Times Bureau Chief in Jerusalem Will Now Have Her Facebook Entries Edited
The new measure slams shut an important window into a journalist's assumptions, and shows how constricted Israel discussion still is
While in Gaza reporting on the recent Israeli attack there, Judi Rudoren, the Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times, wrote several Facebook entries that caused substantial controversy. The episode began when she wrote a Times article on the funeral of the Dalu family, ten of whom (including several small children) were killed when an Israeli bomb destroyed their house, That article suggested several times that Gazans experience relatively little grief when their family members are killed ("There were few if any visible tears at the intense, chaotic, lengthy funeral . . . the tone, far more fundamentalist than funereal, was also a potent sign of the culture of martyrdom that pervades this place . . . the mourners, except for a few close relatives inside the mosque, were neither overcome with emotion nor fed up . . . ").
But it was her subsequent Facebook entries elaborating on that article, first flagged by Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss, which caused real controversy. "While death and destruction is far more severe in Gaza than in Israel, it seems like Israelis are almost more traumatized," she opined. That, she said, is because "the Gazans have a deep culture of resistance and aspiration to martyrdom." Moreover, "they have such limited lives tha[t] in many ways they have less to lose." Thus: "when I talk to people who just lost a relative, or who are gathering belongings from a bombed-out house, they seem a bit ho-hum."
She then proceeded to embrace the underlying Israeli premise about why the targeting of Palestinian journalists is justifiable ("The spokesman for Al Quds television, the office hit hardest yesterday, talked about news coverage as part of the Palestinian struggle, which is certainly different from the Western media ethic"). And perhaps most strikingly of all, she cited an article by Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, who was in Jerusalem, which described the fear Israelis and her children had from the war, and Rudoren - surrounded by unimaginable carnage in Gaza - said reading Lithwick's article about the trauma of Israelis is what produced her "first tears in Gaza".
Rudoren, to her credit, extensively engaged her critics (which included me) on Twitter and elsewhere, and adamantly denied that the meaning attributed to her by Phil Weiss was the one she intended (the full Facebook entries were posted on his site). She also deserves credit for having gone to Gaza to tell the story of the war from that perspective (unquestionably a brave act given the behavior of the IDF) and for having provided much more balanced and high-quality reporting in her short tenure than her predecessor, Ethan Bronner, ever did (that Bronner's son was in the IDF as he was Jerusalem Bureau Chief was a source of real controversy for the New York Times).
That said, it is certainly understandable that her comments prompted anger. For one, the idea that the primitive enemies of the west - those whom the west dominates - do not grieve their dead as intensely as westerners do has long been a grotesque trope of the colonial mindset. Gen. William Westmoreland infamously said in the 1974 documentary "Hearts and Minds" about the Vietnam War (the difficult-to-watch video is here):
"The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."
As FAIR's Peter Hart wrote about Rudoren's comments: "It's been observed that warmakers can dehumanize an enemy by making their cultural values seem bizarre." The specific notion that Muslims love death and thus don't grieve their civilians has long been used to justify violence against them and to dehumanize them.
Whether Rudoren intended to leave this impression, the fact that so many people understood her words to convey these thoughts was significant. Weiss' conclusion about the whole affair gets to the heart of the matter: "Rudoren was posted to Israel last June with her family, and we have a couple of times now (here and here) commented that she seems culturally bound inside the Israeli experience."
Whatever one thinks of Rudoren's comments - and I personally don't think they were malicious as much as they revealed unexamined though still ugly biases about the Palestinians - the process which ensued after the controversy arose was a healthy one. She engaged and responded to the criticism - a vital process for anyone with a significant platform, as she surely has. She was forced to confront her assumptions. Readers were able to get a glimpse of her worldview. And ultimately, as the Times superb Public Editor Margaret Sullivan reported today, Rudoren concluded she had made at least some mistakes in what she wrote:
"Ms. Rudoren regrets some of the language she used, particularly the expression 'ho-hum'".
"'I should have talked about steadfastness or resiliency,' she told me by phone on Tuesday. 'That was a ridiculous word to use.' In general, she said, 'I just wasn't careful enough.'"
These were valuable lessons, and a healthy process, all the way around. It's exactly what social media, at its best, enables: an interactive process between journalist and reader (or politician and voter), rather than a stilted one-way, top-down monologue. And it revealed important truths about how this journalist thinks about the topics she covered, vital information to know.
But for precisely this reason, the New York Times is eager to stifle this window into this reality. As Sullivan reported this afternoon:
"Now The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren's further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.
"The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media's engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter's unfiltered and unedited thoughts."
Outspoken Israel supporters such as Jeffery Goldberg had previously demanded that Rudoren stop using Twitter based on concerns that she was engaging Israel critics too much (Goldberg wrote: "I do know [Jodi's] sister, from synagogue, mainly, and I don't think Jodi is some sort of anti-Israel activist . . . But my advice to her (echoing Marc Tracy's) is to stop tweeting as if she's a J Street official"). And now this demand that her social media activity be curtailed has been met.
Sullivan considers this a "necessary step" in light of "the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract" (as well as due to "Ms. Rudoren's self-acknowledged missteps"), but I disagree. This gets to the heart of the key overarching myth which establishment media outlets like to maintain about themselves: that their journalists are "objective" and, therefore, expressing any subjective view or opinion is some sort of breach of journalistic propriety.
The reality is that all human beings - even including journalists - see the world through a subjective prism, and it is impossible to completely divorce one's assumptions and biases and cultural and political beliefs from one's observations and "reporting". It is far better to know a journalists' biases than to conceal them or pretend they do not exist. Having a window into what Sullivan calls "the unfiltered and unedited thoughts" of journalists is of crucial value in knowing that these biases exist and in knowing what they are - which is precisely why the New York Times acted so quickly to slam that window shut.
There's one other point raised by all of this. Note that the Times is not implementing a new policy for its reporters generally. Not all of them will have editors monitoring and editing their social media entries, even though many of their reporters are quite prolific on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.
From all appearances, it's only Rudoren who is subjected to these constraints. It is hardly a coincidence that the journalist who has these controls imposed on her happens to be the one who reports on and from Israel, the topic which continues to be the most constricted and policed in US political and media discourse. Indeed, Sullivan cited this fact as a reason such restrictions were necessary in this case, noting that Rudoren is in "one of the most scrutinized and sensitive jobs in journalism – the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times", and adding: "Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract . . . this was a necessary step."
That the New York Times is petrified that its Jerusalem Bureau Chief might express some "unfiltered and unedited thoughts" is a potent reflection of just how stifled discussion of this topic remains. Such freedom may lead to deviation from approved scripts, and when it comes to this topic (Israel), nothing instills fear in establishment media institutions more than that possibility.
© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited