A Disturbing Debut at the New York Times
The New York Times’ new Jerusalem bureau chief Peter Baker filed the first story of his tenure on August 28. Given the complexity of issues relating to Israel and the fraught debates about coverage of the country, readers might have anticipated a carefully balanced, factually nailed-down, serious inaugural article from the correspondent.
Instead, echoing a Haaretz story about a minor incident involving a female singer who was asked to leave the stage because she was wearing a revealing bikini top at a publicly-funded event, Baker’s debut piece veered from this trivial story to one that claimed that Israel is “struggling with its identity and values.”
This struggle, he said, is rooted in the influence of “Orthodox Judaism,” which he links in a lurch of logic to “culture minister, Miri Regev,” who is “seeking to deny state money for institutions that do not express loyalty to the state.”
Judaism, patriotism, identity and values would be large topics for a veteran on the scene, and, not surprisingly, ring both shallow and muddled at the same time in this piece.
In any case, the intended message is clear: Israel is supposedly veering rightward — a bad thing in the Times‘ worldview.
More substantively problematic was the incomplete and deceptive framing of Regev’s efforts related to taxpayer funding of cultural events. Based on the characterization by Baker, readers might assume that her actions compel Orwellian public expressions of fealty to the state.
But the “Loyalty in Culture” legislation seeks to remove public funding for extreme anti-Israel projects. It permits a retroactive reduction in the budget for “actions against the principles of the state.” Among these are cultural events that entail: “Denying the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; incitement to racism, violence and terror; support for an armed struggle or terror act by a hostile country or terror organization against the State of Israel; marking Independence Day as a day of mourning; an act of vandalism or physical degradation that dishonors the country’s flag or state emblem.”
Regev is calling for, what she terms, “freedom in funding,” along with freedom of expression. She and supporters of the bill believe that Israel should be free to not fund cultural events that promote terror, incite racism, denigrate Israel’s Independence Day, and so on.
To further his implicit message of Israel as a censorious government, Baker also mentions that Regev has proposed “to vet the music played by the army’s radio station for its patriotism.”
Here, again, the facts of the proposal convey something different from the Times’ innuendo. Regev expressed the desire to “create cultural justice” at the state-funded radio station by increasing the amount of music played from local artists. According to Haaretz, she suggested three options, including “adding a sister station” that would air “Israeli music only,” having the station increase the time devoted to Israeli artists, and diversifying the playlist committee to reflect the demography of the country.
In a related story from January 2016, another Times piece cited criticism of Regev’s initiatives but, importantly, also provided a balancing counter-voice. Reporter Steve Erlanger wrote:
… Mr. Leibler, The Jerusalem Post columnist, defended Ms. Regev and Mr. Bennett as trying to “restore a climate that nurtures love of Israel and promotes pride in Jewish heritage” after years when “far-leftists, postmodernists and even post-Zionists took over the Education Ministry.”
That’s a piece of information that readers deserve to have. Readers of the New York Times must hope that going forward they will receive some sense of the full context of a story — even if the reporter’s default viewpoint is to fault Israel.