Tuesday, January 21st | 24 Tevet 5780

May 5, 2017 11:33 am

New York Times Overkill Machine Hypes Novel About Jewish-Palestinian Romance

avatar by Ira Stoll


The New York Times building in Manhattan. Photo: Haxorjoe via Wikimedia Commons.

The bias of the New York Times isn’t always clear the first time the newspaper tackles a topic. It’s not always evident the second time. But when the newspaper — which has been laying off journalists — writes the same story the fourth or fifth time, usually it’s a reliable signal that there is an ax being ground.

Such is the case with a novel about a romance between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian Arab artist.

The Times first surfaced the news back on December 31, 2015, in a 500-word article by Isabel Kirshner headlined, “Jewish-Arab Love Story Excluded From Israeli Classrooms.”

It reported on the issue yet again in the January 18, 2016, New York Times Magazine, in a piece by Avi Steinberg, who wondered:

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What, for example, should we make of the current controversy in Israel over the Ministry of Education’s brazenly sectarian decision to exclude a novel, “Borderlife” by Dorit Rabinyan, from the state’s high school curriculum? The ministry objected to the story’s ugly portraits of Israel Defense Forces soldiers and its depiction of a romance between a Jewish Israeli woman and Palestinian man, which it deemed “threatening to Jewish identity.” Does the reading public’s defiant response in support of “Borderlife,” which made the novel an overnight best seller, offset the ministry’s ugly decision to exclude it? What’s the real story there: the suppression of the novel or the pushback against this suppression?

With the “Borderlife” controversy, still very much in progress, it’s hard to know what to think.

That difficulty didn’t deter the Times from trying.

It revisited the issue in a January 19, 2016, 1000-word column by Shmuel Rosner, headlined, “Can a Book Threaten Israel’s Jewish Identity?” A wise editor once told me that if editors resort to framing a headline as a question, the answer to the question is always, “no,” because if it weren’t, the headline would have just been a statement rather than a question.

In case any surviving Times reader remained who had possibly missed the point, the newspaper went back to the story yet again on January 20, 2016, in a dispatch by Steven Erlanger headlined, “Israel, Mired in Ideological Battles, Fights on Cultural Fronts.” That 1500-word article included 250 words retreading the already well-trodden ground of the flap generated by Dorit Rabinyan’s book and the sales generated in response.

Now the Times is using the book’s publication in the United States, under the new title “All the Rivers,” to return to the story yet a fifth time. Jerusalem bureau chief Ian Fisher writes a 1,200-word feature about the book for the Times. It appears in the newspaper along with an image of the book cover and a Times photo of the author, looking glamorous in jeans and a sweater, surf crashing behind her.

There are entire books — good ones — published that don’t get a single mention in the Times, let alone five different articles by five different Times journalists.

Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, in response to similar Times “overkill machine” coverage of a different book a few years ago, suggested what she called an “editor’s bonus.” She wrote:

It would be awarded to the brave soul who notices early signs of excess, especially the celebration of the inane, and who stands up in the newsroom to demand a moratorium — or at least a timeout.

Maybe the Rabinyan book merits all the attention on the basis of literary quality. It’s hard to know for sure, since the Times hasn’t yet published an actual review of it. When and if the paper does, it will be the paper’s sixth piece about the book.

The next time that the newspaper explains it doesn’t have the staff or space to cover some news story, remember it somehow found the resources to generate and publish five articles about a single book. What is it, one wonders, about a romance between an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian Arab man that so arouses the the imagination of Times journalists and their editors?

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here. 



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