That may be slightly hyperbolic, but the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief will always have his/her work cut out for him/her. And then shredded to pieces, castigated, and masticated ad nauseum. (Even just recently, I have also covered various unsavory aspects of the Times’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)
In this regard, then, criticism of Jodi Rudoren is no different than the intense scrutiny faced by her predecessors (a line that most recently included Ethan Bronner, whose son served in the Israel Defense Forces). She got off to a rocky start earlier this year by doing things as downright treasonous as linking (via retweet) to a Hezbollah-friendly Lebanese news site and acknowledging the existence of Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abuminah, also in a tweet. (It should come as no surprise to anyone that Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg found all of this very upsetting.)
Well, she’s back in hot water again. As part of an otherwise very admirable step into social media (especially for an employee of an “old-fashioned” media institution), Rudoren posted the following commentary on her Facebook page on November 19, during the recent Israeli strikes in Gaza:
In terms of Sarah Sanchez’s q about effects on civilians, the strange thing is that while death and destruction is far more severe in Gaza than in Israel, it seems like Israelis are almost more traumatized. The Gazans have a deep culture of resistance and aspiration to martyrdom, they’re used to it from Cast Lead and other conflicts, and they have such limited lives than in many ways they have less to lose. Both sides seem intensely proud of their military “achievements” — Israel killing Jabari and taking out so many Fajr 5s, Hamas reaching TA and Jeru. And I’ve been surprised that when I talk to people who just lost a relative, or who are gathering belongings from a bombed-out house, they seem a bit ho-hum.
It was this last word — “ho-hum” — that sparked an avalanche of criticism. This flood of responses included one from Philip Weiss, founder of Mondoweiss.net and a fierce critic of Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians. He posted an article extensively analyzing Rudoren’s “ho-hum” comment, as well as previous statements she’s made, and concluded the following:
Rudoren was posted to Israel last June with her family, and we have a couple of times now…commented that she seems culturally bound inside the Israeli experience. These observations in the Facebook shtetl support that view.
When, to her credit, Rudoren linked to Weiss’ column — calling it an “incredibly unfair analysis of my Facebook posts, taking everything out of context to support his agenda” — many of her Facebook subscribers took to her comments section to air their perspectives, including me:
I hate to say it, but “they seem a bit ho-hum” is something you would never see printed in the NYT — or anywhere else — about Israelis/Jews. I’m not even saying it was deliberate bias, but just that certain narratives become reinforced through sheer force of habit and complacency. That was irresponsible phrasing.
Others voiced similar concerns. (The response was not unanimously of one mind, however. Several commenters registered disgust for Philip Weiss, for example.) The next morning in Gaza, Rudoren again — to her credit once more — took to Facebook to explain herself:
My feeling is that my posts on social media have to adhere to the same fairness standards as my work in the NYT itself, but not to the same tone or content standards as I try to bring a bit of reflection/behind the news. So while people are right that I would absolutely never use a term like ho-hum in the newspaper in this situation, I might well use a different word, and probably many more of them, to describe what I have experienced as a kind of numbness and, frankly, strength in the face of all that is happened to the people here. Steadfast probably would have been a much better choice.
I did not at all mean to imply that people were indifferent to the suffering, or uncaring, or unfeeling — they are passionate about their cause, deeply connected to the land being destroyed, with incredibly close extended families loved and honored above all else. What I meant was that their reaction to the literal things that had been happening this week was (mostly) outwardly calm, even, stoic. There is little panic and little public display of emotion (whether sadness or anger) that you might see in other cultures. Talking to people has made me think this is a mix of resignation, routine and resistance, along with a religious viewpoint that views death in this context as a sacrifice, of course, but also a worthy one.
Whether or not Rudoren’s elaboration was entirely honest is certainly debatable. But whatever its degree of veracity, it appears that such off-the-cuff statements will no longer be forthcoming from the freshman Jerusalem bureau chief. Today, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (who yesterday also tackled the allegedly “Orwellian” captioning of a Gaza photograph that appeared in the newspaper) took Rudoren to task for her social media commentary:
Now The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.
The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.
Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract, and Ms. Rudoren’s self-acknowledged missteps, this was a necessary step.
The alternative would be to say, “Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.” As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.
Some would argue, however, that this nebulous middle ground is the worst position of all. The Times stakes a large part of its reputation on the lofty notion that its reporting is utterly devoid of bias, an idea that implicitly extends to the reporters themselves. Of course, it is impossible to be utterly devoid of opinions and biases developed through experience, research, or otherwise (also known as “living”).
As this inherent contradiction — practiced far and wide by mainstream media establishments — is subjected to increasingly incisive scrutiny by the likes of Jay Rosen and others, some organizations (especially those being distributed primarily via the Internet) have taken to disclosing political leanings and other relevant information upfront, and allowing readers to decide for themselves whether the reporting is worthwhile.
But in the case of Rudoren, it appears the New York Times is doing neither: now that it is no longer able to plausibly deny the existence of a functioning analytical brain inside its Jerusalem bureau chief’s head, it has decided to censor her, instead of embracing the newfound transparency of her possible innate biases. In fact, Rudoren’s critic, Philip Weiss, is among the frustrated:
Count me an unhappy reader. I like the transparency of social media, I like to know about reporters’ biases. The Rudoren moment showed us that even reporters for the most prestigious journals are real people with real responses, for better or worse; and I believe that Rudoren’s apprehensions about Palestinian culture are widely shared in the US establishment (indeed, I have admitted my own apprehensions re Islam). In the unfolding of the story, we got to see Rudoren, who is a smart, tough, thoughtful person, respond and evolve before our eyes. Now the Times, worried about its authority being diminished, needs to pull the curtain.
Chimes in Pamela Olson: No more unfiltered thoughts from Mrs. Rudoren– it probably would have happened sooner or later anyway, but it’s a pity. It was a fascinating look into the mind of an establishment journalist just getting her feet wet, unconscious biases and all, revealing things that are supposed to be kept well hidden. It’s always fun to watch the newbies– reporters, politicians, thinktankers– slowly learn the various orthodoxies they must adhere to.
Fellow blogger, friend, and Middle East obsessive Max Marder is on the same page:
For many, Rudoren’s social media activity has provided a refreshing peak into the way she covers her beat. She should not be criticized for talking to, or sympathizing with, actors on the fringes of the Israeli-Palestinian political spectrum as long as her reporting remains unbiased. The Times decision to attach an editor to her desk to supervise her social media use will prevent its readership from gaining insight into its reporter’s true feelings.
This decision sets a dangerous precedent. In journalism and in social media, as in politics writ large, censorship has been delegitimized and transparency is the ideal. The Times should know better.
Noted Israel critic Glenn Greenwald expressed similar concerns:
The reality is that all human beings – even including journalists – see the world through a subjective prism, and it is impossible to completely divorce one’s assumptions and biases and cultural and political beliefs from one’s observations and “reporting”. It is far better to know a journalists’ biases than to conceal them or pretend they do not exist. Having a window into what Sullivan calls “the unfiltered and unedited thoughts” of journalists is of crucial value in knowing that these biases exist and in knowing what they are – which is precisely why the New York Times acted so quickly to slam that window shut.
Me? I’m a bit conflicted. The New York Times‘ solution feels excessively heavy-handed and, worse, effectively eliminates any incentive for someone like me to bother following Jodi Rudoren’s Facebook and Twitter feeds anymore. At the same time, even if Rudoren’s reporting itself appears to be at least superficially neutral, her troubling Facebook comments leave an open question as to whether she is truly approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an open mind. (Given her predecessor Ethan Bronner’s own familial entanglement, it can surely be said that the Times has followed a somewhat risky path in its Jerusalem appointments.)
I’m still willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. As Max Marder has pointed out (both in his post and in conversation with me), when it comes to this particular conflict, it is often difficult to distinguish bias on the part of the Times from one’s own political stance on the subject. Whatever mistakes Rudoren may have made so far, it seems likely that we’ve now lost an interesting source of first impressions from a newcomer to the region, thanks to the (understandable) skittishness of her employer.