News Bias Is a Choice to Lack Diversity

Jodi RudorenOver at The Electronic Intifada yesterday, Max Blumenthal wrote, Candid Video Reveals NYT Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren’s Zionist Bubble. Rudoren’s husband made an hour long video for his parents 60th wedding anniversary (Wow!) called, A Life in a Day: the Rudorens of Jerusalem. Blumenthal’s article is fairly long and quite interesting. His argument is that the video does show the lifestyle of the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times and that the only Palestinians that her family seems to interact with are those who clean their clothes.

Rudoren got a lot of attention about a month ago for her reporting on the Israeli police beating of a 15-year-old American who was the cousin of a recently killed Palestinian teen. Rudoren was accused of just parroting talking points from the Israeli police instead of practicing journalism. To make matters worse, Rudoren lashed out at critics as, “Anti-Israel activists.” I have to admit that this kind of thing is beginning to wear thin with me. Just because someone attacks your reporting or more generally the treatment of Palestinians does not mean they are anti-Israel. Although I am sure some are, that certainly can’t be said for them as a group.

Max BlumenthalI’m actually not that interested in this whole case in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Blumenthal is right that Rudoren is so cut off from Palestinians that it is not a practical possibility that she can cover the conflict with anything like objectivity. And he is right that The Times keeps itself geographically isolated so that everything is seen through the prism of Israel. In 2005, Public Editor of The Times Daniel Okrent saw the problem and recommended that the paper add correspondents in Ramallah and Gaza. As Blumenthal noted, “That never happened. Instead, The Times hired Rudoren to retrench its presence in the ethnically-cleansed and exclusively Jewish world of West Jerusalem…” But the truth is that the problem is much bigger than this.

What the video shows (Note: I have only watched parts of it.) is what we see in all aspects of the major media outlets: privileged reporters seeing the world through their upper class prism. This is why business reporters seem to only find news about the management side of business interesting. They don’t have any friends who are in labor unions. So it isn’t so much they have an animus toward middle and lower class workers, as it is that they are simply invisible. And this has the extremely pernicious effect of making the reporters think they are being objective when they are far from it. They probably do perceive their worlds in a fairly objective way. But their worlds are not at all the world.

Rudoren’s comment that those attacking her were “anti-Israel activists” is no different from Bill O’Reilly claiming that anyone attacking him (or even disagreeing with him) is on the “far left” or is a “far left loon.” And in this similarity, I’m mostly interested in the process. In O’Reilly’s case, in his personal life he simply isn’t around anyone who ever disagrees with him, much less attacks him for it. Similarly, in Rudoren’s personal life, she is never around anyone who is on the other side of the conflict she is covering. Of course, it is worse in her case; she’s supposed to be doing actual journalism whereas everyone knows that O’Reilly is just a ranter.

The the solution, however, is not to force Rudoren to make some Palestinian friends or simply to get out of West Jerusalem now and then. The solution is to make systemic changes. In domestic journalism, the problem is not our business reporters. The problem is that we have almost exclusively business reporters with no labor reporters. It is very much as if during the 2012 presidential campaign, all the news outlets had sent reporters to follow Obama, but none of them sent reporters to cover Romney.

So of course Jodi Rudoren is insulated and privileged and has a highly biased way of looking at the world which results in her doing bad journalism. But as Blumenthal noted in the article, that was the choice that The New York Times made. It clearly wants to see the Israel-Palestine conflict through the prism of the upper class West Jerusalem residents. This is just the same as The Times‘ decision to have a cadre of business reporters and (as far as I know), just one labor reporter.

Update (4 August 2014 8:58 am)

I was very pleased to see this morning that Max Blumenthal tweeted out this article:

Normally, reporters only tweet out my articles when they are mad at me. So it’s nice when someone publicizes an article without an implicit eye roll.

Update (4 August 2014 10:35 am)

I had a little Twitter exchange with Matt Yglesias over this article. He noted that journalists do know people in unions because newspapers are unionized. It’s a good point, but I did not actually say that they didn’t know people in unions; I said they don’t have friends who are in unions. Now the journalists may have their own union, but I’m sure it is more like the American Association of University Professors, which I was once a member of. It wasn’t much like a union. Yglesias said the distinction was probably more education than unionization. That’s a good point. But I think the discussion gets off the point, which is that the concerns of reporters are greatly affected by their class interests. And, of course, the larger point of the article is that the coverage of media outlets is determined by choices made at the top about who is going to be hired to do what.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

8 thoughts on “News Bias Is a Choice to Lack Diversity

  1. On the one hand I am bleakly happy that more and more people are realizing just how foully Israel is behaving. One would hope this awareness comes with a realization that Israel behaves foully because it’s an arm of our foul empire. Empires are rarely nice. (The Ottomans were probably as mildly awful as empires come.)

    I do worry, and I’m sure you’ve seen this around, about anger directed towards Israel that is genuinely anti-Jewish. It’s by no means the majority opinion of those criticizing Israel’s actions, but it is out there. I presume because it’s easier for some people to direct anger on Israeli Judaism then to acknowledge America’s woeful influence on world affairs.

    That’s probably the mental line in the sand which is hard for Americans to cross. I read a letter-to-the-editor recently saying how those feeble countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala which are sending refugee children to the southern US border should fix their own economies and be successful, like us. Really? Nicaragua and Guatemala? I guess in the minds of most people we really have no responsibility for anything . . . we always meant well.

  2. @JMF – One important correction: almost none of the children are coming from Nicaragua. This is because Nicaragua is not a hell hole, which is partly due to the fact that the president of that country is the US-vilified Daniel Ortega. No one is perfect, but leftist governments tend to take better care of their people.

    I know there are people out there who hate the Jews. I had a boss who was antisemitic, for example. I still don’t get it because I still have a hard time seeing them racially as anything but European. To a large extent, I think hatred of Jews was perfectly demonstrated in [i]Borat[/i]: more cultural signifier and folklore than anything else.

    This doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous. But I never saw the Holocaust as being fundamentally [i]about[/i] the Jews. It was the result of a group using Jews as a handy scapegoat. And the Jews have been that for a very long time.

    But still, I wonder. All the problems seem to be Muslims and Christians against the Jews. They are all pretty much the same religion. It all has the feel of two siblings picking on a third. And I can certainly understand Jews wanting to have some place they can go to when this kind of thing flares up. So I [i]get[/i] Zionism.

    In [i]Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel[/i], Max Blumenthal interviews David Grossman. And you can see the generational divide. Grossman is old enough that the Holocaust still informs his thinking. But for Blumenthal, still in his 30s and American, the idea that Jews are not a powerful group very much on the inside is foreign. I like Blumenthal a lot, but I’m afraid he’s somewhat naive here.

    On the other hand, the idea of keeping Israel a Jewish nation is greatly troubling to me for the same reason that I hate Hitler’s idea of an Aryan Germany. My preference is that we all get to breeding with the most culturally and genetically diverse people we can find. Not that I have any illusions. If we didn’t divide ourselves by race and religion, we’d do it some other way.

    Regardless, it is curious that conservatives in this country are so pro-Israel and pro-Zionist. That implies that they understand we do [i]not[/i] live in a post-racial world. But when it comes to this country, they are totally blind to it. I find myself in the middle. But if conservatives were consistent, they would be in favor of blacks burning down a police station with all the officers inside, every time a young black man was killed by an officer. It is obviously an immoderate response and would never be countenanced here. But that [i]is[/i] what we are getting from Israel.

  3. I thought I recommended "Goliath" here and you said you had no interest in reading it (understandable, most of the books I recommend to others are depressing, I honestly don’t know why I read the bastards). But that might have been a different depressing book. I suggest so many depressing books to so many people, I lose track.

    Having read "Goliath," you’re aware of how intense the defensive, persecuted feelings of Israelis often are. And it’s perfectly understandable. Those of us Americans whose families shed their historic identities at the border wonder why anyone cares what happened 60 years ago. That’s a momentary blip in geopolitical time. If you live in the Balkans, stuff that happened in the 16th century is very real today. So of course it’s both reasonable, and probably quite wise, for Jews to be paranoid about being turded on as a scapegoat* for any scummy political regime that wants to deflect attention from how awfully it serves its public.

    Which, to some degree, is what’s happening in Gaza. Hamas won election (I keep reading, "usurped power," which is not accurate) because tormented, abused people wanted some representation that isn’t beholden to the US-dominated and wholly worthless "peace process." But Hamas can’t do anything. They could (or Abbas could) meld the resistance/nobility skills of Malcolm X, Gandhi, and Aung San Suu Kyi and get precisely bupkis for their efforts; more broken cameras, perhaps. So they shoot bazookas at Israel, as a feeble (and occasionally deadly) means of maintaining their political legitimacy. It won’t work.

    Here’s something I read recently from Dr. Chomsky: ‘"The distinguished human rights lawyer Raji Sourani, who has remained in Gaza through years of Israeli brutality and terror, reports that “The most common sentence I heard when people began to talk about ceasefire: everybody says it’s better for all of us to die and not go back to the situation we used to have before this war. We don’t want that again. We have no dignity, no pride; we are just soft targets, and we are very cheap. Either this situation really improves or it is better to just die. I am talking about intellectuals, academics, ordinary people: everybody is saying that.”’

    As I’ve mentioned before, this is really reminiscent of how American natives responded to being destroyed. I recently watched a wonderful PBS documentary on "Freedom Summer," and it struck me how that movement was helped enormously by media coverage. If nobody pays attention to your getting attacked by vicious dogs and fire hoses and police truncheons, nonviolent resistance doesn’t work. The trouble is that violent resistance doesn’t work, either. (The "Freedom Summer" documentary did make me suspect that America in the early 60’s, racist and sexist as it was, had more decency than America today; back then, we could be outraged at cruelty.)

    Lately I’ve been checking out some episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s "Parts Unknown" on Netflix. Bourdain is an unpleasant, arrogant ass, but he is not a fool, and the episodes usually give a brief history of the areas in question. Like, the Congo one is about how that country got fucked royally (literally, royally, involving the king) by Belgian colonialism, and so forth. In the Jerusalem one, Bourdain dines with Israeli settlers who say they can’t break bread with Palestinians because their food is not kosher. Um, don’t you both hate pork? (And aren’t your languages very closely related?)

    As you’ve written, as Orwell wrote, demonization of other groups to bolster one’s self-image is a political thing; it’s encouraged to distract us from problems within our group. It’s sad we’re no closer to understanding why this demonizing works than we were in Orwell’s day.

    Per Nicaragua: I know absolutely nothing about Central/South America; I was just ranting on some letter-to-the-editor guy who complained about how there wouldn’t be any child refugees if those countries were awesome, like us. And I do recall that we overthrew the government of Guatemala in 1954, because they tried to appropriate the landholdings of United Fruit at the price United Fruit said their land was worth for tax purposes. It was, of course, worth vastly more. Can somebody call a Dulles!

  4. @JMF – Actually, I haven’t read the book yet. I have it on order. I read that chapter. And I can’t imagine saying I’m not interested in any book, unless it was part of a recommendation of a number of books, which knowing you, it might have been. Actually, I’m [i]not[/i] that interested in the subject. I feel the whole conflict is pulling me in and I don’t like it. The more I know, the more tragic it seems. I see it from both sides. The only reason I tend to side with the Palestinians is that they are the ones dying in large numbers right now. But it is tragic in a dramatic sense: it is the natural weaknesses of humans that are causing it.

    I’ve heard much the same thing that Raji Sourani said. I believe it is a kind of learned helplessness, and we see it everywhere that people have no power. It’s one of the things that makes me angry about conservatives who just expect poor people to lift themselves up. These are the kind of things people think when they’ve never faced real hopelessness.

    As I’ve noted many times in the past, Israeli and Palestinian academics in this country (in the sciences) normally get along really well. Culturally, they are very much the same people.

    I wasn’t really correcting you on Nicaragua. I just wanted to make sure that anyone reading this page didn’t get the wrong idea. It’s often hard to keep the Central American countries straight. But Nicaragua is a special one for me. When I first became politically aware, the US was supporting El Salvador and doing everything it could to overthrow the Democratically elected government in Nicaragua. And I was so disappointed. Now I just accept it as a given. Look at the supposedly free media in the US and its coverage of Venezuela.

  5. Please, correct away. It’s the only way my rather thick mind can accept correction, by accurate information getting flung at it enough times. It does take a few tries. I do plan on upgrading to a younger, more receptive mind, one of these days!

    "Goliath" is horrible, distressing reading. It’s like Chris Hedges in a worse-than-normal mood. Remember how pleasant our country was to live in after the crazies ran planes into buildings? It appears that Israel is just that pleasant all the time. Liberal Americans half-joke about fleeing to Canada (I looked into this; Canada, unless you have marketable skills, doesn’t want you to move there), but apparently the last remaining liberal Israelis are fleeing Israel — many, ironically enough, for Germany.

    We have got it bad in this country — we, as you note, have a basically propaganda-centered news media which feeds us little but lies about the rest of the world, and treats domestic issues with a false equivalency that values the voices of the super-rich over the concerns of most citizens. But it sounds, per Blumenthal, like living in Israel is even worse. As bad as things are for Palestinians, you can’t help but imagine that the state of permanent war is pretty awful for Israelis, too. I wouldn’t have wanted to be either a black guy or a white guy in the 1950’s South.

    I notice I put a * on "scapegoat" and forgot to get back to it. Apparently the scapegoat, assigning blame to some innocent recipient, has Greek and Hebrew roots: http://en.wikipedia.org/wik

    Makes sense, as when the Greeks and Jews weren’t inventing philosophical/ethical systems that inspired half the world, they were always being conquered/enslaved by cruder cultures happy to use them as scapegoats.

  6. That is a good quote. You look back at say, the justifications for WWI and it boggles the mind; how did anyone think this was rational? And yet almost everybody did think it was rational.

  7. @JMF – I have to say, "Chris Hedges in a worse-than-normal mood" is both high praise and a stern warning.

    I noticed the asterisk, and though you might be alerting me that I misspelled it or some such. When I saw that I didn’t, I forgot about it. I read something recently about the etymology of the word, maybe from Corey Robin.

    You are right about both sides being harmed. But it is kind of like activation energy in chemistry. For a bond to form, you have to overcome a natural resistance. In this case, both sides can’t reach their long-term interests because they can’t break through their short-term interests (as they see them) that push against them.

    Check out this great quotation from Gershom Gorenberg:

    [url=http://franklycurious.com/i…]Cause of Every Israel-Palestine War[/url]

    It might more accurately be described as the cause of every [i]war[/i] period.

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