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June 18, 2015

UPDATED: The New York Times Should Respond to Michael Oren (Can We Use That Word?)

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Note June 19, 2015: This post has been updated. See the update after the jump.

Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, has leveled a serious charge at Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of the New York Times. Oren, who is now a member of the Israeli Knesset, reports that Rosenthal exhibited a troubling indifference to factual misstatements made by Mahmound Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority in 2011 and in the words of Jamie Weinstein at the D.C. Caller “is unable to distinquish between fact and opinion.”

Oren lays the story out in his soon-to-be published book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (Random House, 2015).

When The Times published Abbas’ factually challenged piece in The New York Times in May 2011, Oren called Rosenthal to complain. Weinstein reports that Oren recreates the conversation went as follows:

“When I write for the Times, fact checkers examine every word I write,” I began. “Did anybody check whether Abbas has his facts exactly backwards?”

“That’s your opinion,” Rosenthal replied.

“I’m an historian, Andy, and there are opinions and there are facts. That the Arabs rejected partition and the Jews accepted it is an irrefutable fact.”

“In your view.”

“Tell me, on June 6, 1944, did Allied forces land or did they not land on Normandy Beach.”

Rosenthal, the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter and famed executive editor, replied, “Some might say so.”


Oren’s allegation against Rosenthal is pretty serious given The Times’ stated commitment to getting it right. In 2004, David Shipley, who was then serving as editor of the Op-Ed pages for the paper wrote a piece titled, “And Now a Word from Op-Ed.” The piece describes how an opinion piece ends up in The Times. It states explicitly that if a submission is accepted for publication, “we’ll edit and fact-check your work.”

Really?

The following year, Shipley wrote a follow up titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing.” In the piece, Shipley reported that editors at the paper will “fact check” before publishing them. “While it’s the authors responsibility to ensure that everything written for us is accurate, we still check facts – names, dates, places quotations,” Shipley wrote. “We also check assertions,” he added. “If news articles – from The Times and other publications – are at odds with a point or an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists.”

If there is a discrepancy, Shipley wrote, the paper will “try to find a solution that preserves the writer’s argument while also adhering to the facts.”

What Shipley wrote in 2004 and 2005 should not be all that revelatory. The American Society of News Editors declares in its statement of principles that “Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.”

The story in Oren’s book indicates that these policies are no longer in force. It’s a serious issue that so far has not been addressed America’s paper of record.

Weinstein reports that efforts to elicit a response from Rosenthal have been unsuccessful, which is no surprise in light of a story about his tenure as Editorial Page Editor that appeared in The Observer in February, 2014.

In the piece, written by Ken Kurson, Rosenthal does not come off too well. He is depicted as a lazy and petty tyrant obsessed with maintaining a monopoly on the word “should.”

Apparently, Rosenthal does not like it when the word appears in articles outside of the New York Times’ editorial pages. One reporter told The Observer that “The world ‘should’ belongs to him and his people.” Another reporter told The Observer, “You know, I think he literally had a Google alert for the word ‘should’ and, like, goes reading through the entire newspaper for it, and that’s what he does all day instead of improving his section.”

It is unfortunate that Rosenthal does not police his editorial pages for errors with the same vigor with which he reportedly scours the Times for errant uses of “should.”

At the risk of eliciting the ire of Andrew Rosenthal, former Ambassador Oren has raised an issue about Rosenthal’s commitment to factual journalism that the New York Times really should address: Does its editorial page editor care about the facts?

Or is fact-checking a thing of the past under Rosenthal’s leadership?


Update, June 19, 2015:

Larry Cohler-Esses has weighed in on behalf of Andrew Rosenthal in a piece at The Forward. It asserts in part that former Ambassador Oren mischaracterized the article by Mahmoud Abbas. Kohler-Esses writes that "that nowhere in his piece of May 17, 2011 does Abbas assert that 'the Arabs had accepted the U.N.’s Partition Plan in 1947 while Israel rejected it.'"

Cohler-Esses, however, is refuting something Oren did not assert. What he has done is mischaracterize what Oren wrote to establish a straw-man argument and then knock it down. Oren did not state that Abbas "asserted" that Arabs had rejected partition and that Israel had accepted it. Oren said Abbas "suggested" it.

This point was made effectively by Elder of Ziyon, who writes:

Michael Oren didn't say that Abbas wrote those words; he says that Abbas suggested it.

The Forward is doing what they accuse Oren of doing - fabricating the facts.

Did Cohler-Esses honestly think people would not see how he transformed Oren's use of the word "suggested" into "assert"?

So to borrow a phrase from a commenter below, "It turns out there are some objective factual problems" with the piece in The Forward.

Posted by dvz at June 18, 2015 04:43 PM

Comments

For those wishing to read Andrew Rosenthal's response to Michael Oren, see my article at:

http://forward.com/opinion/310338/new-york-times-michael-oren-book/

It turns out there are some objective factual problems with Michael Oren's objection to Abbas' "factually challenged piece."


Posted by: Larry Cohler-Esses at June 19, 2015 12:05 AM

I have read your article Larry and here is my response to it:


I will agree that Abbas' op-ed does not include any direct factual misstatements claiming Jews rejected the partition plan or that the Arabs accepted it. But the allegation is that Abbas suggested that the Arabs accepted the partition plan while Israel rejected it.


"In November 1947, the General Assembly made its recommendation and answered in the affirmative. Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened."


The implication of this specific passage could not be clearer. A partition plan was accepted in the UN and then Zionist forces began expelling Palestinian Arabs to secure a Jewish majority. Without a doubt any uninformed reader would conclude the Jews had rejected the partition plan and that this was their motivation for expelling Arabs. And because the piece is calling for UN recognition of a Palestinian state readers would be likely to conclude that the Arabs accepted a UN partition plan that would result in a recognized state for the Palestinians. Thus I think this is a clear error of omissions and it is perfectly accurate to to say this is suggesting both Jewish refusal and Arab acceptance of the partition plan.


It is definitely relevant and important to get Andrew Rosenthal's response to the allegations. Regarding the supposed rebuttal from Shimon Peres and the "some might say so" conversation, we have only the word of Michael Oren against the word of Andrew Rosenthal. Both would have more than sufficient motivation to lie.


Your piece certainly provides new insight into this matter but I do not believe it is fair to say that Michael Oren's objection contains objective factual problems.

Posted by: Eric at June 19, 2015 12:34 PM

Michael Oren's account of his dealings with Andrew Rosenthal are consistent with my experience with that gentleman. Although lengthy, I reproduce in its entirety below correspondence I had with Mr. Rosenthal after the New York Times public editor fowarded to him for response a complaint I had made regarding what I thought was a blatant factual distortion in a Times editorial, I think it speaks volumes. Anyone interested should read from the bottom.

****

From: Howard Jaeckel
Subject: Re: Your email on the Libby editorial
To: "Andrew Rosenthal"
Cc: public@nytimes.com
Date: Thursday, July 5, 2007, 8:08 AM
Your response continues to ignore the substance of my criticism, namely that whatever its technical accuracy your statement that President Clinton was "acquitted" of perjury misrepresents the uniquely political character of impeachment proceedings, and your gratuitous use of that description is suggestive of an intent to lend unwarranted weight to your accusations that President Bush is a hypocrite.

As to my "attacks on [your] professionalism and character," they are neither lightly made nor based on the opinions you express, but rather on your frequent distortions and elisions of highly relevant facts, of which your Libby editorials are an excellent example. I might also suggest that, given the general tenor and tone of Times editorials, particularly about the Bush administration, you develop a somewhat thicker skin regarding criticisms from your readers.

Andrew Rosenthal wrote:
Mr. Jaeckel,
I misunderstood the intent of your original email. I thought you had a factual concern with the editorial, with the phrase "charged and acquitted of perjury" and I tried to answer your question. If you look up the record, you will find that William Rehnquist, the Chief Justice of the United States, announced in the Senate that William Jefferson Clinton was "acquitted of the charges" in the articles of impeachment. There were two charges. Perjury and obstruction of justice.
You disagree with this editorial, as well, as most of our positions. That is certainly your right. It is my obligation as an editor of the Times to respond to reasonable letters from readers. I have done that. It is not my obligation to endure an endless series of insults, sweeping accusations and attacks on our professionalism and character. You will note that I have refrained from that sort of language in my responses to you.
Thank you,
Andrew Rosenthal
The New York Times


On Jul 3, 2007, at 9:12 PM, Howard Jaeckel wrote:


Dear Mr. Rosenthal:

Thank you for your response to my letter of this morning. Unfortunately, your reply exhibits the same kind of distortion that I have come to expect from New York Times editorials.

Apart from lengthy quotations from the Constitution, your defense of the Libby editorial comes down to this: “The editorial did not say that Bill Clinton was charged with perjury in a normal court of law.” No, but it did say he was “was charged with perjury and acquitted.” (Emphasis added). A person of ordinary intelligence, giving those words their common meaning, would conclude that President Clinton had been charged with lying under oath, and that the trier-of-fact had concluded that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that he had committed that offense.

You know very well that this is not what the Senate did in “acquitt[ing]” President Clinton of the Articles of Impeachment adopted by the House. Nobody – least of all The New York Times – so understood the Senate’s action. Thus, in its editorial on February 13, 1999, following the Senate’s acquittal vote, the Times wrote that, despite having had ample opportunity to “figure out a way to avoid lying under oath,” Mr. Clinton had “plunged himself and the nation into crisis by turning his White House into a factory for the weaving, stitching and patching of a fabric of lies.” Nonetheless, the Times opined that “[t]his matter has been adjudicated in the manner prescribed by the Framers of the Constitution [because] . . . . [t]he charges were not of a magnitude to warrant removal.” The issue before the Senate was whether President Clinton should be removed from office because he had committed perjury. The fact that he had done so was taken as a given by virtually all Senators, and by The New York Times.

Despite knowing the nature of the Senate’s action, you suggested to your readers that, while President Bush had hypocritically “contrast[ed] his law-abiding morality with that of President Clinton” – who had been found not guilty [!!!] of the very perjury of which Scooter Libby was convicted [!!!] – he was “soft on crime” when it came to perjury by his own cronies. Having now had this disreputable bit of distortion pointed out to the public editor, you continue to defend it on the (erroneous) ground that it is literally true.

President Bush isn’t “soft on crime.” But you are soft -- on truth, fairness and intellectual honesty.

Of course, the distortion discussed above is only one of the many that have characterized your editorials on the Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame-Scooter Libby affair. Despite your numerous editorials on the subject, you have not seen fit to inform your readers of the following facts:

• Patrick Fitzgerald knew from the beginning of his investigation that Richard Armitage, not Scooter Libby (or anyone else at the White House), had told Bob Novak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.

• A unanimous report of the Senate Intelligence Committee found that, contrary to Joe Wilson’s denials, his wife, Ms. Plame, did in fact recommend him for his jaunt to Niger , supposedly to investigate claims that the Iraqis had tried to purchase uranium there.

• The same unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee Report found that, in his oral report following his trip, Mr. Wilson told the CIA that a former prime minister of Niger had informed him of an approach by Iraqis that he, the former prime minister, interpreted as a bid to purchase uranium.

• While Wilson told reporters during the summer of 2003 that his conclusion that Iraq didn't try to buy "yellow cake" from Niger was based in part on his belief that documents purporting to evidence such a sale were forgeries, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Wilson could not have seen those documents until some eight months after the period in question.

• An independent British inquiry, headed by Lord Butler, concluded that the belief of British intelligence that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Niger was "well founded."

But those facts cut against your editorial narrative that President Bush and Vice President Cheney deliberately lied us into war, and that Joe Wilson was a truth-telling hero whom the evil administration retaliated against by conspiring to “out” his wife as a CIA employee. So rather than risk your readers’ concluding that your opinions weren’t consistent with the facts, you simply withheld those facts.

There was a time when I would take the editorial page of The New York Times into the voting booth with me for guidance on races and issues with which I was not familiar. It was a very different paper then. I think that Mr. Sulzberger will ultimately find that sacrificing that kind of reader trust for the sake of blatant and unapologetic partisanship is not only bad journalism, but bad business.


Sincerely,



Howard F. Jaeckel
New York , NY

Note to Mr. Hoyt: Are you satisfied with Mr. Rosenthal’s response to my criticism? If not, will you press him for a correction, or write about this in your colu

Andrew Rosenthal wrote:
Mr. Jaeckel,
Thank you for your letter about the editorial on the President’s commutation of the Libby sentence. Under the constitution, the House of Representatives has the power to file articles of impeachment against the President. In common language, these are charges, and in practice, they are as well. The Senate then tries the President and either convicts or acquits him. If he is convicted, he is removed from office. If he is acquitted, he remains in office.
Here is what it says in Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States of America:
“The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”
Please note the use of the word “try” in the first sentence and the use of the word “convicted” twice in the following sentences. In Bill Clinton’s case, the House charged him with perjury and obstruction of justice on 12/19/1998. He was acquitted by the Senate on those charges on 2/12/99 by a vote of 55-45.
The editorial did not say that Bill Clinton was charged with perjury in a normal court of law.
Thanks for your interest,
Andrew Rosenthal
Editorial Page Editor
The New York Times
****
• Howard Jaeckel

• Jul 3, 2007
To
• public@nytimes.com
In its predictably rabid editorial about the commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence this morning, the Times writes that "President Clinton ... was charged with perjury, and acquitted." Really? How did I miss that?

President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for so-called "high crimes and misdemeanors" and acquitted by the Senate. Had I been a Senator, I would have vote to acquit him, though the record was clear that he had committed perjury. The question before the Senate was whether that merited his removal from office, not whether he was guilty of the offense.

I realize that it's a lot to ask the Times editorial board to make such nice distinctions when it is in full hue and cry. It would be futile to ask those worthies for a correction, which is why I am making this request directly to you.

Have fun. Maybe after weeks of fighting (assuming you're inclined to take your job seriously and fight about it), you can force them to publish a note on the Times' web site.

Howard Jaeckel

P.S. By the way, your web site directs those with complaints about editorials to write to letters@nytimes.com . That's confusing when one wants to complain about a blatant factual misstatement rather than express one's opinion.

Posted by: Howard Jaeckel at June 20, 2015 02:00 PM

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