Context Matters

Hats off to Geraldine Sealey, writing on Salon, who catches the New York Post in a flagrant distortion of written comments by Sen. John Kerry on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In a Post “exclusive,” Deborah Orin breathlessly reports, “Kerry called Yasser Arafat a ‘statesman’ and a ‘role model’ in a 1997 book.”

Further down, Orin provides more details: “‘Terrorist organizations with specific political agendas may be encouraged and emboldened by Yasser Arafat’s transformation from outlaw to statesman,’ Kerry wrote in The New War (now out of print), while terrorists ‘whose only object is to disrupt society require no such “role models” [as Arafat].’” (Added words Orin’s.)

At Salon, Sealey looks at the context of those words. What Kerry wrote was:

In his contribution to a symposium-like volume published in 1986 under the title Terrorism: How the West Can Win, the noted historian Paul Johnson writes, “What has the PLO, the quintessential terrorist movement of modern times, achieved? After the PLO and the other terrorist movements it succored racked up an appalling total of lives extinguished and property destroyed, how far have they progressed toward achieving their stated political ends? Not at all; in fact they have regressed. The Palestinian state is further away than ever.”

Only eleven years have passed since those words appeared in print. If nothing else, this indicates the velocity of change in the late twentieth century. Terrorist organizations with specific political agendas may be encouraged and emboldened by Yasser Arafat’s transformation from outlaw to statesman, while those whose only object is to disrupt society require no such “role models.” In fact, what most encourages and emboldens terrorists now are the unprecedented opportunities inherent in the new world of porous borders, instant communications, and access to weapons of mass destruction. Like everything else, global terrorism is mutating at a very rapid rate. Failure to prepare for the new strains verges on the suicidal …

It’s impossible to tell if Kerry’s “from outlaw to statesman” characterization of Arafat is sardonic — no one ever accused Kerry of craftsmanlike writing — but those words do come in a paragraph that warns of emboldened terrorists proceeding in a world of “unprecedented opportunities.” One could easily call that description eerily prescient of events to come.

Further, since the Palestinian leader was, at the time, a frequent participant in peace negotiations, “outlaw to statesman” was hardly a controversial characterization of him in 1997 (three years before his rejection of the peace plan brokered by President Clinton in 2000).

But as for the term “role model,” Kerry used it only in quotes, in reference to the question of whether terrorists might or not view Arafat as a role model. To say that Kerry called Arafat a “role model” comes close to being a flat-out lie.

NBC News’ online “First Read” column picked up Orin’s “scoop,” but wisely referred only to Kerry’s “statesman” characterization, not to the “role model” allegation.

With the Bush-Cheney campaign working hard to paint Kerry as both soft on national defense, and as a flip-flopper, inaccurate charges like this are particularly damaging. Watching which outlets take them at face value and which outlets place them in context should provide a useful indicator of what sort of campaign journalism you’re reading.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.