Fitting the News: A Review of Jerold Auerbach’s “Print to Fit. The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016

Jerold S. Auerbach, Print to Fit, The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, Academic Studies Press, 2019

When Adolph Ochs purchased the New York Times in 1896, he added a motto that demonstrated his marketing genius. “All the News That’s Fit to Print” became the industry standard and before long the Times became the most trusted newspaper in the country––a status it has enjoyed for more than 120 years. Sadly, the Times has violated that standard continuously in its coverage of the issue most dear to most American Jews––Zionism and the state of Israel.

Readers might have noticed the Times’ unbalanced reporting of certain events in Israel, such as suicide bombings of Jewish civilians where the Times repeatedly tells the bombers’ stories, but not the victims, and readers might have been disturbed by the uneven weight of opinions on the Times’ editorial pages, where regular and guest columnists have for years blamed Israel for the lack of peace. This imbalance is not, however, atypical or new. It has been that way since Ochs assumed the paper’s ownership.

That is the only conclusion one can draw from Jerold Auerbach’s thorough examination of the Times’ reporting and editorial output since Ochs took charge. The question is why? Ochs was part of a (German) American community of Jews attracted to the Reform Movement whose founder gave American Jews permission to divorce Judaism from the notion of Jews as a distinct people. Viewing Judaism primarily as a religion permitted Ochs and his son-in-law successor Arthur Ochs Sulzberger to distance themselves from the Jews who were the victims of decades of pogroms and from Hitler’s final solution. It was also reflected in their opposition to the movement launched at the end of the 19th century for Jews to return to their ancient homeland.

The impact of the Times’ editorial hostility to Zionism turned ugly when the Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933. Right away, Hitler and his thugs began to limit the rights and freedom of Germany’s Jewish population. Then, as Germany began to conquer neighboring states, the Nazis escalated their campaign by arresting Jews and warehousing them in ghettos and concentration camps. The final step was to convert those concentration camps into death camps. All of the above was known to a degree by reporters in the Times’ European bureaus, and was presented to Sulzberger personally by Jewish leaders. The terrible loss of life was documented in the Jewish press and often featured by the rival New York Herald Tribune. Yet the Times failed to highlight the plight of the Jews throughout this entire period, regularly burying coverage at the bottom of stories on interior pages often days or weeks after the events it was reporting had occurred.

It has been argued that even had the Times’ given those stories better placement or editorialized in favor of some sort of rescue by the U.S. Government, it’s unlikely that would have done any good. That is like saying a doctor should not tell his patient he is dying because he’ll be dead soon anyway. A newspaper’s output should not be judged by whether it has lead to policy changes but whether the subject deserves attention and whether its readers deserve to know what’s going on: “All the News That’s Fit to Print” indeed.

The Times’ hostility to Zionism continued after World War Two when the formation of the state of Israel was authorized by the United Nations and recognized by Harry S. Truman. After its efforts to promote the view that there should not be a Jewish state in the Holy Land, the Times found much to criticize about the new country. Those criticisms escalated after 1967 when Israel pre-empted its neighbors and re-took land it had lost in 1948 as well as territory needed to prevent future attacks.

Uncritically embracing the notion that the Arab population of the region belonged to a distinct “Palestinian” ethnic and religious community, the Times bought into the Palestinian’s claim that Israel was occupying its land and that it was Israel’s intransigence, not their desire to wipe out the state of Israel, that was responsible for the lack of peace between the two peoples.

Auerbach documents the Times’ unequal treatment of Arab attacks against Israeli civilians year by year, decade by decade. Each attack is portrayed as morally equivalent to Israel’s response. Over and over, the Times justified Arab attacks on civilians by attaching them to some action of the Israeli government, as if anyone willing to sacrifice his or her life must have a just cause. One wonders whether failure to label such acts a product of religious indoctrination arises out of fear of criticizing a religion that seeks world domination?

Auerbach documents the consequences of the Times’ imbalanced coverage. It’s Middle East reporters have outdone each other in terms of assigning the blame to Israel and justifyng the Arabs’ behavior. One reporter even doubted the Jewish people’s claim that their ancient temple stood on the Temple Mount and then claimed Zionism was “never the gentlest of ideologies.”

 Once you have taken sides in a conflict, there’s little likelihood you’ll take the opposition’s views at face value or try to see the situation from their viewpoint. The bottom line for the Times for the past fifty years has been to view the existence of a Jewish state as an embarrassment to the United States, particularly since the U.S. has provided large amounts of financial aid to Israel. By failing to do what the Times editorialized, Israel has only itself to blame for the loss of civilian life. Less blame is assigned to the Arabs’ demands that Israel allow a ‘right of return’ for the residents of regional refugee camps and cease being a Jewish state.

Sadly, the Reform Movement in America has bought the Times’ ideology of blame. While the Holocaust forced the Movement to amend its’ view that American Jews had no obligation to the Jews of Europe and therefore no necessary loyalty to the state of Israel, the Reform Movement has bought into the view that the Israel is primarily to blame for the hatred and violence perpetuated by the Arabs who call themselves Palestinians. The Times has given the Reform Movement cover and the Reform Movement has blessed the Times’ one-sided reportage with subscription renewals.

Whether Jerold Auerbach’s superbly detailed documentation of the Times’ imbalanced reporting will have an impact remains to be seen. His thesis, however, cannot be denied. The Times fit its coverage into an a priori antagonism to Zionism and subsequent antipathy of its manifestation in the state of Israel. We’re still waiting for the day when it will live up to its motto.

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