New York Times Falsifies Obama-Netanyahu Meeting
by David Bromwich, Professor of Literature at Yale
May 19, 2009
The New York Times assigned to the story a campaign-trail reporter, Sheryl
Gay Stolberg, whose political perceptions are bland and whose knowledge of
Israeli-American relations is an antiseptic zero. At the newspaper of
record, a thing like that does not happen by accident. They took the most
anxiously awaited meeting with a foreign leader of President Obama's term
thus far, and buried it on page 12. The news coverage of a major event, which
the same newspaper had greeted only the day before by running an oversize
attack-Iran op-ed by Jeffrey Goldberg, has officially now shrunk to the
scale of a smaller op-ed.
What is more disturbing and far more consequential is that the Times made
this meeting into a story about Iran. They read into Obama's careful and
measured remarks exactly the hostile intention toward Iran and the explicit
deadline for results from his negotiations with Iran that Obama had taken
great pains to avoid stating. Obama's relevant remark was this:
My expectation would be that if we can begin discussions soon, shortly
after the Iranian elections, we should have a fairly good sense by the end
of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and
whether the parties involved are making progress and that there's a good
faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn't mean every issue would be
resolved by that point, but it does mean that we'll probably be able to
gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach.
"Shortly after," "fairly good sense," "the right direction," "good faith
effort," "probably," "by the end of the year." This was a language chosen
deliberately to cool the fever of Netanyahu and his far-right War Coalition
in Israel. But Stolberg, writing for the Times, converts these hedged and
vague suggestions into a revelation that Obama for the first time seemed
"willing to set even a general timetable for progress in talks with Iran."
In fact, as any reader of the transcript may judge, President Obama sounded
a more urgent note about the progress Israel ought to make in yielding what
it long has promised to the Palestinian people. Palestine was the proper
name that dominated Obama's side of the news conference. In the Times
story, by contrast, the word Iran occurs three times before the first
mention of "Palestinians." Iran is mentioned twice more before the words
West Bank are uttered once.
Regarding the necessity of a Palestinian state, President Obama was
We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the
Prime Minister that he has an historic opportunity to get a serious
movement on this issue during his tenure.
And when Netanyahu said the Israeli attitude toward Palestine would
completely depend on the details of progress toward securing Iran against
the acquisition of a single nuclear weapon, Obama replied that his view was
almost the reverse. In a leader as averse as Barack Obama to the slightest
public hint of personal conflict, this was a critical moment in the
exchange; how far, a reporter asked Obama, did he assent to the Netanyahu
concept of "linkage" -- the idea that first the U.S. must deal with Iran,
and a more obliging Israeli approach to Palestine will surely follow. Obama
I recognize Israel's legitimate concerns about the possibility of Iran
obtaining a nuclear weapon when they have a president who has in the past
said that Israel should not exist. That would give any leader of any
country pause. Having said that, if there is a linkage between Iran and the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs
the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians
-- between the Palestinians and the Israelis -- then I actually think it
strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a
potential Iranian threat.
This was a reluctantly formulated but direct and inescapable inversion of
the Netanyahu doctrine on linkage. Not a trace of it appears in the Times
Finally, Gaza was much in President Obama's mind and on his conscience at
this meeting; so much so that he broke decorum and stepped out of his way
to mention it:
The fact is, is that if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can't
even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight
that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take
place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel's long-term
security or a constructive peace track to move forward.
And yet not a word from Stolberg and the Times about these words of Obama's
on Gaza. Nor was any analytic piece offered as a supplement -- the usual
procedure in assessing an event of this importance.
To sum up, what happened at the meeting can be judged plainly enough by the
news conference that followed. Binyamin Netanyahu tried to make it all
about Iran. Obama declined, and spoke again and again about the importance
of peace in the entire region, and the crucial role that Israel would have
to play by freezing the West Bank settlements and negotiating in good faith
to achieve a Palestinian state.
Let us end where we began, with Barack Obama on the good of peaceable
relations with Iran, and the New York Times on the importance of thinking
such relations are close to impossible.
President Obama: "You know, I don't want to set an artificial deadline."
Now the Times headline: "Obama Tells Netanyahu He Has a Timetable on Iran."
And the Times front-page teaser for their A12 story: "Obama's Iran
The decision-makers at the New York Times are acting again as if their
readers had no other means of checking the facts they report. They are
saying the thing that is not, without remembering that the record which
refutes them has become easily and quickly available. A great newspaper is
dying. And on the subject of Israel, it is doing its best to earn its