May 20, 2019

N.Y. Times Seen as Bad News for Jews

The New York Times remains the gold standard in world journalism, but its luster has been blemished by its own missteps over its long and ongoing run as America’s newspaper of record. That’s the point of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016,” by Jerold S. Auerbach (Academic Studies Press), a study of what Auerbach regards as its sins of omission and commission when it comes to the Jewish state.

“Along the way, [publisher] Adolf Ochs’s enduring motto was inverted,” Auerbach asserts. “All the news ‘fit to print’ became news printed to fit New York Times’ discomfort with the idea, and since 1948, the reality of a thriving Jewish democratic state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.”

As Auerbach points out, the Ochs and Sulzberger families, owners of The New York Times starting in the late 19th century, were assimilated Jews who were disturbed by “the ominous cloud of dual loyalty” that hung over the Jewish community in America. For that reason, it was a practice of the Times to use only initials for reporters whose first name was “Abraham,” including distinguished journalists whose last names were Raskin, Rosenthal and Weiler. And the heroic achievements of the founders of Zionism in the first half of the 20th century were “only occasionally noticed by the Times and invariably disparaged.” 

That’s a fact of history, of course. But Auerbach’s book is meant to persuade his readers that the Times has only gotten worse. He is unsettled by the editors, reporters and commentators who are responsible for the coverage of Israel. He argues that the Six-Day War sparked a renewed period of hostility toward “a triumphant Israel,” and he charges the Times with failing to meet “the challenge to provide fair coverage” to Israel’s first right-wing government in 1977. “His support for settlements in what had been Jordan’s West Bank elicited incessant criticism of Israeli ‘occupation’ that shows no sign of abating,” Auerbach writes.

The villains, according to Auerbach, include U.S.-based writers such as Thomas Friedman, Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof, op-ed contributors from Israel such as David Grossman and Ari Shavit, and the late Amos Oz, whom he blames for launching “a fusillade of criticism of Israel.” Auerbach is troubled by the fact that in 2015, then-Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren and reporter Isabel Kershner were “joined by Diaa Hadid, a Muslim advocate of the Palestinian cause who was hired in response to the Public Editor’s suggestion that an Arabic-speaking journalist would enhance Times coverage.”

 “Print to Fit” is a work of special pleading, perhaps best summarized by a blurb that characterizes the book as an effort to answer “the question of whether Jews should judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times or the Times by the standards of Judaism.

Ironically, Auerbach himself has been a contributor The New York Times, and his author bio points out that one of his 11 books was chosen as a New York Times Noteworthy Book in 1976. He is Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College and served as a Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Yet “Print to Fit” is a work of special pleading, perhaps best summarized by Edward Alexander, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, whose blurb characterizes the book as an effort to answer “the question of whether Jews should judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times or the Times by the standards of Judaism,” whatever Alexander (or, for that matter, Auerbach himself) understands by the phrase.

To his credit, Auerbach documents the sometimes nausea-inducing and heart-breaking record of The New York Times at various crucial points in Jewish history. He concedes, for example, that Adolf Ochs was “[a]nguished by the persecution of the Jews” in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but he argues that Ochs “remained determined that the Times must not be identified as a Jewish newspaper.” As a result, the Times underplayed or overlooked the facts of the Holocaust even as Jews in the millions were suffering and dying, a policy that he rightly calls “an appalling dereliction of journalistic responsibility.” Not until 1944, he points out, did the Times begin to find space for the facts of mass murder, but even so, “[t]he horrors of Auschwitz never made the front page.”

Auerbach’s use of quotation marks around the word “occupation,” as quoted earlier in this review, is a clue to his method and his motive. He complains that the West Bank is “rarely identified as biblical Judea and Samaria” in the pages of the Times, and yet Auerbach himself puts quotation marks around the phrase “West Bank” as if the phrase were an artifact of propaganda. We are left with the impression that Auerbach would be more comfortable if the Times adopted the aspirational vocabulary of Likud instead of plain English words to describe the facts on the ground in the Middle East. Or, to put it another way, he objects to the hiring of a Times reporter whom he condemns as “a Muslim advocate of the Palestinian cause,” but he appears to lament the absence of Jewish reporters who are willing to act as advocates of the Israeli cause. 

So we are left with the painful question quoted above — should we judge the Times by the standards of Judaism? And, even if so, what standards of Judaism does Auerbach embrace? It’s significant that he finds “West Bank” to be an off-putting way to refer a geographical feature of the Jordan River, and he describes that place as “the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.” To some Jewish readers, the phrase he prefers is a cherished article of faith. For others, however, it may be an argument, but it is certainly not a phrase we should expect to find in a secular newspaper whose mission is to serve the American democracy.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.