This blog has received more immediate reaction to Is Thomas Friedman a Positive Voice for Peace? You Decide, than any other posting I have written since Wall Writings was launched in April, 2008.
One reader of the blog, unnamed here except as “Faithful Reader”, sent a copy of that posting to Clark Hoyt, public editor of The New York Times. Hoyt responded to Faithful Reader, who then sent me Hoyt’s response.
I wrote Hoyt and asked his permission to print his note in my blog. He graciously gave that permission and then, just as graciously, told me why I was wrong in my reading of the visit of Thomas Friedman with officials of the Israeli Defense Forces headquarters.
I am reproducing below the exchanges that ensued. I apologize that the posting is longer than usual. I think it important to print all of the exchanges because civil discourse is sadly missing in our culture today. Hoyt’s regular column in The New York Times is a valuable contribution to this conversation, for which Hoyt and the Times should be commended.
We begin with Clark Hoyt’s initial note to Faithful Reader:
I didn’t see this blog post until you passed it along. I inquired of Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, because I think it would have been inappropriate for Tom Friedman to give a lecture, as Haaretz reported, to the IDF general staff. Rosenthal inquired of Friedman, who said he did not give such a lecture. He did meet with Israeli military officials in his role as a columnist/reporter. They were sources for him. He said he learned a lot from them and did not say any more to them in his conversations than was in his columns. I don’t have any intention of addressing a false report. but feel free to share it. . .
Faithful Reader sent me Hoyt’s response, to which I responded with the following email:
In the email you sent to [my Faithful Reader] regarding my Wallwritings.com posting on Thomas Friedman, you told her to feel free to share your response with the friend who shared the blog information with her. . .
You told [Faithful Reader] you considered the Ha’aretz news story to be a false report and for that reason you saw no reason to address the report further.
I would like to be able to share your response in my next posting. I am not persuaded by Tom Friedman’s response to Andrew Rosenthal. But clearly, Mr. Rosenthal, as Tom’s editor, and you, as public editor, are persuaded.
Let me tell you why . . . I am not persuaded.
Ha’aretz, as you know from reading my posting, was the media source of my blog. In my post, I included links to three other bloggers who read the Ha’aretz story and expressed their concerns about Friedman’s presentation to the IDF officials. I suspect you know their work: Philip Weiss, Helene Cobban, and Richard Silverstein.
Friedman says he “met” with the Israeli military officials as sources. Ha’aretz said he gave them a lecture. I am not convinced of the validity of Friedman’s repudiation of the Ha’aretz story. A journalist often meets with individual officials, but when he speaks to them as a group, and the word is spread that he gave them a “lecture”, it is difficult not to conclude that what took place was a sharing of information gathered in meetings with Palestinian and other Arab leaders that provided Tom Friedman with data for his columns.
It is my conclusion in my posting that Friedman’s writing career, which I document in my posting, has been strongly pro-Israel. In my posting, I link to a column I wrote for the Christian Century magazine in November, 2002. I was the editor of the Christian Century from 1972 through 1999, and in 2002, I was writing still a regular column for the publication.
I have traveled to the region as a journalist since 1973. If you will read my November 6, 2002, column you will see that it focuses on my concern that Tom Friedman’s writings are harmful to the peace process.
Friedman attempts to refute the Ha’aretz news story which reports on his meeting with the Israeli Defense Forces staff. He maintains as you report in your email, that ” he learned a lot from them and did not say any more to them in his conversations than was in his columns.”
With all due respect, I find that totally unconvincing. And I am surprised that both you and Andrew Rosenthal are convinced by the argument.
What you choose to do in handling this matter, as editor and public editor, is entirely up to you. But as a former editor, now a blogger, I believe I owe it to my readers to let them know that the two of you have chosen to accept Tom Friedman’s refutation of Ha’aretz. And I want my readers to know that I am not convinced that the refutation is sufficient.
Since I cite three other bloggers in my initial posting, I feel I also owe it to them to share your email response with them. May I have your permission to quote your email in my next posting. With appreciation for all you do for The New York Times.
Clark Hoyt responded to me, as promptly as possible for a person on vacation, with the following email:
Dear Mr. Wall:
Please forgive the delay in this response. I am on vacation and am only occasionally checking e-mail.
I have no objection to your quoting my response to [Faithful Reader]. However, I would appreciate it if you would also include what I am about to say:
I find it curious and troubling that you choose to believe an unsourced, anonymous report in Haaretz over Mr. Friedman’s version of what happened, and — forgive me — I can’t help suspecting that you are allowing your political views to color your journalistic judgment in this matter. You disapprove of Tom Friedman’s writings and believe he is not helpful to the Middle East peace process. So, when a news organization reports something anonymously that could reflect negatively on him, you choose to believe it. Frankly,and I don’t intend any personal disrespect, I find that irresponsible. If you have evidence that Mr. Friedman is not telling the truth, I would like to see it, and I would be open to persuasion. If you don’t have such independent evidence, I would conclude that you are just choosing to believe what is convenient for you to believe.
I also find it unpersuasive that, because three other bloggers have commented on this anonymous report, it somehow takes on greater significance. This is, in my view, a common weakness in the blogosphere. Unsubstantiated information gets repeated often enough that some people come to the unwarranted conclusion that it must be true.
Best, Clark, Public Editor, The New York Times
I then sent this email to Mr. Hoyt:
Thank you for your thoughtful response. It is especially good of you to take your vacation time to consider my letter and to respond in such a gracious manner.
In my next blog posting, I assure you that I will include your response to me. And I thank you for giving me permission to reprint the email you sent to the blog reader who initially called my blog posting to your attention.
May I begin by examining the facts before us.
First, we have my original Wall Writings posting which commented on Thomas Friedman’s visit to the Israel Defense Force headquarters, where he, by his own admission, spoke with his “sources” in that headquarters. Second, we have your note to the reader of my blog, in which you accept Tom Friedman’s version of his meetings with the IDF against the interpretation of the Ha’aretz report.
The original Ha’aretz story provides the following specific information:
“Friedman met personally with IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi during his visit, and spoke to the deputy chief of staff, the head of Military Intelligence, the head of the Home Front Command and the head of the planning branch.”
By my count, Ha’aretz identifies five IDF officials with whom Tom spoke. Ha’aretz describes Tom’s meetings as including a “lecture” to the staff. In your note to the reader of my blog, you insist Tom did not give a “lecture” to the IDF military officials.
You wrote to [Faithful Reader]:
“I inquired of Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, because I think it would have been inappropriate for Tom Friedman to give a lecture, as Haaretz reported, to the IDF general staff. Rosenthal inquired of Friedman, who said he did not give such a lecture. He did acknowledge that he met with Israeli military officials in his role as a columnist/reporter. They were sources for him. He said he learned a lot from them and did not say any more to them in his conversations than was in his columns.”
As I understand your position, had Tom given a lecture” to the IDF officials, that would have been inappropriate because it would have meant he was acting as a “consultant” to the IDF. Tom acknowledged to Andrew Rosenthal, after you queried Rosenthal, that he had, indeed, met with IDF officials. He said he had “learned a lot” from those conversations. He also assured Rosenthal that he “did not say any more to them in his conversations than was in his columns.”
Tom does not identify the officials with whom he met, although the Ha’aretz story is quite specific in identifying them by name and titles. Ha’aretz may have erred in calling those exchanges a “lecture”, but no one involved questions that Tom Friedman held conversations with IDF officials following his earlier meetings with Palestinian officials.
The issue is not whether Tom gave a “lecture”, but whether his conversations with five top officials in the IDF went beyond that of a columnist gathering information for his columns. I choose to believe those conversations were very helpful to the IDF officials in their own decision-making in dealing with the Palestinian officials.
Clark, I am surprised that you so willingly accept Tom’s word that his conversations with his “sources” did not go beyond what he wrote in his columns. His columns were written for readers of The New York Times. As I read them, I do not find new information that would be of significance to the IDF officials.
I must conclude, to use the term you applied to me, that it is “irresponsible” of you to accept Tom’s word that he repeated only information from his columns in his discussion with the IDF officials. You take his word on this in spite of the fact that you are aware of Tom’s strong affection for the state of Israel, which translates, in my personal opinion, to a lack of affection for those who “threaten”, in his judgment, the well-being of that state.
Tom Friedman is an experienced journalist who knows how to obtain information from friendly “sources”. It is naive, in my opinion, for you to conclude, and for you to expect me to agree, that Tom simply repeated his columns to the IDF officials, no more, no less. It is my opinion that what Tom Friedman brought to the IDF general staff, gleaned from his earlier discussions with Palestinian officials, would be of considerable value to the IDF general staff.
It is not unreasonable to conclude that Tom Friedman is capable of serving as a valuable conduit between Fatah and the IDF. As a friend to Israel, he could be valuable to the IDF by sharing with them his opinions on the thinking and planning of his Palestinian sources. There is considerable data, backed by sources, that Israel and Fatah are partners in resisting actions of Hamas.
It is insulting to have Tom Friedman dismiss his meetings with IDF officials as nothing more than friendly chats with sources. It is also insulting to attack my blog report as irresponsible because it is based on a report from a highly-respected Jerusalem newspaper.
I believe it is the role of the Public Editor to go much further than apparently you chose to go in your examination of the complaint regarding Tom’s meetings at the IDF headquarters, as reported in my blog, and acknowledged by Tom.
I do not know how closely you read my original Wall Writings posting, Is Thomas Friedman a ‘Positive Voice’ for Peace? You Decide, but I would appreciate your looking at it again and paying close attention to my Christian Century column to which I link in the posting. In that column, published November 6, 2002, I concluded that Tom Friedman’s bias toward Israel was not a positive contribution to the peace process..
Finally, Clark, in your note to me I do not feel you reflect a positive attitude toward bloggers. Like many bloggers today, I am new to the format, but also like many bloggers, I bring a history of media experience with me to the writing of my blog. You dismiss the “other three bloggers” I cite in my posting, Helene Cobban, Richard Silverstein and Philip Weiss, as mere “bloggers”. Surely you aware of the journalistic experience they bring to the blogs they currently write. I urge you to read them on a regular basis. They reach a very wide audience that is affecting public debate today.
I think it would be a mistake for you to dismiss, without further public comment, my blog’s complaint against Tom Friedman, and more importantly, since they reach a much larger audience than I do, the complaints lodged by the three other bloggers I cite.
I apologize for imposing further on your vacation time. I expect to post my next blog entry later today.
Within just a few hours, the following exchange took place. First, Clark wrote to me:
Now that we’ve each agreed that the other is irresponsible, let me try to take it down a notch and explain more fully why I think you are pursuing a mistaken path in this case — at least without more first-hand knowledge than you have.
It continues to feel to me as though you are putting 2 and 2 together and getting 22: Tom Friedman is a friend of Israel, therefore his conversations with IDF officials, in your view, must have some sinister implication beyond the kinds of exchanges that happen all the time between journalists and sources they cultivate for information. In the case of Friedman, he is an American and meets frequently with top officials of the U.S. government. Does that mean he’s doing s something wrong in those instances? I’ve never met Friedman, but I spent enough of my career in Washington to observe that his global influence is so strong that officials with whom he meets are almost certainly hoping to persuade him of their points of view, in hopes they will be reflected somehow in what he writes.
I find it odd that you use the word “admission” to describe Friedman’s acknowledgment that he met with the IDF officials. Again, what”s he admitting to? Meeting with sources? What’s’ wrong with that? You “choose to believe” — based on no reporting that you have cited to me — that Friedman was “very helpful” to the IDF officials. You don’t know that, and nothing in the unsourced Haaretz report confirms that. I’m not even sure what very helpful means in this context and see nothing that reasonably supports a conclusion that Friedman stepped over a journalistic line.
I don’t think Friedman was insulting in his description of his exchanges with the Israelis. I do see how you could take offense at my use of the word “irresponsible,” and please be assured that I meant no insult and should have expressed my views in better language.
Finally, I mean no disrespect toward bloggers. I read them frequently and do some of it myself. The point I was trying to make, obviously not well, was that just because three other bloggers opine on the same anonymous report, it doesn’t make the report true or any more worthy of attention.
Jim, I apologize for any harshness of tone. This is something I feel strongly about — accepting an anonymous report as true and then reaching damning conclusions from it — but I mean no personal disrespect to you and recognize your considerable journalistic credentials.
Thank you for your quick response. Tom’s “global influence”, as you put it, is certainly strong but it is for precisely that reason that he is so deeply distrusted by those of us for whom the injustices of the Israeli occupation is so overwhelming that we have no alternative but to suspect that in his dealings with this topic his strong feelings for Israel and against the Palestinians affect his reporting and his column writing.
You identify a reporter’s conversation with U.S. military officials to be the same as an American reporter’s conversations with Israeli officials. Does this not imply that Israel is to be seen as an extension of the Pentagon? I don’t think you want to say that.
I used the term “admission” in connection with Tom’s response to Rosenthal because he was being questioned as to what was behind the Ha’aretz story. Would “acknowledged” have been better? Perhaps so. What he was acknowledging was that he did, indeed, meet with sources in the IDF.
Tom’s record in this arena is so clearly pro-Israel that I find it puzzling that you are unable to concede that he would share more with the IDF officials than he might, for example, with Hamas, Fatah or Syrian officials? If we are to be accurate in our reporting, we must view all our sources with the same suspicious eye.
I used the word “insulting” in connection with Tom’s description of his talks with the IDF because I am insulted that you would think I am so naive and impressed with Tom’s “global influence”, that I would accept without question, his description of his dealings with the IDF.
I do not find your words harsh. You say yourself that you feel strongly about what you call “anonymous” sources. I use harsh language when Israel is allowed by the American media–of which the Times is the queen–to misuse language that suits the Israeli narrative while either distorting or ignoring the Palestinian narrative. Do you know how long it took to get Nakba into the Times? You have been the Public Editor long enough to know how angry it makes those of us who grieve over the injustices of the Occupation to keep reading the Israeli perspective in the Times and other American media.
I continue to be offended that you use the words “anonymous” and “false” reports when referring to the Ha’aretz story. A reporter gives the names of five IDF officials and he reports that Tom talked to them. What more sourcing do you need? Ha’aretz is, after all, a respected Jerusalem newspaper. Does Tom Friedman have sources that will support his contention that he limited his comments to the IDF to his columns?
With your permission I will add this exchange to the posting. Jim
This prompted one final response from Clark, with which I will end the posting, giving him the final word.
Thanks, Jim. By all means, add it.
I don’t in any way think I am implying that Israel is an extension of the Pentagon. I am merely making the point that a reporter talks to officials of many government’s, including his own, and there is nothing untoward about the mere fact of talking with them. In fact, it is his job.
As for Haaretz, I do accept Tom Friedman’s word that he didn’t give a “lecture” to the IDF, and there is nothing in the published report that substantiates its assertion that he did. I therefore view the report with a great deal of skepticism.
I think we’ve pretty well exhausted this one, but I appreciate your interest and hearing from you — and your civility in asking for permission to use our exchanges. Not everyone does that. Best, Clark
Thus endeth, for the moment at least, a civil exchange with The New York Times on the IDF and Thomas Friedman.
The picture above is a copy of the July 19, 2009 issue of The New York Times. It is from the Wikipedia website for The New York Times.