The New York Times is the most prestigious of the prestige press in the United States. The famed “gray lady” is the newspaper of record, a citadel of objectivity, it is said, where the first draft of history is crafted. It sets the agenda for other newspapers, for the broadcast news programs and even for cable TV news.

Reverence for the Times in journalism circles, however, does not keep the institution above the fray when it comes to contentious matters like Israel-Palestine, especially now as the casualties pile up in Gaza. Israel’s reinvasion and bombing campaign has piqued the public interest. Debates over Israeli policies are everywhere, and perhaps sharper (and richer) than at any moment in recent history, despite the near consensus in Congress to stand behind Israel.

With the stakes for Israel’s image in the US higher than usual, more eyes than usual have been watching the Times’ reporting. There is a great deal of what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky called “flak,” or highly critical responses from outsiders intent on injecting their own views into the coverage.

The gray lady has come under a “deluge” of flak from readers, professional advocates, activists and officials in recent weeks. Its public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that she saw “more than 1,000 e-mails from readers on this topic recently, with protests on both sides, and, in some cases, charges of bias coming from both sides.”

Many complained of factual errors. Sullivan admitted that some of the criticisms were valid. For instance, an editorial noted that “days of near silence” from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office passed after the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir in early July. Readers objected, pointing to a statement the prime minister’s office had issued on the day of the crime. It stated that Netanyahu ordered the minister for internal security to investigate the killing quickly. The newspaper dutifully issued a correction.

Sullivan admitted that the occasional headline had been altered because the original left readers with a false impression. The headline “Palestinian Death Toll Nears 100 as Hamas Promises More Attacks on Israel” implied that Hamas was to blame for the mounting deaths, all of which, at that point, were in Gaza. The editors changed it to “Israeli Leader Calls for ‘Full Force’ in Effort to Quell Hamas Rocket Attacks,” dropping mention of the death toll.

A headline that read “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup” came across as a strange, mordantly insensitive stylization of an arbitrary strike that took the lives of eight Palestinians who were simply watching a sporting event. Sullivan agreed that this headline had “the effect of trivializing the attack.”

The most egregious headline alteration took place when an article originally titled “Four Young Boys Killed Playing on Gaza Beach” was amended to the detached and bizarrely vague “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.” The reformulation was met with loud protest on social media platforms, but Sullivan did not address it. Some pointed to direct language in the lede in order to dismiss criticism of the headline.

This sort of flak comes from attentive people with strong views, people looking to correct and cajole, many of them prodded by media watchdog organizations that send “action alerts” to their constituencies. It is tedious work for everyone.

Flak is quite important for keeping news outlets honest, or as honest as possible, but it can also give journalists a false sense of their own objectivity. Too often media workers take comfort in receiving pressure from “both sides.” They wrongly conclude that they must be doing something right if “both sides” are upset. (I cannot fully blame them. All of us, perhaps, are susceptible to the logical slip that the truth about any hotly contested question must lie somewhere in between the competing claims.)

Story-by-story complaints do not tell the whole story. There are many explanations for problems in particular stories or headlines: the bias of the individual journalist, the pressure of meeting deadlines, overreliance on official sources, laziness and so on.

It is fair, however, to ask if there are media patterns of fear and favor that are institutional, even cultural. This question is hard to answer by glancing at the coverage on any given day. It requires looking at a longer arc.

One big-picture metric is the presence or visibility of particular subjects, frames or sources over time. The Research and Development Lab at the New York Times introduced Chronicle, a word count tool, that allows users to search the paper’s voluminous archive for terms. It produces a visualization and downloadable spreadsheet of the number of articles featuring given terms each year.

I entered two terms, “Israeli” and “Palestinian,” to find out which one the Times mentioned more often. As it turns out, each year there are more articles that refer to “Israeli.”

Graph of mentions in the New York Times of the words "Israeli" and "Palestinian" showing increased usage of "Israeli" since 1948

Source: New York Times Chronicle tool

The gap between the numbers of mentions of the two terms shrinks and grows over time. We can see that “Palestinian” was largely absent for the first two decades after 1948. Its post-nakba reemergence corresponds to the rise of the Palestinian national movement after the naksa, the Arab states’ loss to Israel in the June 1967 war. Fatah, after all, was launched in 1959, but the Palestine Liberation Organization did not emerge until 1964.

One pattern is that “Palestinian” peaked during flareups of violent conflict, illustrating the aphorism “if it bleeds, it leads.” This pattern started in 1970 when the Times rediscovered the Palestinians. That was the year of the Black September fighting, in which Jordan moved to dislodge the PLO fighters from its territory.

The Times was less interested in covering the quiet times, the years of refugee camp construction, the Israeli land acquisition that made permanent the exclusion of Palestinian refugees and the military occupation of the Arab Galilee until 1966. The data suggests that the gray lady overlooked the Palestinian dispossession that was the cost of Israeli state consolidation. It was a formative period, one that heavily determined the region’s subsequent path of conflict. But a very close reading of the Times’ articles — closer than I have done here — would be necessary to draw this conclusion definitively.

In the late 1970s, Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon to fight the Palestinian resistance brought the next spike in “Palestinian” articles, followed by the 1982 reinvasion and the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

The next big news moment arrived with the intifada in the late 1980s. Surprisingly, “Palestinian” was mentioned less at that time than it was in 1982 or during the later uprisings, but there was more parity in the instances of “Israeli” and “Palestinian” than at any time previously.

After the 2000 revolt began, the two terms began to receive roughly equal attention for a few years. That trend was not sustained, however. Last year, “Israeli” was mentioned in twice as many (4,000) articles. The Israeli government has been trying to rebrand Israel as something other than (or at least more than) an occupying power and a garrison state embroiled in perpetual conflict.

Nevertheless, it seems that variances in mentions of “Israeli” since the mid-1970s correlate to shifts in references to “Palestinian.” Rises and dips in one correspond to roughly the same in the other. Media studies tells us to expect such correlations if coverage of a particular subject is largely based on conflict frames. That said, the term “Israeli” always makes its way into more articles.

Of course, discrepancies in word frequency are at best partial proof of bias.

Comparing word counts cannot indicate qualitative differences in coverage. Word counts shed no light on framing or valence, in this case, how Israelis and Palestinians are presented and whether those presentations are coded as positive or negative. This analysis is also ill equipped for studying qualitative changes among the audience of media coverage. It is likely that the word “Palestinian” is met with much less fear and antagonism in the US today than in the 1970s.

These data are a better measure of subject priority. How important does the New York Times think the Israel-Palestine story is to its readers?

Researchers have long presumed that the media’s power is greatest in agenda setting — naming subjects as priorities for public attention. In the words of Bernard Cohen, the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” The Times is the strongest agenda setter in the country. That “Israeli” is featured in more of its articles gives “one side” a greater visibility and presence.

The greater prominence of “Israeli” could be a function of institutional ties or the biographies of editors and journalists. Or it could be a manifestation of a deep affinity between the US and Israel.

Google’s ngram search shows the same terms’ appearances in all the books Google digitized — a marker of larger knowledge production that the Times both informs and conforms to. It shows an even wider and more consistent discrepancy than what we find in the Times, though only since 1951.

Graph showing mentions of "Israeli" and "Palestinian" in Google digitized books showing increasing incidence of "Israeli" over "Palestinian" starting in 1951

Source: Google Books ngrams tool

In other words, the Times is less “biased” on this issue than English-language book publishing (which includes countries other than the US). This finding hints that larger cultural biases may be at play.

Nevertheless, new information and communication technologies like social media may be a remedy.

As distributed communication networks, social media can diminish somewhat the power of gatekeeping institutions like the Times. Incumbent institutions are still informational nodes that play important roles in the generation and circulation of data, but there is much more pluralism. This pluralism does not erase power differentials “on the ground,” but it does appear to loosen the hold of traditional institutions of power over knowledge production. We can see this development in the rise of new social media journalists reporting from the ground in Gaza. These people can now reach audiences of hundreds of thousands.

Thus, the disparity in the pages of the Times and in book publishing is reversed on Twitter. As the Times itself noted: The hashtag #GazaUnderAttack highlighted the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and was used in nearly 4 million tweets in the first few weeks of the bombing. An Israeli corollary, #IsraelUnderFire, appeared only 170,000 times. On Twitter, a more global platform, Palestinian voices and perspectives are increasingly amplified, something dramatically at odds with the discrepancies that appear deeply embedded in American news and publishing industries.

It is impossible to say whether social media has convinced or will convince the New York Times that Palestinians are equally fit to print. But the Times is a business, and one that cannot risk being out of touch.

How to cite this article:

William Lafi Youmans "Beneath the Gray Lady’s Flak Jacket," Middle East Report Online, July 28, 2014.

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