The Difference Between Fact and Opinion at the New York Times

Posted on July 8, 2011

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Isabelle Kershner provides a primer on how the NYT creates qualifying distinctions in its media coverage in her reporting on the “Flytilla” to Ben Gurion. Kershner presents some ideas as facts, and others as opinion. Coincidentally, those that are presented as fact, tend to bolster the institutional view of the issue:

Kershner writes:

“Israel has traditionally been welcoming of foreign tourists to the West Bank, including more than a million Christian pilgrims who visited this Palestinian city of the Nativity last year.”

Kershner presents this “welcoming” as a fact. But is it? Certainly, the system for denying entry into Israel is arbitrary at best, whether a traveler is open, or not, about the intention of entering the West Bank. As many experiences of being denied entry come to us through vast, but mostly anecdotal accounts, it’s possible that Israel has indeed welcomed some “foreign tourists” who claim they will visit the West Bank, at various periods in the last forty years of the occupation. It’s clear that those who state political goals, or are accused of having political goals, however, are mostly unwelcome in the West Bank by Israel.

But the word “foreign tourist” obscures an entire population of Palestinians, their partners and Diaspora Palestinians within it. Many Palestinians and those married to Palestinians are virtually permanent tourists–whatever their political affiliations or views–because Israel does not allow the Palestinian Authority any power over granting citizenship or residency rights. As I linked to in an earlier post, Maureen Murphy describes the reality of Palestinian families with American passports, routinely denied entry into Israel because they plan to travel to the West Bank:

Amongst expatriates living in Ramallah, there were stories of spouses of West Bank ID-carrying Palestinians who have been continuously getting the three-month B-2 tourist visa for as many as twenty years, by coming and going to Jordan several times a year. These individuals had acquired the status of legends amongst the expat community, though the precarious situation of international passport-holders (including Palestinians living in the diaspora) who marry and have families with Palestinians holding West Bank or Gaza ID cards is all too real. Thousands of Palestinian families perpetually live in fear of a family member being deported — a worry shared by my corner shopkeeper with an American passport-holding wife who goes to Jordan and back every three months, and a friend whose American sister-in-law simply overstayed her visa for five years, knowing this would mean she could never return once she left.

As for Kershner’s claim about Christians, it’s true perhaps, that some wishing to go to Bethlehem for religious purposes may even be able to say so as they enter Ben Gurion. But then again, Kershner ignores that a large number cannot:

In late October the Israeli interior ministry cancelled the multiple-entry visas that many foreign clergy possess, issuing instead single-entry visas, and sometimes completely denying access to the very birthplace of Christianity.

The Our Lady of Annunciation Catholic church in the West Bank city of Ramallah cancelled its Christmas celebrations completely, because the priest, Jordanian national Seres Lalkhlisat, could not return to the West Bank from Jordan, where he went to visit his family.

“A church without a priest; it’s very hard. People call saying ‘we want to hold a funeral, but there is no priest to conduct the funeral,” said Anan Abu Saadeh, a teacher at the school affiliated with Our Lady of Annunciation.

Saadeh said Lalkhlisat has worked at two West Bank congregations since 2004, and used to travel back and forth from Jordan freely on his multiple-entry visa, which now has an ‘X’ drawn through it.

“We are waiting,” said Saadeh, “they are always saying ‘you have to wait’ …they have still not given us a real reason.”

While Kershner presents her claim of “Israel’s welcoming tourists to the West Bank” as fact, she has a different standard for veracity when presenting Palestinian claims.

Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian organizer, said at a news conference in Bethlehem on Friday that he was “pleased — sadly pleased” that the episode had exposed what he described as Israel’s draconian anti-Palestinian policies.

Why is the claim that Israel “welcomes” tourists to the West Bank fact, while the characterization that Israeli entry policies are “draconian” merely opinion? There is obviously far more evidence that the latter is likely to be true, than the former.

There are other oddities in the Kurshner article. Kurshner represents the claims, made by Israeli officials, as “persistent reports” without attribution:

There were persistent reports that the foreign visitors would try to create chaos and paralyze Ben-Gurion Airport, despite strenuous denials from the organizers of the campaign, who advocate nonviolence.

And whether through sheer ignorance or purposed obfuscation, Kershner completely ignores the well-stated goal of the action, which was to honestly claim the intention of entering the West Bank as a way of highlighting the reality that the West Bank is not sovereign. And, by any objective measure, it’s true–I wouldn’t be writing this article about Ben Gurion airport, if Palestinians were allowed to have their own airport and their own control over immigration by Israel. Kershner goes so far as to imply that the reason for flying into Israel to reach the West Bank is one of infrastructure:

(The West Bank has no airport of its own.)

True, for obvious reasons I just mentioned.

Adam Horowitz at Mondoweiss has more:

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