Harsh-on-Israel Times Opinion Columnist Now Covers It in News Pages, as Roger Cohen Flees Paris Gloom
In October 2020, the New York Times announced that opinion columnist Roger Cohen would be “returning to his roots in the newsroom as our Paris bureau chief.”
“We expect him to take up his post in December,” said the memo, signed — in classic Times bureaucratic fashion — by no less than four newsroom middle managers.
Cohen did indeed land in Paris but apparently found it unbearably grim. “I have seen sunlight three or four times since arriving from New York about seven weeks ago,” he kvetched in a piece the Times published January 30. “My adaptation has been harsh, particularly to a Paris with its soul torn out…. Life is monotonous. There’s really nowhere to go.”
It turned out there was somewhere to go: Israel.
Beginning with a May 22 “news analysis” headlined “Conflict Strengthens Netanyahu, but the Price Is High,” and running through an August 1 article datelined from Acre, Israel and headlined “Riots Shatter Veneer of Coexistence in Israel’s Mixed Towns,” the Times Paris bureau chief has published 13 stories from or about Israel.
What is up with that?
Cohen didn’t reply to an inquiry from The Algemeiner sent via a contact form on the Times website.
It’s not unusual for the Times foreign news desk to move reinforcements into place when a bureau is experiencing a heavy flow of news. Such has certainly been the case in Jerusalem. Patrick Kingsley was announced in October 2020 as the next Times bureau chief there; at the time he was 31 and had a record of mistakes in previous coverage. The period during which Cohen has been helping out included the formation of a new government in Israel and came immediately following a stretch during which the Hamas terrorist group that controls Gaza unleashed a barrage of rocket attacks on Israel.
The Cohen situation is complicated, though, because he’s now covering as a news reporter topics on which he opined with some stridency as a columnist. In a 2017 column, Cohen called Benjamin Netanyahu a “consistent proponent of the no-state solution, a kick-the-can ruse under which Palestinians do not get a state and the existing Israeli state is undermined by corruption, intolerance and the corrosive habits of a 50-year occupation.” He added, “This occupation has sapped the Zionist founders’ commitment to a democratic state governed by laws.” He went on, “No democracy can be immune to running an undemocratic system of oppression for a half-century in territory under its control.”
In another 2017 column, Cohen wrote that he was willing to look past British politician Jeremy Corbyn’s “long flirtation” with the Hamas terrorist group because Corbyn, unlike his opponent Theresa May, would be reliably anti-Donald Trump.
In a 2016 column, Cohen claimed that Israeli policy since 1949 “has been pretty consistent: Create facts on the ground; break the Arabs’ will through force; push for as much of the biblical Land of Israel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as possible.” I wrote then, “It ignores that Israel gave away the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, withdrew from its security zone in Southern Lebanon, withdrew from Gaza unilaterally, and withdrew from many areas of the West Bank. It ignores the maximalist demands of the Arabs. There’s a fleeting reference in the following Cohen paragraph to ‘periodic stabs at a two-state peace,’ but that doesn’t really do justice to Israeli concessions.”
The same 2016 Cohen column said, “After the election but before he leaves office, President Obama may present America’s principles for a two-state outcome in a Security Council resolution that sets out how Israel and Palestine would look in their ‘final status.’ Israel is strongly opposed. That is the best reason for doing it.”
I wrote then, “That’s childish. The mere fact that Israel opposes something — which, since Israel is a democracy, generally means that the majority of Israeli voters oppose something — is not a good reason to do it. That logic — Israel opposes it, so go ahead and do it — would also justify any number of other really horrible things, like, say, bombing Israel into oblivion, or evacuating all the Jews from the land and turning it over to the Arabs. Mr. Cohen makes no good argument — no argument at all, really — for why President Obama should substitute his own judgment on Israel’s security for that of Israel’s elected representatives. Is there any other situation or conflict in which America attempts to impose such concessions on its supposed allies?”
I asked Cohen via the Times online contact form how he’d reassure Times readers who might be concerned about his ability to render objective news coverage of a conflict where he’d previously stated such strong opinions. He has yet to respond.
Personally, it doesn’t bother me if a Times news reporter has strong opinions. I’d rather know what they are in advance so I can discount for them in reading the news coverage. At least Cohen, unlike so many other Times journalists, is transparent about his preconceptions, rather than posing behind a phony pretense of open-mindedness.
Some of Cohen’s news coverage has been admirably alert to nuance and complexity; other pieces have had a veneer of alertness to nuance and complexity while subtly advancing, in “news” form, the same ideas he propounded on the opinion page. At least it’s been better than the garbage provided by the Times video team, which admittedly is a low bar.
Would Israel have been better off had Cohen stayed in Paris, or had he chosen to find a warm weather escape in some sunny country other than the Jewish state? Could be. But such are the human factors that shape New York Times coverage of Israel, and through it, influence the worldview of Times readers. Maybe if Paris had been sunnier, Cohen would have stayed there, and Israel would have been spared the additional news articles of Cohen’s castigation.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of the Forward and North American editor of the Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.