There’s a fascinating drama playing out at the NY Times thanks to public editor, Margaret Sullivan. Sometime after the Shin Bet removed the gag order on the reporting of the Majd Kayyal case, Jodi Rudoren appointed her beat reporter, Isabel Kershner to write about the story. She did a rather decent job and even interviewed Kayyal to add his perspective to the story. I was rather surprised by this element, because the Times rarely interviews Palestinians who aren’t considered political leaders. It almost never interviews those accused of security offenses.
Now, after Ali Abunimah complained about the Times’ collaboration with the Israeli security apparatus on gag orders, Sullivan’s column was published excoriating Rudoren for abiding by the gag order. Thus it becomes more clear why Kershner’s reporting was so careful and comprehensive. Undoubtedly, Rudoren knew she was under scrutiny and had to ensure the story would be fully reported and balanced.
I’m rather shocked by the entire brouhaha because it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain who follows Israel reporting by domestic Israeli and foreign media, that they all abide by gag orders. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve approached reporters for both the Times and other foreign papers with stories under gag, asking if there was any way they or a non-local reporter could cover the story. Specifically, in one case where I offered a gagged story to a U.S.-based NYT reporter he specifically asked me if I’d brought the story to Rudoren’s attention. Which seemed either a naive response or a way of getting himself off the hook. Of course I wouldn’t offer the story to Rudoren because she wouldn’t or couldn’t report it.
At any rate, all reporters inside Israel are bound by gag orders. Technically, as a non-Israeli you are not bound by a gag, but since you are physically within Israel’s jurisdiction, both the censor and courts consider you subject to Israeli gags. If a locally-based foreign reporter violated a gag by writing a story, not only could their own personal credentials be yanked, but the existence of an entire bureau could be jeopardized.
But why wouldn’t a paper like the NYT assign a non-local reporter to cover such stories? After all, there would be no jeopardy for such a reporter since he or she is not based in Israel. However, despite the separation between the Israel-based and U.S.-based reporters, the Israeli security apparatus would take such a violation as a breach of domestic journalistic protocol. It could either refuse to renew the bureau chief’s credential or it could make the bureau persona non grata and refuse to cooperate on any stories.
All this is written from the perspective of the Israeli government and the news agencies.
But what would happen if a number of the foreign bureaus united to announce they would refuse to abide by gags in future. They wouldn’t have their local staff write these stories, but they’d be written by foreign-based reporters. They could even say they wouldn’t rely on any locally-based reporting. This of course would still anger the government, but what could they do if there was a united front presented by major foreign presses like the Times, Washington Post, Guardian, etc.?
As anyone who reads this blog knows, my major beef with the Israeli and foreign media is that they’re too quiescent regarding authority. They view themselves more as conduits for official policy statements than as investigative reporters breaking stories. While the Times staff does some feature writing that has some interest, they almost never do original investigative stories which break new ground. So given this level of collaboration and back-scratching it seems unlikely the foreign press would stand up for such a principle. Though it’s wonderful for Sullivan to hold Rudoren’s feet to the fire.
After all, what Rudoren and the Times are practicing is a form of self-censorship. They won’t report a story they could report because they know it will inconvenience their professional lives. But if the Times had followed the same rule regarding the Pentagon Papers, it would never have published them. If the Times China bureau followed the same rule it would never have reported the amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning stories of high-level Chinese corruption, which caused a huge uproar and the expulsion from the country of one of the NYT reporters who wrote it. In that case, the fear of repercussions didn’t deter the Times. What’s the difference between Israel and China? The difference is the Special Relationship. Times reporters simply will not take an adversarial position to Israeli authorities.
I was tickled by Jodi Rudoren’s explanation of her choice to abide by gag orders as a simple agreement to abide by the local laws of the land, just as you abide by traffic laws. As if issues like press freedom and censorship are as insignificant as jaywalking or speeding. This shows not only Rudoren’s faulty grasp of the big issues involved, it shows her absolute buy-in to her role of journalistic cipher for the national security state. She spoke hopelessly in this passage quoted by Sullivan:
If there had been a major story and a longstanding gag order, Ms. Rudoren said, she is convinced that The Times would find a way to publish, despite the legal restriction.
Indeed there have been many such longstanding gag orders which the Times did not violate including the Anat Kamm and Ben Zygier stories. Especially in the former case, the Times had no excuse since I’d been reporting the story for months while the gag was in place. The first U.S. reporter who broke that story was not Jodi Rudoren or Ethan Bronner her predecessor, but Judith Miller, who reported it for the Daily Beast and FoxNews.
It was also delightful to read the hypocritical statement by the managing editor that he “wasn’t aware” that the Times abided by Israeli gag orders. Of course you weren’t aware if you chose to make yourself unaware.
You’ve heard me here excoriate the media who have finally reported this story, for forgetting that the only reason they are reporting it is because of the work of blogs like this one (and Electronic Intifada, who wrote its first report a day after mine) which first broke it. Zvi Barel, writing in Haaretz never mentions the international campaign to free Kayyal. Even Phil Weiss in sloppy fashion credits Ali Abunimah with “repeatedly scooping” the Times with its story. My thanks to a number of those readers in the comment thread who linked to my reporting and offered credit. Weiss also credits Matt Lee’s questioning of the State Department about Kayyal incarceration as instrumental in raising the visibility of the issue. If he read this blog, he’d know that I tweeted such a request to Lee, who graciously acceded to it. Abunimah himself didn’t link to my own original report until I’d tweeted to him about the omission. He was so defensive about my tweet and our subsequent debate that he’s declared me persona non grata. Which I suppose earns me excommunication from the anti-Zionist left caucus, another branch of which has drummed me out of the corps for being a racist.
All of which is my way of saying that while the Israeli national security state has much to answer for in its egregious violation of press freedom, the progressive left media often does a less than stellar job at research and reporting these stories as well. Just as the Rudorens and Kershners of the journalist world rely on their pre-selected group of analysts and talking points in doing their reporting, so the left often reports stories according to its own prepared script. Though outlets like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss add a great deal to our knowledge of the issues, their own prejudices and omissions are evident, but often unacknowledged.
My own quarrels with both blogs don’t prevent me from crediting their work. I wish they’d return the favor.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.