The New York Times gets an ‘F’ for geography

Every six months or so a report comes out detailing the woeful state of geographical knowledge held by many Americans. Usually people chuckle and wonder how it is that so many Americans think California is on the East Coast. After all, every rightly educated American knows it’s on the Left Coast.

But the consequences can be serious. This is particularly the case when it is The New York Times (NYT) butchering basic facts about where Israel begins and ends. Of course, as Israel has never defined exactly where those borders are, it is alarming when the NYT appears to be handing over vast swathes of new territory to Israel.

The most commonly misplaced territory in the region is Shebaa Farms, a small patch of land that Israel continues to occupy on the border between Lebanon and the occupied Golan Heights. The news media regularly imply it is Israeli. The one thing we know is that the area is either Syrian or Lebanese, but most certainly not Israeli. Israeli-occupied yes, but not Israeli.

Recently, in the NYT of December 3, journalist Michael Wines began redrawing the map considerably south of Shebaa Farms. He wrote, “In Tulkarm on the West Bank in northern Israel…” After four days of complaint the NYT corrected the matter in the December 7 paper.

But on December 8 — the very next day — Mr. Wines was right back at it, writing, “In the southern Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt, a border patrol also disarmed a 110-pound bomb found along a fence separating the Palestinian village of Khan Yunis and Ganei Tal, a town in an Israeli enclave surrounded by Palestinian territory.”

There are so many mistakes nestled in this one sentence it is difficult to know where to begin.

First of all, Khan Yunis is not on the Egyptian border. That’s Rafah. And Khan Yunis is not a “village” but a town and its adjoining refugee camp.

Ganei Tal, on the other hand, is anything but a “town.” It is an illegal settlement — of approximately 75 Israeli families — built on confiscated Palestinian land in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

It is an obfuscation to say that Ganei Tal is “an enclave surrounded by Palestinian territory.” The settlers have stolen and continue to steal Palestinian land to expand their settlement. They alone can freely move from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank. Palestinians in Gaza cannot.

The 7,000 Israeli settlers in Gaza — an estimate on the high end — illegally control one third of Gaza while 1.2 million Palestinians are crammed into the other two thirds, and further fragmented by Israeli checkpoints. It is not the Palestinians who are hemming in the Israeli settlers but the other way around, making Gaza a huge outdoor prison for the Palestinians living there.

Israeli settlers and soldiers are caging Palestinians in a Bantustan-type existence reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa, yet Mr. Wines conveys the opposite picture.

How many Gazans?

The New York Times cannot even keep straight, from one paper to the next, how many Palestinians are in Gaza.

Journalist James Bennet consistently writes that there are 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza though on December 14, in a poignant article about the Israeli military’s killing of five Palestinian workers, he reduced the number to 1 million — perhaps speaking in rough terms.

But on the previous day, December 13, Wines inexplicably wrote that “more than 700,000 Palestinians” live there. This eliminates 40 percent of Gaza’s Palestinian population.

Technically, I suppose it is “correct” in the same way that Charles M. Sennott of the Boston Globe was correct to write on December 8 that “Israeli human rights groups estimate…at least 400 Palestinian civilians” have been killed in the current uprising.

As Darryl Li, formerly of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, noted, this is like saying, “There are at least five people in China.” Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem provides a Palestinian civilian death toll more than three times higher than Sennott’s.

Returning to Mr. Wines and his map-reading/demographic woes, the question emerges: Were the Moscow mushrooms he described for his old beat merely radioactive or were they packing something else that addled his geographical grip on reality?

The problem here is a bright journalist (notwithstanding a previous noteworthy run-in with FAIR), in an apparently new locale, not getting proper fact-checking help from the foreign desk. A lax attitude at the foreign desk regarding Israel’s borders with Gaza and the West Bank allows this sort of geographical distortion to pass as fact.

Wines and other journalists need to get out of the Jerusalem briefing rooms (as Bennet did for The New York Times of December 14) and see the situation in Khan Yunis with their own eyes on a regular basis if they are going to have any chance of conveying information accurately to their readers. Even better, they could move there.

The structural geographic bias — described elsewhere by EI’s Nigel Parry — of journalists cooped up in Jerusalem frequently means inadequate or shoddy journalism when horror strikes Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip in particular. Agonies that are properly humanized when they occur in Jerusalem get short shrift when they take place in the refugee camps of Gaza.

The coverage from the NYT clearly slipped in the first two weeks of December. On December 10, just four paragraphs of an Associated Press report were reprinted by the NYT to note the killing of two Palestinian civilians in the West Bank (though Molly Moore continued her superb and conscientious efforts for The Washington Post on the same day).

Parachute journalism

Part of the problem here is the rapidity with which journalists are moved around the world. Wines was covering the eviction of Chechens from refugee camps in late November. Suddenly he is transferred to Jerusalem yet his editors fail to help him out by correcting his free-wheeling cartography.

CNN does this sort of parachute journalism all the time. White House correspondent Kelly Wallace popped up in Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp on December 6 to report on the Eid al-Fitr massacre, in which an Israeli attack killed ten Palestinians, and repeat claims that Al-Qaida is on the loose in Gaza. It was almost a surprise that CNN did not try to claim that Palestinian grievances are not home grown but Al-Qaida inspired.

With a possible second Gulf war gearing up, we can expect to see more and more American journalists appearing with scarcely an inkling as to where they are and far, far less as to what the people around them actually think.

You can spot these journalists when they start signing off from “Katter” (Qatar) and “Eye-rack” (Iraq). It’s mildly amusing now, but the danger is that these out-of-their-element reporters will passively accept the word of U.S. military officials in Qatar or Israeli spokespersons in Jerusalem, as they themselves are not familiar with the territory. The result is that we will not have the foggiest idea how many Palestinian civilians were killed, injured or thrown out of their homes that particular day in Rafah, information critical to following and understanding the forces that drive the conflict.

A case in point would be the initial Israeli Army Radio report regarding an incident the night of December 8 in which the IDF reported that it had killed four Palestinians infiltrating the Rafiah Yam settlement when, in fact, the occupying forces had slain a 41-year-old woman, Nahla Aqel, and injured her three children.

Having been taught in America to lower our expectations for the geographically challenged president, it seems the same phenomenon is seeping into our views of the news media. We should not need to heave a sigh of relief that Bureij and Rafah are at least placed in the Gaza Strip and not in southwestern Israel any more than when we read that London is in England and not vice versa.

More cause for alarm is that this phenomenon of errant geography is now slipping across the Atlantic and appearing in the British press. The Guardian of December 13 headlined an article about the five Palestinian workers killed in Gaza with “Five Die in Israel.” Not to be outdone, the Financial Times of the same day headlined an article about nine people killed in Gaza and the West Bank with “Violence kills nine in Israel.”

Ranaan Gissin must be giddy. The American and British media are taking the propaganda of a Greater Israel hook, line, and sinker. It is no longer unusual to see Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land in violation of international law referred to as “Jewish neighborhoods” or “suburbs.”

Getting a correction is not always easy. While remonstrating with The New York Times brought geographical corrections in back-to-back Saturday editions (December 7 and 14), the process required numerous phone calls and e-mail messages over several days.

The corrections, at least temporarily, allay fears that The New York Times regards Gaza and the West Bank as part of Israel, but are a poor substitute for the paper getting its geography right the first time around.

Michael Brown is an occasional contributor to the Electronic Intifada. He is the Washington correspondent for Middle East International and the Executive Director of Partners for Peace.