Editor’s note: The fighting in Gaza has, predictably, reinvigorated the perennial debate over the US media’s coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As the country’s most-influential news outlet, The New York Times has always been at the center of that debate—a fact that was reiterated in today’s New York Observer, beneath the headline: “Two Weeks of Shallow, Facile Moral Equivalency in The New York Times.” In the January/February 2012 issue, CJR published the following piece by Neil A. Lewis, a former longtime reporter at the Times, in which he explores the paper’s coverage of Israel through the lens of its at times contentious relationship to Jews in America.
During the winter of 1974, Seymour Topping, the assistant managing editor of The New York Times, and his wife, Audrey, visited Jordan as part of a tour of the Middle East.
On their stops in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, Topping often had to confront criticism that the Times’ coverage was too favorable to Israel. It was a familiar enough situation for him; to be the editor of the Times in charge of international coverage meant you were a magnet for complaints. They were usually about the paper, but sometimes about US policy, which foreigners often believed was refracted through the Times’ coverage.
In Jordan, King Hussein took a different approach: He arranged for the Toppings to visit a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. The visit affected Topping markedly—he saw both the squalor of the camp and the festering hatred of Israel—and he recounted afterwards that he realized he had not understood the role of the Palestinians in the region’s future until then.
Topping had also regularly discussed the region’s problems with some good friends in New York, Najeeb and Doris Halaby. Topping was fond of Halaby, the chairman of Pan American World Airways and a man of Syrian and Lebanese ancestry who stayed engaged in the politics of the Arab world.
Once, when their families were together at a conference, the Halabys’ teenage daughter, Lisa, babysat for the Toppings.
A few years after his visit to Jordan, Topping, now the managing editor, was having lunch with Doris Halaby and again the subject was the Times’ coverage of the region. By that time, the grown-up Lisa Halaby was Queen Noor of Jordan. She had become Hussein’s fourth wife, after his third wife was killed in a helicopter accident.
Mrs. Halaby, likely reflecting as well the views of Jordan’s royal household, said the Times’ coverage of the Middle East was often biased in favor of Israel. She cited as a reason that the correspondent in the region, David K. Shipler, was a Jew.
The coverage by the Times was straightforward and fair, Topping asserted politely. And, after checking (for he actually did not know), he was later able to offer a winning rejoinder to Mrs. Halaby: Shipler was not Jewish.
Topping’s response made the issue seem irrelevant to the way in which the newspaper covered the region. But the issue was no simple matter at the Times, either for Shipler or for those who followed him.
Topping did not, for example, mention that when Abe Rosenthal, the paper’s executive editor, chose Shipler to be the Jerusalem bureau chief, it was with the explicit but mistaken belief that the man he was assigning to Israel was Jewish. Rosenthal believed he was breaking an invidious pattern at the Times of declining to send Jewish reporters to cover Israel. It was a practice predicated on the speculative notion that a Jewish correspondent would have an inherent conflict of interest that would leave the coverage open to criticism.
After making his choice, Rosenthal remarked proudly to a small group on his decision to end the practice. Joseph Lelyveld, then the deputy foreign editor, told Rosenthal he was puzzled because he thought the paper was sending Shipler. We are, Rosenthal said. Lelyveld then told an amazed—and somewhat embarrassed—Rosenthal that their new correspondent was, in fact, Protestant.
Rosenthal wasn’t the last to make that mistake. During Shipler’s tenure in Jerusalem, several of his readers who held Israel dear apparently also assumed he was Jewish—he regularly received mail from them denouncing his coverage in vitriolic terms. One reader, in a series of letters, wished many kinds of ill fortune upon him. Then, in a piece for the paper’s travel section, Shipler described himself in an aside as a fallen Protestant.