a little girl leaning against a largely empty wall and staring upward, as the caption explained, to a small picture of her grandfather.

Walid Aqel, 48, was to be among those Palestinian prisoners released in the exchange for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006.

The paper failed to mention, in the caption or elsewhere, that Aqel was a founder of Hamas’s military wing, had much Israeli blood on his hands, and was sentenced by Israel to life imprisonment.

Instead, the overriding impression conveyed was that Aqel was, above all, a grandfather, whose adorable granddaughter was pining for his return from his Israeli captors.

Then, just below the photo was the article itself – “Israel Names 477 to Go Free in Trade for Hamas-Held Soldier.” And beneath the article were three small photos, each measuring 2 x 3 inches, which conveyed images of the human havoc wreaked in Israel by some of those Palestinians to be released in the deal.

Because of their diminutive size and busy images, those photos didn’t draw the eye easily, though they should have been the heart of the story. After all, they conveyed the nature of the terrorists to be freed, helping readers understand how gut-wrenching the decision must have been for Israel.

Yet those photos, together totaling 18 square inches, were submerged, while the single, stark photo at the top, 54 square inches, dominated.

Then came a Times editorial, “Gilad Shalit’s Release,” on Wednesday. It was among the most upsetting I’ve ever read.

The day after Shalit was returned to Israel, with 477 Palestinian prisoners sent to Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere, and a second group to be freed soon, the paper chose to go after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yet again.

He’s been a favorite whipping boy for the editorial writers since he assumed office in 2009.

They give him little credit for what he’s done to advance prospects for peace and Palestinian development – the ten-month settlement freeze, the lifting of blockades and checkpoints on the West Bank, oft-expressed support for a two-state outcome, and help for the rising Palestinian economy. And they spare no criticism for his alleged misdeeds.

But this editorial took the cake, darkly suggesting the Shalit deal was really a Machiavellian plot to further weaken chances for peace — and the blame, predictably, was laid at Netanyahu’s doorstep.

Of course, the editorial could have gone in other directions.

It might have dwelled on the extraordinary importance Israel attaches to human life, in this case the life of one soldier. It could have focused on the nature of Israeli democracy, where Gilad Shalit’s parents never stopped mobilizing on behalf of their son, and created a national movement to liberate him, irrespective of the cost.

It might have reminded the world of the contrast between Shalit’s captivity – more than five years without a single visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross, much less his family – and that of the Palestinian prisoners, none of whom surely would have wished to trade their diet, access to the outside world and, indeed, to sunlight, or opportunities for education with what Shalit endured.

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