Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, has criticized as “unprofessional and unacceptable” the questions a reporter asked a Palestine solidarity activist.
David McCleary, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of California at Berkeley, had been put through what he called a “Jewish litmus test” for an article claiming that campus divestment campaigns were driving a “wedge” between Jewish and minority students.
McCleary, who is Jewish, was told by Times reporter Ronnie Cohen that his name didn’t “sound Jewish.” Cohen also asked him whether he had had a Bar Mitzvah and if he “looked Jewish.”
In her post on the matter, Sullivan said that the front-page article – “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities” – had generated “a great deal of criticism.”
Sullivan pointed out that Cohen is a freelancer for the Times and conceded that the questions the reporter had asked McCleary were “indeed unprofessional and unacceptable.”
The public editor also validated concerns that the voices of Jewish students who are active in the Palestine solidarity movement had been silenced.
The article “certainly would have benefited from quoting one or more Jewish students who support BDS” – boycott, divestment and sanctions – Sullivan conceded.
Not far enough
McCleary welcomed Sullivan’s response to his specific concerns over the “Jewish litmus test,” but was dismayed by other aspects of her analysis.
“I don’t like the way they threw Ronnie Cohen under the bus and tried to distance themselves by saying she is just a freelancer,” McCleary told The Electronic Intifada. “It is clear from the interview that she was following a line of questioning handed down to her from New York Times staff. Other SJP members interviewed by the authors themselves also received similarly biased and unprofessional questions.”
Earlier this week, The Electronic Intifada interviewed three other students, from UC Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who shared similar concerns that Times reporters, including lead reporter Jennifer Medina, aimed to shape a narrative in which Jewish students were victims of anti-Semitic attacks for supporting Israel.
It is clear that Cohen was acting under the direction of more senior colleagues.
Views on the future
While Sullivan did acknowledge the story ought to have included the views of Jewish students who back BDS, she said it “doesn’t surprise me at all that lengthy interviews such as the one with Mr. McCleary may not be represented in a story,” given the number of students who might have been interviewed.
But Sullivan also says she “heard criticism that the story does not pin down BDS supporters about what they think should happen in the future: Do they believe in two states? Do they believe Israel should exist in its current form?”
McCleary points out that these were precisely the kinds of questions he spoke to at length with Cohen but that were left out of the story.
What about the others?
McCleary also expresses dismay that Sullivan “doesn’t address complaints that the piece and indeed the title itself is a blatant example of race-baiting, other than to have the editor responsible for the piece claim that it actually isn’t divisive.”
He also finds it ironic that his “personal concerns” with the story were addressed while no attention was given to the specific complaints by other SJP members – especially Palestinians.
For McCleary, this is yet another example of the Times’ “bias toward addressing the concerns of Jewish students while ignoring those of other students.”
Omar Zahzah, Agatha Palma and Rahim Kurwa, members of SJP at UCLA, published a detailed critique headlined “Why Readers Interested in a Balanced Coverage of Student BDS Initiatives Should Avoid the New York Times.”
Despite his criticisms, McCleary hopes that Sullivan’s intervention represents “a positive step toward more balanced coverage of BDS and Palestine solidarity,” but acknowledges “we still have a long way to go.”