On Friday 14 May, The New York Times‘ Public Editor Clark Hoyt published a piece called ‘Semantic Minefields’. The focus of Hoyt’s article was, in his own words, the questions Times‘ journalists “juggle” on a daily basis, “as they try to present the news in clear and evenhanded language”.
The last example given by Hoyt related to “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. Here’s the background:
When Cooper wrote this month about a lunch that Obama had with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, she said the president was trying to mend fences with American Jews upset at the administration’s stance against construction of “Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.”
Nathan Dodell of Rockville, Md., said it was “tendentious and arrogant” to use the word “settlements” four times in the article when the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has explicitly rejected it in relation to East Jerusalem. Obama has used the term himself to refer to construction in East Jerusalem, and Cooper told me, “I called them settlements because that’s the heart of the dispute between the Israelis and the United States: settlement construction in Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for an eventual Palestinian state.”
But to Dodell, she was taking sides. He asked why she didn’t use a neutral term like “housing construction.”
Incredibly, there is not one mention of international law, where the illegitimacy of settlements in the Occupied West Bank – including East Jerusalem – has been repeatedly affirmed by the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, the European Union, and the International Court of Justice judges in their 2004 advisory opinion.
Perhaps Cooper cited international law to Hoyt – but he doesn’t say so. The closest the Public Editor gets himself is when he writes that Israel’s claim to a ‘united’ Jerusalem is “not recognized by the United States and most of the world”.
But apparently, settlement is “a charged word” and so “articles by Times reporters in Jerusalem do generally use words like ‘housing’ instead of ‘settlement’.”
We also learn about the Times’ Ethan Bronner’s opinion: basic principles of international law are discarded in favour of Bronner’s personal impressions of some of Occupied East Jerusalem having “the feeling” of settlements that other areas do not.
The Public Editor’s conclusion? The journalist in question “should have found a more neutral term”.
No wonder that Hoyt feels the need to finish with the reassurance that newspapers are about “nuance and real understanding”. Because one would be forgiven for thinking that the Times‘ approach to Palestine/Israel is about confusion and misinformation.