The New York Times has an ongoing public relations blitz about its supposed crackdown on the use of anonymous sources.
In March, the company made public an internal memo from its top news editors announcing “new procedures” with the goal “to protect our precious credibility.” The release of the memo was accompanied at the time by extensive coverage (“Tightening the screws on anonymous sources”…. “Building a better anonymouse trap”’) from the newspaper’s public editor.
An update last month from the new Times public editor and its associate managing editor for standards boasted, “In the four months since we laid out the new policies, we’ve seen a measurable drop in the prevalence of anonymous sourcing. (Precise numbers are hard to nail down, but our estimate would be in the range of a 30 percent decrease.) That’s good news.”
When does the Times’ new hard line against anonymous sources get ignored? Apparently, when the anonymous sources are complaining journalists at other news organizations. And especially, when those news organizations are not supportive of Israel or its elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Take this passage from aTimes article published in Sunday’s paper under the headline: “How Benjamin Netanyahu Is Crushing Israel’s Free Press”:
“What can management do?” a Walla News journalist lamented to me. “We’re threatened here by a combination of the most powerful politician in the country and one of the most powerful commercial companies in the country.”
Walla News isn’t alone. An atmosphere of intimidation has begun to take hold in many, if not most, of the country’s newsrooms. A source in Israel Hayom, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, told me that the prime minister “holds everyone on a leash — everyone — not just us. With the other outlets, you might not realize what their interests are but they exist all the same.”
Never mind that this doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting the Times’s own supposedly strict standards for anonymously sourced quotes. Anonymous or on-the-record, it’s nonsense. The global decline of the newspaper business means journalists everywhere — including at the New York Times — and not just in Israel are afraid of losing their jobs. Compared to the media in the neighboring Arab dictatorships and monarchies, Israel’s press is robustly free. If the Israeli press is as pusillanimous as the Times claims it is, no one is stopping anyone from starting up a new website or newspaper to compete with the existing outlets. The Times itself could open a Hebrew-language website if the demand for anti-Netanyahu news is as vast and unmet as the Times perfervidly fantasizes.
In fact, the Times’ own news coverage authoritatively rebuts the Times’ own claim. A dispatch from Jerusalem reports that “leaks of allegations and investigations large and small have gradually dripped out in Israel’s competitive media caldron.” Got that? One Times article says Israel has a “competitive media caldron.” The other one, published the day before, had claimed Netanyahu is crushing Israel’s free press. The two articles flatly contradict each other. It’s almost enough to make a reader suspicious that the Times isn’t concerned about any objective truth, but is just trying to make Israel, or Prime Minister Netanyahu, look bad.
The dispatch from Jerusalem is not without its own flaws. It claims, for example, that Mr. Netanyahu “draws support by stoking Israeli Jews’ security fears.” It’s as if those fears were entirely manufactured by Netanyahu, rather than, say, the result of rockets raining down from Gaza-based Hamas terrorists or of Palestinian-Arab stabbing and bombing attacks aimed at Israeli and American civilians in buses and cafes. And it’s as if increased security fears help Mr. Netanyahu, rather than possibly pushing Israeli voters into the arms of politicians more dovish or hawkish than he in search of peace or security that the incumbent is failing to provide.
But the Times dispatch from Jerusalem does quote “Raviv Drucker, an investigative journalist at Israel’sChannel 10” and “Amiel Ungar, a political scientist and columnist,” both critical of Mr. Netanyahu. And it hyperlinks to two Jerusalem Post articles, two Ha’aretz stories and a Ynet piece about investigations of Mr. Netanyahu. If Mr. Netanyahu were really crushing Israel’s free press the way the Times claimed in the first article, would these stories even exist to hyperlink to, or would these journalists even exist to quote? In a genuinely unfree press environment, such as the ones in Israel’s neighborhood, those journalists would be tortured, beheaded, savagely beaten or tossed into grim prisons. They would not be granting interviews to theNew York Times.
I emailed two editors at the New York Times to ask for an explanation of the apparent failure to comply with the anonymous source policy in this case. So far, I have gotten no response. Maybe the Times editors were waiting for me to offer them anonymity?
(c) 2016 The Algemeiner