Last month, the New York Times published an article by Isabel Kershner that was not entirely distinguishable from an Israeli army press release.
In it, she presents allegations made by officials from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and related entities that Hezbollah is frenetically militarizing south Lebanese villages. The small town of Shaqra, for example, is reported to contain a whopping “400 military sites and facilities belonging to Hezbollah.”
The upshot, according to Kershner’s Israeli sources: There will be many civilian casualties in the next war between Israel and Lebanon, and it will be Hezbollah’s fault.
Twelve paragraphs into her PR stunt, Kershner admits that “the Israeli claims could not be independently verified.” As I happen to be in Lebanon at the moment—albeit with infinitely fewer resources at my disposal than the New York Times, which operates a bureau in Beirut—I rented a car and drove to the villages singled out by the Kershner-IDF duo. I compiled my findings in an essay for Middle East Eye.
The 400 military sites allegedly saturating Shaqra were nowhere to be found, but a number of other village amenities were on display. As I wrote in my piece, these included “some houses, some farms, some hair salons and clothing stores, a colorful establishment offering ‘Botox filling,’ an equally colorful establishment called ‘Magic Land,’ a painting of Che Guevara, a pond with rancid water, and a graffito reading ‘THUG LIFE.’”
In short, Israeli claims really can’t be independently verified—which means Kershner’s experiment in militarized journalism should have never taken place, especially since it preemptively justifies civilian slaughter.
Shortly after the launch of Kershner’s offensive, blogger Richard Silverstein confronted Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren on Twitter regarding the article’s problematic nature. Rudoren informed him that it was “not my story,” at which point Silverstein reminded her of her position as bureau chief and the two continued their exchange via direct messages, the transcript of which Silverstein subsequently forwarded to me.
In response to Silverstein’s question of how the images of supposed village militarization passed along to the Times by the IDF could be authenticated without the help of an independent analyst or consultant, Rudoren writes: “We did consult analysts. I don’t know all the details of that.”
Following some more back and forth, Silverstein receives a lecture:
“You may not respect, or may disagree with, the values of mainstream journalism, but using them, Israel’s view of the situation, and eagerness to put out this view, is newsworthy in itself.”
It’s not clear, of course, why the “values of mainstream journalism” would require the U.S. newspaper of record to serve as a PR wing for a particularly homicidal foreign military—an arrangement that is itself far more “newsworthy” than excuses for killing civilians.
Meanwhile, in a more recent Times piece that is in fact Rudoren’s own story, the bureau chief presents Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest thoughts on how the world is awash in anti-Semitic conspiracies, among them the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“The founding document of the [BDS] movement includes a reference to Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes inside Israel proper, and some of its leaders call for a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Most Israeli Jews, as well as many outside experts, see either such a one-state solution or the return of all refugees and their descendants as a demographic death warrant for Israel as a Jewish state, which is how it was founded in 1948.”
When journalist Rania Khalek objected on Twitter to the description of Palestinians as a “‘demographic death warrant’ 4 Israel,” Rudoren tweeted back: “‘demographic death warrant for Israel AS A JEWISH STATE…’ Why not quote accurately?”
The short answer for Khalek’s truncation of the sentence is that this is Twitter, and there are obvious space constraints. But it’s not like the four extra words “as a Jewish state” somehow fundamentally alter the sentiment or significance of the quote. Either way, the choice of vocabulary contributes to a reckless portrayal of Palestinians as mortally dangerous enemies.
And speaking of accuracy, Rudoren could have perhaps taken the time in her article to enumerate the identities and qualifications of the “outside experts” who are anonymously validating the idea that Jewish ethnocracy must trump democracy and human rights at all costs.
As for death warrants, Palestinians are generally on the receiving end of these; see, for example, the July 2014 New York Times headline sanitizing the IDF massacre of four children playing soccer on a beach in Gaza City: “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.”
With Kershner’s recent service as IDF megaphone, the Times has now broadcast the latest in a long series of death warrants for the citizens of south Lebanon. We might be forgiven for failing to perceive the “values of mainstream journalism.”
Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.