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NYT Top Editor Bill Keller: "Hamas Is Also a Charitable Organization..."

Plus, Keller unwittingly criticizes his paper's liberal slant: "To describe a politician as 'liberal' or 'conservative' (while almost always inexact) is generally neutral. To describe the same politician as 'left-wing' or 'right-wing' may say more about you than about your subject. It identifies you." It certainly does.

Executive Editor Bill Keller concluded last week's "Talk to the Newsroom" online chat with readers by discussing his paper's coverage of Israel's recent incursion into Gaza.


After printing comments from a variety of commenters accusing the Times of holding both pro-Israel and anti-Israel biases, Keller (naturally) saw the criticism from both sides as vindication for his paper's even-handed approach. But then Keller unwittingly criticized his paper's own liberal slant. He then suggested it was simplistic to refer to Hamas as a terrorist organization, noting it was also a "charitable organization."


FromKeller's online Q&A last week:


First, about language. Words are the main tools of our craft. They can be used to inform and explain. They can also be used to inflame, or to pander. The tabloid press has a vocabulary of headline words - HERO, THUG, MADMAN - that are aimed not at the minds of readers, or even at their hearts, but at their viscera. Over time, the promiscuous use of such overheated language and adolescent name-calling cheapens both the language and the user. And it is insulting to readers. It tells you what you are supposed to think, implying you are too stupid or insensitive to make your own judgment. I prefer to think that readers of The New York Times do not need to be treated like fools.


Words can also be a litmus test, a password to establish your adherence to a particular point of view. To describe a politician as "liberal" or "conservative" (while almost always inexact) is generally neutral. To describe the same politician as "left-wing" or "right-wing" may say more about you than about your subject. It identifies you.


So it apparently says a lot about the Times that it identifies politicians and groups with the term "right wing" (which Keller admits can be derogatory) far more often than it uses the term "left wing."


It's Israel coverage is no different. Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner wrote this for today's front page about Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman, whose nationalist party is expected to come in third in Israeli parliamentary elections tomorrow:


Unlike many on the far right, he favors a two-state solution with the Palestinians.


Reporter Isabel Kershner wrote on January 27:


Recent polls indicate that Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing opposition party, has retained and even increased its lead. The other party that appears to have gained the most ground is the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman....Mr. Netanyahu also talks of advancing practical arrangements with the Palestinians and says that if elected he will try to form as broad a governing coalition as possible, partly to appeal to the Israeli mainstream and partly to allay international fears about the upheavals a far-right-wing government could bring.


Executive Editor Bill Keller continued his Q&A, explaining that it's not necessary to call a Hamas terrorist a terrorist and that doing so is actually too simplistic:


So, to bring this back to the Middle East: You can write about a Hamas suicide bomber erupting in a restaurant, describe the carnage of innocents in such heartbreaking detail that the stoniest reader will feel a surge of pain and fury - and yet, for a certain reader, if you neglect to use the word "terrorist" in the story, it's as if you have whitewashed the evil. Of course a person who sets out to inflict such horror is a terrorist, committing a terrorist act, and there is nothing inherently wrong with saying so. But using the word does not add anything to our understanding. It does not convey information. If it is included because one set of readers demand it, then it is a watchword, a signal - in my view, a patronizing signal - that we are on board.


Is aiming rockets at Israeli civilians a terrorist act? Yes, even if Hamas calls it retaliation. The rockets are intended to, and do, terrorize. We have no rule against saying so, and we have said so. We avoid using the word reflexively, automatically, as a moral mantra or a statement of political affiliation. Is Hamas a terrorist organization? Well, that's a little more complicated - and complication is not popular in the land of moral clarity. Hamas commits terrorist acts. Hamas is also a political organization. (It stood for, and won, an election in Gaza.) Hamas is also a military organization, in that it wages war by means more conventional than suicide bombs and terrorizing rockets. Hamas is also a charitable organization, which built much of its popular support by tending to the suffering of Palestinians. To describe Hamas as "a terrorist organization" strikes a pose, allies us with a point of view (including the United States government's official point of view) but it is reductionist - that is, it reduces Hamas to its vilest component. And it is politically prescriptive, at least by implication, since defining Hamas as a terrorist organization all but says they have no place at any negotiating table. We should not and do not gloss over the appalling things Hamas has done, but it is still sloppy journalism to refer to Hamas flatly as "a terrorist organization."