New York Times Tilt on Trump Antisemitism Story Hints at Influence of ‘Repeated … Poor Judgment’ Editor
The word “unease” in the headline accurately reflects the gist of the story. It includes quotes from four rabbis — Daniel Zemel, Jill Jacobs, Hara Person, and Seth Limmer — who opposed Trump’s action and one, Rick Jacobs, who is on the fence about it. One rabbi who favored Trump’s action, Arnie Gluck, is named and paraphrased but not quoted. Another rabbi, Eytan Hammerman, is quoted faulting Trump for threatening support for Israel.
The “unease” story sharply contradicts earlier Times coverage of the same issue. A different Times article published the previous day by a different Times reporter stated, far more accurately, “Jewish groups were largely supportive, with some liberal organizations opposing it.”
One communications and government relations executive, Jeff Ballabon, called the “unease” Times article “a mendacious pack of distortions, half-truths, and lies.”
The Times article concludes with an anecdote that sympathetically portrays Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that is part of the BDS movement that favors a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel and the “return” of Palestinian refugees in a way that would mean an end to the Jewish state.
The Times reports:
Kathryn Fleisher, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, remembered that on the day of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre last year in her city, one of the first people to check on her was the campus leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, which has been denounced by pro-Israel groups. The two women were both committed to human rights, and they once sat down to talk about the differences in their beliefs for about two and a half hours.
“She didn’t even know the SJP were seen as being anti-Jewish,” Ms. Fleisher said. “One reason the executive order concerns me is that it puts she and I at odds, like we’re not on the same team somehow.”
Fleisher was being quoted in news articles as an anti-Trump activist all the way back in March 2016, so the idea that the Times just called her up out of the blue and found that she was troubled by Trump’s executive order is almost as odd as the idea that the mainstream Jewish community and SJP are somehow on the “same team,” whatever that means in this context.
What could possibly explain the tilted coverage?
One possibility could be involvement of a Times editor, Jonathan Weisman, who publicly conceded earlier this year that he had “embarrassed the newspaper.” The Times said publicly that he had “repeatedly displayed poor judgment on social media and in responding to criticism.”
In 2018, we reported that several Jewish leaders and other journalists described a Weisman op-ed in the Times as “weird,” “odd,” “partisan,” or “inane.” The op-ed criticized Jewish organizations for supposedly having failed to speak out against antisemitism.
In 2015, Weisman claimed responsibility for a New York Times chart that labeled Jewish senators and congressmen opposed to the Iran deal in the color yellow. He advised Jews upset about it to “chill out.”
The Times later published an “editor’s note” undercutting Weisman. It conceded, “Many readers and commenters on social media found that aspect of the chart insensitive. Times editors agreed and decided to revise it to remove the column specifying which opponents were Jewish.”
Mr. Weisman did not answer my email asking if he’d been involved in the coverage of the Trump executive order. Neither did Elizabeth Dias, the reporter whose byline appeared first atop the Times “unease” article.
But there’s at least circumstantial evidence pointing blame in the direction of Weisman. He has edited earlier Times coverage of this topic. Weisman claimed responsibility for having edited a front-page Times article in September 2018 about how the federal Education Department was handling an antisemitism case at Rutgers University. That article covered some similar issues to those dealt with this month’s executive order. It had significant flaws, but Weisman defended it “100%.”
And a rabbi prominently quoted in the Times article as a critic of the Trump executive order, Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, DC, is Weisman’s own rabbi. We know this because earlier this year the Times had to publish a correction after Weisman misquoted Zemel’s Yom Kippur sermon.
It’d be a mistake to attribute all of the Times problems with coverage of Jews and Israel to a single editor who even the Times itself has publicly said has “repeatedly displayed poor judgment.” But given that good judgment is a pretty essential quality in an editor, you wonder why he’s still there at all. When Weisman was demoted, the Times announced he “would no longer oversee the paper’s congressional correspondents.” If his new role turns out to be overseeing the paper’s coverage of Jewish reaction to Trump’s executive order on antisemitism, what does that tell readers about the paper’s commitment to excellence on that beat? Is the antisemitism beat some kind of dumping ground, a lower priority of Times management than Congress is, as far as good editorial judgment?
Again, getting rid of Weisman, or ending his involvement with Times coverage of this topic, wouldn’t solve all the Times’ problems. For example, the newspaper’s staff editorial on the topic criticized it on free-speech grounds, a bizarre double standard coming from an editorial board that is an enthusiastic advocate of limits on campaign advertising. As I put it in an earlier context, “the New York Times doesn’t give a fig about the First Amendment when it comes to Congress actually banning political campaign speech here in America. In fact, the paper is actively hostile to the First Amendment when it comes to campaign speech by the non-Sulzberger rich. But when Governor Cuomo [or in this case, Donald Trump] moves to protect Israel, then, all of a sudden, the paper starts to voice sentiments of First Amendment absolutism.”
The chief executive of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, also wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, that, as I read it, faulted the editorial for focusing on antisemitism from the extreme right and dismissing the seriousness of other threats. “No matter how much some political partisans might claim, antisemitism is not merely a creation of the extreme right wing, deadly though that source has obviously been,” Harris wrote, “One need only note the spate of attacks against Orthodox Jews on the streets of Brooklyn and, most recently, in Jersey City — all of which are manifestly not the products of white nationalism — to understand this to be true. Moreover, most of the intimidating and bullying acts of antisemitism on college campuses have come from those aligned with the extreme left.”
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.