The Complexities of Reporting on the Middle East: A Look at Thomas Friedman and the New York Times

The Complexities of Reporting on the Middle East A Look at Thomas Friedman and the New York Times

Examining the Controversial Columns and Editorial Decisions

In a recent column titled “Understanding the Middle East Through the Animal Kingdom,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman sparked controversy with his analogy comparing Iran to a parasitoid wasp and various Middle Eastern countries to caterpillars. While many criticized Friedman’s imperialistic language and poor writing, it also highlighted the historical context of the Times’ coverage of the Middle East. This article delves into a significant incident from 1982 involving Friedman and sheds light on the complexities of reporting on the region.

The 1982 Incident and Editorial Interference

In 1982, Thomas Friedman, then a reporter stationed in Beirut, covered Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. His initial report described the Israeli shellfire as “indiscriminate.” However, the word “indiscriminate” was quietly removed by editors in New York before publishing. Friedman expressed his outrage in a memo to the Times headquarters, accusing them of lacking the courage to publish the truth. The memo was leaked to the Village Voice, leading to a confrontation between Friedman and the executive editor, Abe Rosenthal. Ultimately, Friedman kept his job, and his subsequent success made him feel invincible to retribution for speaking up.

Unseen Boundaries in Media Reporting

The incident involving Friedman highlights the invisible boundaries reporters face, which can potentially jeopardize their careers. CNN’s coverage of Israel and Palestine, for example, operates under the shadow of the country’s military censor. The Intercept’s recent report also suggests that CNN’s reporting on Israel may be skewed. This indicates that media outlets, despite the perception of being worker-run collectives, are ultimately controlled by owners and executives who heavily favor Israel. Nonetheless, journalists like Friedman occasionally challenge these boundaries, as seen in the current internal debate within the Times over its reporting on sexual violence during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The Omission of History

The 1982 incident involving Friedman is a prime example of how certain aspects of history tend to be forgotten. Even in Friedman’s famous book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” he fails to mention his outburst. This omission is not widely known unless one has a particular interest in the topic or discussions with individuals familiar with the incident. The selective nature of historical memory can hinder a comprehensive understanding of events.

The Complexity of Individuals and Institutions

The incident involving Friedman and the Times serves as a reminder of the complexity of both individuals and institutions. Edward Said, a Palestinian American intellectual, criticized Friedman’s writing as ignorant and full of false dictums. However, Said also acknowledged Friedman’s capacity for uncompromising analysis and occasional displays of compassion. Similarly, the New York Times itself has been both praised and criticized for its coverage of Israel. While it occasionally produces brilliant investigative reporting, it has also faced accusations of bias.

The incident involving Thomas Friedman and the New York Times in 1982 sheds light on the challenges and complexities of reporting on the Middle East. It reveals the invisible boundaries reporters face, the influence of owners and executives on media outlets, the selective nature of historical memory, and the multifaceted nature of individuals and institutions. Understanding these dynamics is crucial in comprehending the complexities of the region and striving for a more nuanced understanding of reality, despite the difficulties and frustrations it may entail.