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January 4, 2018 10:09 am

Will Layoffs at The New York Times Lead to Even Worse Coverage of Israel?

avatar by Tamar Sternthal

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The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As long ago as 2002, gay activist Paul Varnell observed about the Middle East that, “Israel is the one country in the region in which gays have legal rights as citizens and live in safety and freedom.”

This well-known fact about Israel was recently omitted at The New York Times, when journalists Laura Boushnak and Mona Boshnaq (“Coming Out in Lebanon”) identified Lebanon as perhaps the “one exception” in a region hostile to gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Why would the Times completely ignore Israel — the one Middle Eastern country in which consensual same-sex sexual activity is legal, according to the World Economic Forum?

By every conceivable measure, Israel’s LGBT citizens enjoy far greater rights and tolerance than their Lebanese counterparts.

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Homosexuals have openly served in Israel’s military since 1993, and transgender soldiers are also welcome in the Israel Defense Forces. Tel Aviv, which hosts an annual gay pride parade that attracts tens of thousands of international tourists, has been recognized as the best city in the world for gay people. In contrast, Lebanon this year marked its first gay pride week –but there was no parade through the streets.

Israel ranks an impressive seventh among all the countries in the world on the Gay Happiness Index. Lebanon ranks a dismal 99.

In response to communication from CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), the Times corrected the story, and the amended piece now accurately refers to Lebanon as the most LGBT tolerant place in the Arab world, as opposed to the Middle East.

This misreporting about LGBT people in the Middle East is but one example of how 2017 was a rough year for The New York Times.

In May, executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn announced a buyout package. According to NewsGuild, 81 employees had opted for the buyout by the July deadline, including more than 30 staff editors and over a dozen senior editors.

The copy desk especially took a huge hit. As the Times reported at the time: “The current system of copy editors and ‘backfielder’ who assign and shape articles would be replaced with a single group of editors who would be responsible for all aspects of an article. Another editor would be ‘looking over their shoulders before publication.’”

Dean and Kahn spun the cutbacks: “Our goal is to significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before.”

(Among those who took the buyout was Jerusalem bureau chief Ian Fisher, who only assumed his post half a year earlier. His predecessor, Peter Baker, served an even shorter tenure at the turbulent, but important, bureau.)

Also in May, the Times announced the elimination of the public editor’s job, with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. justifying it as follows: “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”

In June, dozens of the paper’s employees staged a walkout to protest the widespread layoffs from the copydesk. CNN quoted a Times insider: “Editors are already pretty taxed, and this will make things way worse.”

The early days of 2018 will provide a good vantage point to gauge how Times news coverage has weathered the diminishment of the copy desk and the elimination of the public editor.

Judging by the last two months of the paper’s Israel coverage, the leaner editing process and “more on-the-ground journalists developing original work” have not done the paper any favors.

In November, Rebecca Flint Marx, on the ground in Oakland, California, whitewashed convicted terrorist Rasmeah Odeh, describing her merely as a “controversial Palestinian activist.”

Only following CAMERA’s intervention did the paper note Odeh’s conviction of a 1969 Jerusalem bombing, in which two students were murdered — and also the fact that the US deported Odeh for immigration fraud.

Also in November, Doreen Carvajal, on the ground at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, wrote about the museum’s role as a “soft power,” and how it helps “to promote the capital as a tolerant global city.” Completely ignoring the Emirati ban on all Israeli symbols at the Grand Slam judo tournament, Carvajal reduced the government-imposed discrimination to the private refusal of a “local judo athlete” to shake an Israeli’s hand.

As readers encounter the Times’ ubiquitous ads promising facts “in abundance” and  “understanding, with on the ground reporting from more than 140 countries,” they ought to recall the words of Susan Guerrero, a Times copy desk veteran who opted for the buyout.

“I represent the reader,” she said. “I am the first reader, and the first one to say, ‘What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I’m not an insider, and I look at everything cold.”

The elimination of Guerrero and her colleagues, and the notion that reporters can self-edit without even the benefit of a public editor, do not bode well for facts and understanding in 2018.

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