Several readers took issue with the Monitor’s statement last week that coverage of Israel by The New York Times, while still problematic on occasion, has improved markedly since Deborah Sontag left the paper’s Jerusalem bureau nearly a decade ago.
How quickly we forget. Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane with just a few highlights from the Sontag hall of fame.
In an early 2000 piece on a Tel Aviv rally in support of Israel’s retaining the Golan Heights, Sontag elected to go with the lowest crowd count available – 100,000 – forgoing even a qualifier such as “at least” or “more than,” employing instead the relatively weak “about.” Nor did she feel obligated to note the higher estimates given by sources ordinarily disinclined to boost the cause of the protestors. (Reuters, not exactly known for harboring a bias toward Israel or the Israeli right, reported “an estimated 200,000.”)
Whatever the actual number of protestors, it was all the more impressive because of the inclement conditions that kept away many Israelis who might otherwise have attended – a point obscured by Sontag. Whereas Haaretzreported”cold and rainy weather” and Newsday, utilizing combined wire service accounts, described a “pouring rain,” Sontag mentioned a “cold wet night,” vague terminology suggesting perhaps a damp chill in the air.
The composition of the crowd was an important element in Sontag’s account, no doubt based on the calculation that to portray the demonstrators as out of the mainstream would be to significantly diminish the validity of their concerns. Sure enough, throughout her piece she painted a narrow and unmistakably condescending picture, at one point describing rally participants as “yeshiva students, Golan residents and retired Russian immigrants” and writing at another point that “the square was filled with yeshiva students and West Bank residents.”
Compare that to the more nuanced report filed by the Washington Post’s Lee Hockstader, who wrote of “an enormous demonstration” organized by “mostly secular Israelis – politically leftist, overwhelmingly of European origin.”
A year later, this is how Sontag opened her front-page piece on an Arab bus driver who the day before had rammed his vehicle into a bus stop, killing eight Israelis:
“After years of shuttling Gazan laborers into Israel without incident, a Palestinian bus driver who passed a strict Israeli security clearance just two weeks ago veered wildly off course today with deadly consequences.”
Note how Sontag took pains to paint the driver in the most benign of lights. Before she could even bring herself to mention the number of dead and injured, she told us of the driver’s exemplary past performance and his clean bill of health from Israeli security.
And the manner in which Sontag conveyed the cause of the deadly incident – the driver “veered wildly off course” – made it appear as if the poor soul might simply have lost control of the steering wheel. The late Yasir Arafat, whose initial reaction to the incident was to shrug it off as just another “road accident,” couldn’t have put it better.
Contrast Sontag’s approach to that of The Boston Globe’s Vivienne Walt, who wrote, “A Palestinian driver slammed a bus into a crowd of young Israeli soldiers outside Tel Aviv yesterday, killing eight people. It was the deadliest attack on Israelis since 1997.”
Sontag’s tendentious reporting was on full display in her March 27, 2001 article on the murder of 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass. “Palestinian gunmen,” Sontag wrote in her lead paragraph, “shot and killed a baby girl today outside the family home in the divided city of Hebron, Israeli officials said.”
A casual reader could well have come away with the assumption that it was an Arab baby who had been shot for some unexplained reason. In fact, not once in the entire piece did Sontag identify the tiny victim as Jewish or Israeli.
Of course, no effort by Sontag would be complete without a stab at moral equivalency, as was the case with her follow-up article on Shalhevet Pass’s funeral, which began with a reference to a woman holding a framed picture of the infant in a Purim costume – “in the style,” wrote Sontag, “of the Palestinian mothers who grieve for their martyred sons.”
If anyone can point to anything written over the past decade by an Israel-based Times reporter (other than Sontag) that even approaches such wretchedly biased reporting, the Monitor will gladly acknowledge it.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org