July 30, 2014

Exclusive Scoop: A Shocking Example: How NY Times Coverage Buries Middle East Reality; Find the Four Gigantic Errors


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In my entire life I have rarely read an article which simultaneously showed the need to be well-informed before reading a newspaper and the shocking shortcomings of mass media coverage of the Middle East than this minor piece about the reopening of the Cairo synagogue. I’ve never said this before but will now: If you want to understand the Middle East’s reality and how it is distorted in the media, read the following anlysis.

Have a little patience and I think you will see precisely what I mean.

There are four huge-gigantic-gaps in this article that show how the Middle East story is being missed. The word “gap” here is polite. I can think of a number of less polite words defining the combination of whitewash and ignorance displayed here.

Here is the link. Go and read the short piece if you want to see if you can spot them, then come back and read my response. Or, if you prefer, read my analysis first. It’s up to you.

Ok, here we go.

The headline for this story is, “A Synagogue’s Unveiling Exposes a Conundrum.” So, naturally, you want to know what the conundrum was. The article explains:

“The restoration project, and its muted unveiling, exposed a conundrum Egyptian society has struggled with since its leadership made peace with Israel three decades ago: How to balance the demands of Western capitals and a peace process that relies on Egypt to work with Israel with a public antipathy for Israel.”

So here is point number one-how can the article not even mention the Egyptian government’s own role in stoking public antipathy toward Israel? Of course, this antagonism is also the product of history and to a considerable extent comes from the public itself. Yet day after day, the Egyptian government’s religious, educational, media, and other institutions preach slander and hatred. toward Israel. There is no effort in terms of communication with the public to reduce antagonism.

Let me make it clear: I am not blaming Egypt’s government for the very existence of “public antipathy,” but not to mention its role in this process at all is shocking. The effect is to play down the role of regimes, even moderate ones, in so heating up the atmosphere as to make full peace and normalization close to impossible. Their fault, as opposed to criticism of Israel for the lack of resolution in the conflict, gets buried.

Here’s point two. One of the main people quoted in the article is Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Here is what it says about him:

“‘This is an Egyptian monument; if you do not restore a part of your history you lose everything,’” said Zahi Hawass, the general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, which approved and oversaw the project. “I love the Jews, they are our cousins! But the Israelis, what they are doing against the Palestinians is insane. I will do anything to restore and preserve the synagogue, but celebration, I cannot accept.”

Later his role is again mentioned:

“But the work was completed, and at first the authorities told members of the Egyptian Jewish community that the news media could not attend the ceremony because they wanted to make the official announcement themselves. Then Dr. Hawass announced he was canceling that, too.

“‘I am trying to give the Israelis a message that they should make peace,’ Dr. Hawass said.”

So the New York Times allows Hawass to talk about how he loves the Jews and he even wants peace with Israel, he just wants them to be a bit more flexible.

One would never guess, however, that when this article was being edited the Times should have been aware of other public statements Hawass has made. Indeed, MEMRI translated this in a dispatch that came out about the same time that the reporters were preparing the story. Here is what Hawass said on Egyptian television last year:

Zahi Hawass: “For 18 centuries, [the Jews] were dispersed throughout the world. They went to America and took control of its economy. They have a plan. Although they are few in number, they control the entire world.”

Notice that Hawass hates his cousins and that his hatred is based on his belief in the most basic antisemitic stereotypes for a 2000-year period, not since Israel was created in 1948.

And here we see how the Times hides the massive problem of antisemitism in the Arab world, the fact that the conflict cannot be resolved not because Israelis don’t want to make peace but because many or most Arabs don’t want any Israelis to exist. More likely than not, letting Hawass sound like a dove of peace rather than a raving Jew-hater is due to ignorance rather than intention. The result is the same.

This feeds into point three, which is equally incredible. Let’s read the text:

“When the subject of restoring the synagogue of Maimonides was first raised about two years ago, Egypt agreed to do the work, but asked that it not be made public. The project was announced a year later when the culture minister, Farouk Hosny, was hoping to become the next director general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. When his bid for the post failed, many doubted whether the project would be completed.”

Are you a curious person? Perhaps you’d like to know why Hosny’s bid failed. It is a matter of public record, covered in hundreds of articles. Even a glance at his biography in Wikipedia-but not the Times–includes the answer to that question. So let’s see what the Times staff could have read if they had gone to Wikipedia:

“During a May 2008 argument with a Muslim Brotherhood member of Parliament concerning cultural ties with Israel, Hosny provoked controversy by declaring, ‘I’d burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt.”

“Prior to the book burning comment, the Anti-Defamation League noted that Hosny ‘has a long record of stymieing cultural relations with Israel, promoting censorship in Egypt, and making harsh anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements.’ In 2001 interview, he called Israeli culture ‘inhuman’ and in a 1997 interview stated, ‘The Israelis do not stop claiming that they built the [Egyptian] pyramids… This proves that Israel has no history or civilization….”

There was an international outcry at the former culture minister’s expressions of antisemitism and attitudes-favoring book-burning-not entirely consistent of being the world’s most important cultural official. Despite the fact that he was originally thought to be a shoe-in for the job, Hosny was defeated. The state-controlled Egyptian media then went on an antisemitic rampage, blaming the Jews for his defeat.

Might this have some relevance to the background of the synagogue restoration? The article mentioned that the project was announced during the time Hosny’s candidacy was put forth but there is no hint as to the project being a transparent fig-leaf to make people forget about Hosny’s own behavior. The project was completed but  then downplayed and there was an attempt to act as if the synagogue had nothing to do with anything specifically Jewish.

Finally, there is a remarkable gap in covering internal Egyptian politics, which shows how dictatorships often get the benefit of the doubt in Times coverage. I want to quote this point fully so s to give you a sense of what’s the issue here:

“Hala Mustafa, the editor of one of Egypt’s premier political journals, Democracy, was formally censured last month for having met the Israeli ambassador in her office. It was first time the journalists’ syndicate punished a member for defying a ban on normalization since the group was founded in 1941, according to the independent daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm.

“Even some of her critics, who strongly disagree with Ms. Mustafa’s politics, said they were surprised at the selective nature of the condemnation. Singling out Ms. Mustafa said as much about the way the state and state-aligned institutions apply laws and rules, critics said, as it did about widespread hostility to Israel.

“While Ms. Mustafa was punished, six top Egyptian scholars, including some from the nation’s premier research center, the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, attended a conference with the Israeli ambassador. None of them were punished.”

But again the reader is at a loss. Why was Mustafa singled out for special punishment? The answer is only hinted at by the name of her journal, Democracy. Mustafa is a liberal reformer and a democracy advocate and that is why she is being repressed. It is one more step in the campaign of Arab regimes against liberals and for maintaining a very tight control over their own societies. Without knowing this, the three paragraphs make no sense.

I am not focusing on an individual reporter here, especially because I don’t know how his original piece was edited. But what is important is the product. In this one article, the Times deserves an “F” for journalistic competence and it has failed to inform readers of some of the most important aspects of the contemporary Middle East.

In these respects, I cannot imagine a better example of what’s wrong with media coverage of the region-and much more.

To quote George Orwell on a similar situation in 1945 (when the correspondent of a left-wing newspaper was criticized by readers for revealing how badly Soviet troops behaved toward civilians), once you accept the idea that the media should support “good causes” rather than just report accurately: “It is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.”


About Barry Rubin

Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)