21 November '14..
When I began my career as a young reporter straight out of college, it became immediately clear to me how much I didn’t know. That realization almost certainly saved my career because it taught me a lesson I later heard best expressed by Brit Hume: “Fairness is not an attitude. Fairness is a skill.” My editors took journalistic ethics seriously, and the reporters at our company took notice. When reporters in our newsroom got criticism over accusations of bias, they gave them appropriate consideration. They never would have worn them as a badge of honor. They never would have acted as unethically and unprofessionally, in other words, as Jodi Rudoren.
The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief has established a record of not just inaccurate reporting but the kind of mistakes that should never get through layers of editors and fact checkers. This week on Twitter I criticized Rudoren’s latest batch of advocacy journalism for its many mistakes and also for how easily those mistakes could be prevented by going through the normal reporting process. Rudoren has responded to the Washington Examiner, and her reaction is quite telling. It boils down to: nothing will change, because she refuses to know what she doesn’t know.
The Examiner tried to reach out to me for comment, the request never came through, and so the article went up without it. It’s worth responding now, especially since Rudoren’s comments are so revealing and are themselves a thorough indictment of mainstream journalistic ethics. Here is the crux of her response to the Examiner:
“Broadly speaking, most of the criticism of our coverage, and it is immense, is not rooted in the values of mainstream journalism, but is done from the prism of advocacy. Frequently, these critics ignore the stories or parts of stories that don’t fit with their pre-determined conclusion of our bias (and we have pretty much equal accusations of biases on both sides),” New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren told the Washington Examiner.
“They often try to subject stories or sentences to some kind of scoring system — good for Israel, bad for Israel — which is problematic because the stories, and the subjects, are much more complex and nuanced than that,” Rudoren added.
It’s impossible to notice that Rudoren’s comments prove the criticism of her to be completely correct. And she is making it clear she refuses to learn more, because she regards that learning process itself as a concession to her critics. Out of sheer pride, Rudoren will remain uninformed.
There are several critiques to unpack in her response, but the most important one is this: “we have pretty much equal accusations of biases on both sides.” Rudoren is a firm believer in the single most toxic fallacy that bad reporters believe in. Namely, the idea that if both sides of an issue hate your writing, you must be doing something right. In fact, it often means you are doing a great deal wrong.
That’s because both sides can be right in their criticism. Imagine another industry in which someone’s behavior receives howls of disapproval from all sides, and the person involved takes that to mean they must be doing their job well. It’s delusional, and we would say so. And so we should say so here. If there is a consensus that you’re terrible at your job, that consensus is not to be worn as a badge of honor. Rudoren, embarrassingly enough, believes it should be.
But there’s more to Rudoren’s statement, and it explains why she sees criticism of her as illegitimate. Pro-Israel readers who object to Rudoren’s reporting are considered by her to be uninterested in the truth and acting out of loyalty to Israel. It’s not surprising that a resident of the leftist bubble that is the Times would think this, but it’s rather amazing that she thinks it’s appropriate to say.
Later on in the article, she tells the Examiner that “People who are passionate about the issue and have a personal stake in it often struggle to see the full picture.” What she is saying is that people devoted to an issue–experts, for example–are to be dismissed. Rarely has a mainstream reporter embraced this kind of strident anti-intellectualism publicly, and even suggested that it forms the bedrock of their professional outlook.
And in addition to the anti-intellectualism, Rudoren says that her detractors are not “rooted in the values of mainstream journalism.” This is provably false. In fact, much of the criticism of her that prompted this exchange was based precisely in her own failure to adhere to basic journalistic ethics. I noted, for example, that she made statements about vandalism against mosques in Israel without providing numbers or even a citation. It turned out not to be true; she is just making up inflammatory “facts.” But in order to know that, you have to do the journalism that Rudoren refuses to do. You have to be her fact checker, in other words.
The ignorance of reporters about the subjects they cover is an ongoing problem, and it’s especially egregious when the subject turns to religion. Yet often when reporters take their base of knowledge of a subject and arrogantly assume it’s all they’ll ever need to know, they at least know something–anything, even basic information–about the issue. That’s not the case with Rudoren. Her mistakes include those that are disproved by merely looking at a map, for instance.
Somewhere along the line, liberal reporters and editors decided that the greater the depth and breadth of criticism of their work, the better they assumed it to be. This attitude has produced the work of Jodi Rudoren as its inevitable consequence. And it’s how, seemingly against all odds, coverage of Israel is still getting worse. The hope is that Rudoren represents the media hitting bottom, but I fear we’re not there yet.