When I agreed to take over the Media Monitor column (the first with my byline ran 10 years ago this week), both it and I were relatively recent additions to the paper – the column as basically a repository for press releases put out by media watchdog groups and I as a staff writer with a longtime interest in the way the media work.
My intention from the start was to turn the column into a highly personal, vigorously argued, take-no-prisoners vehicle of press criticism – one that would articulate the views of those who felt marginalized by a news media grown increasingly elitist and defiantly liberal. In time, the column expanded its range of targets, taking on various political and communal figures in addition to the usual array of media suspects.
Everyone and everything was fair game – current and former Jewish leaders like Abraham Foxman, Edgar Bronfman, Henry Siegman and the late Nahum Goldmann; politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Joseph Lieberman, Jimmy Carter, Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo (who called to angrily complain about a column that quoted him linking terrorist attacks against Americans to U.S. support of Israel); Jerrold Nadler, Barack Obama and John McCain (who responded almost immediately to a column razzing him for comments he allegedly made to Haaretz); and media personalities like Dan Rather, the late Peter Jennings, Mike Wallace, Matt Lauer, Pete Hamill, Phil Donahue, Patrick Buchanan, Joseph Sobran, Robert Novak, and of course The New York Times – always The New York Times.
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Of the Times, the distinguished author (and long-ago Times film critic) Renata Adler has written (I’ve used this quote in more than one column):
“For years readers have looked in the Times for what was once its unsurpassed strength: the uninflected coverage of the news. You can look and look, now, and you will not find it there. Some politically correct series and group therapy reflections on race relations perhaps….But nothing a reader can trust anymore….Certainly no reliable, uninflected coverage of anything, least of all the news.”
One of my earliest Monitor columns concerned Times foreign affairs columnist and former Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman who, I wrote, “presents himself as someone basically sympathetic to Israel but with a distinct preference for Labor over Likud.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that Friedman has a history of supporting Palestinian ‘aspirations’ and criticizing Israeli policies that goes back to at least the mid-1970’s, several years before the Likud first came to power.”
Friedman, I noted, “as much as admitted, in his 1989 bestseller From Beirut to Jerusalem, that he allowed his dislike of Menachem Begin and opposition to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to affect the tone of his dispatches from Lebanon. Remember, these events occurred while he was a reporter supposedly gatheringnews, not a pundit paid to give his personal views.”
But Friedman was a mere piker in his antipathy toward Israel when compared with Deborah Sontag, who served as the Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief in the late 1990’s and was the featured attraction in many of those early Monitor columns.
Space permits but one example of Sontag’s routinely skewered reporting. Referring to a 2001 dispatch by Sontag, I wrote: “On February 14, this is how Sontag opened her front-page piece on the Arab bus driver who the day before 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.’ “
Sontag, I continued, “makes it appear as if the poor soul might simply have lost control of the steering wheel. Yasir Arafat, whose initial reaction to the incident was to shrug it off as just another ‘road accident,’ couldn’t have put it better.”
I contrasted Sontag’s writing with that of the Boston Globe’s Vivienne Walt (“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”) and even the Independent’s Phil Reeves, usually a vehement critic of Israel, who described “a Palestinian bus driver who saw no need for bombs or bullets but used his own vehicle as his weapon, crashing it into a crowd waiting at a bus stop and popular hitchhiking post.”
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Jordan’s King Hussein died in February 1999 and journalists fell all over themselves praising him as a man of peace and principle.
Appalled at such historical amnesia, I wrote, “Nearly forgotten in the rush to sanctify Hussein was the scorn that had come his way over the years for such behavior as his constant double-dealing in relations with Israel, the U.S. and his fellow Arabs; his allowing the desecration of Jewish holy places when Jordan had possession of East Jerusalem (gravestones of Jews were used as latrines in army camps, and dozens of synagogues were demolished or turned into stables and chicken coops); and his support of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War coupled with his circumvention of the U.S.-led blockade of Iraq.”
I was particularly taken aback by the usually sensible Daily News columnist Richard Chesnoff, who unashamedly delivered up this sugary tribute to the departed king: “Now this great son of the desert is gone, and all the children of Abraham weep. We will sorely miss this brave brother of ours.”
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When Seth Lipsky – who would go on to found the New York Sun as an intelligent, well-written conservative alternative to The New York Times – was forced to leave the English weekly Forward, the paper he essentially founded and then nurtured through the 1990’s, I wrote:
“The commissars of the Forward Association never much cared for the subversive tendencies exhibited by Seth Lipsky – subversive in the sense of his apparent inability to recite by rote the dreary, discredited dogma of the socialist left.
“And so news of Lipsky’s ouster as editor of the English-language Forward comes as hardly a shock to anyone acquainted with the mindset of those who think of God as a labor unionist and Moses as His first shop steward.”
I added that while “Lipsky describes himself as a neoconservative, theForwardunder his watch was by no stretch of the imagination a conservative publication. News coverage was expansive and balanced, and editorials usually came down squarely on the liberal side of the political spectrum (including endorsements of Mayor Dinkins in 1993 and President Clinton in 1992 and 1996).
But Lipsky drew the line at parroting the party line of the Yiddish-speaking socialists – a species nearly extinct in America everywhere outside of perhaps a few Miami Beach condos and the Forward building in Manhattan – and for this he was viewed as a reactionary by detractors whose ideological forebears would no doubt have condemned him as an ‘enemy of the people.’ “
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The news in early August 2000 that Al Gore had selected Joe Lieberman as his vice-presidential running mate electrified Jews everywhere – even those who had no intention of voting for the Democratic ticket, with or without Lieberman on it.
But within days of his selection, the moderately liberal Connecticut senator began pandering to ultra-liberal party activists, and it wasn’t an edifying spectacle.
If you happen to come across a backbone lying around somewhere,” I wrote at the time, “chances are it belongs to Joseph Lieberman, who lost his shortly after signing on as Al Gore’s running mate. At least that’s what many of the nation’s pundits were sayingas the Connecticut senator backpedaled, prevaricated and obfuscated his way through the Democratic National Convention.
One of the quotes I cited was from then-New York Post columnist Sid Zion, who wrote, “Don’t let [Lieberman’s] yarmulke fool you.His Senate record reveals a man who has trimmed his sails more than a little to satisfy Bill Clinton and his pro-Palestinian Jewish advisers in the State Department and National Security Council.”
Lieberman’s flip-flops and sudden desire to make nice with the likes of Pat Buchanan and Louis Farrakhan had, as Zion put it, “made some Jews stop kvelling in their tractates over the first Jew to make a major-party national ticket.”
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The way most of the media told it, the election in early 2001 of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister was a catastrophe of historic proportions. One of my columns focused on the reaction in England, “where,” I wrote, “raw and unvarnished anti-Israel bias in much of the mainstream press is as reliable as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Reuters predictably headlined a post-election report ‘Sharon Win Casts Pall Over Mideast Peace Prospects,’ as if all was well until the former general showed up to spoil the fun.
“But the Reuters headline paled in comparison to this outrage from London’s left-wing Guardian: ‘Israel Gives Up On Peace With Sharon Victory.’That headline was only the appetizer to the story that followed – a witch’s brew of anti-Israel slop cooked up by Jerusalem correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg (you expected a Smith or a Jones?), whose lead paragraph immediately got to the point: ‘Israel,’ she wrote, ‘yielded to the dark fears unleashed by a Palestinian uprising yesterday, voting by a staggering margin to entrust their future to a man famous for making war, Ariel Sharon.’
“Same day, same paper: Jonathan Freedland (still no Smith or Jones) began his analysis of the Israeli election with this comparison: ‘It’s as shocking as if Jean-Marie Le Pen had become president of France, or Ian Paisley ruled over Northern Ireland.’ “
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Not surprisingly, several Media Monitor columns dealt with the late Peter Jennings, whose anti-Israel spin, delivered night after night from the ABC anchor desk, was unmistakable to anyone other than his colleagues and those who shared his bias (but I repeat myself).
As a young reporter based in Lebanon, Jennings, I wrote, “marinated himself in Arab society and culture.one of Jennings’s paramours in those days – he still speaks of her with great fondness – was the shrill Palestinian mouthpiece Hanan Ashrawi.After his first marriage broke up, Jennings married Anouchka Malouf, a Lebanese photographer with a Syrian mother and an Egyptian father. Through Anouchka, wrote Robert and Gerald Jay Goldberg in their 1990 book Anchors, “Jennings was immersed in the local [Beirut] community in a much deeper way than most journalists.”
Here, from a 2002 broadcast, is a typical Jennings opening: “Good evening everyone. We’re going to begin in the Middle East tonight where the U.S. has so much at stake. The Israelis have been on the attack again against the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.”
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It’s hardly news that Israel has more than its share of hard left journalists whose ill will toward their own country rivals and in many cases surpasses the animosity of even Israel’s severest foreign critics.
Arguably the worst of the worst is Amira Hass, who (naturally) writes for Haaretz and of whom I wrote, “Unlike her fellow Israeli leftists who satisfy the dark places in their souls by vilifying their country and countrymen from deep inside the Green Line, less than a stone’s throw from the faux Eurotrash atmosphere of their favorite Tel Aviv nightspots, Hass chooses to live among Palestinians, the people whose cause she champions as her own.
“Hass, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, [makes] her home in the Palestinian town of Ramallah, a locale that any normal Jew would consider one of the most inhospitable on earth. Before moving to Ramallah she spent three years living in Gaza, an experience she recounted in loving detail in her memoir Drinking the Sea at Gaza.
“Far from harboring the slightest worry for her safety, Hass basks in the warm welcome she says the Palestinians have extended her. ‘The longer I live [among the Palestinians], the more secure I feel,’ she once told a reporter fromLe Monde.”
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Amira Hass is nothing if not the ideological progeny of Uri Avnery, the grand old man of the Israeli left. When Yasir Arafat died in 2004, Avnery eulogized him as one of history’s great men and said his passing bore “a great similarity to the death of Moses, who removed a people from slavery and led its march to freedom for 40 years, almost exactly like Arafat.”
It was with Avneri in mind that I created the Schwarzschild Award – named for Henry Schwarzschild, a leftist lawyer who, when the Israeli army surrounded Beirut in 1982, very publicly renounced Israel and literally declared himself its enemy – to annually recognize a prominent Jew who, in my opinion, had by his or her statements done harm to Jews and Israel.
Winners subsequent to Avneri have been the ADL’s Abraham Foxman, Tikkun magazine publisher Michael Lerner, and Haaretz editor David Landau.
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Though I don’t necessarily share Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s famous credo “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me,” my column by necessity is relentlessly negative in tone. But there have been occasional grace notes – George F. Will, Cal Thomas, and the late William F. Buckley are just some of the pundits of whom I’ve had nice things to say.
A politician who came in for appreciative treatment on several occasions was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, never more so than in a 2005 column on Giuliani’s removal, ten years earlier, of Yasir Arafat from a Lincoln Center concert marking the UN’s fiftieth anniversary. The city’s political and Jewish establishments were appalled at Giuliani’s effrontery.
“Hours before getting the heave-ho from the Lincoln Center event,” I wrote, “Arafat had met in Manhattan with about 100 prominent American Jews. ‘[Arafat’s] got a very good sense of humor, by the way,” said Israel Levine – described by The New York Times as ‘a spokesman for many Jewish organizations’ – of the man responsible for the murder of more Jews than anyone since Hitler and Stalin.
“The aforementioned Israel Levine may have loved Arafat’s sense of humor, but Rudy Giuliani found nothing amusing about the Palestinian terror chief. And that’s the difference between real leadership and Jewish leadership.”
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Given the space limitations of even a longer format, I was unable to highlight nearly as many old Media Monitor snippets as I would have liked. Anyway, it’s almost impossible to get the full flavor of the columns from anything other than lengthy extracts. Most of the columns dating back to mid-2001 are archived on www.jewishpress.com, for those who are interested.