Why Is The New York Times Swiftboating J Street for Supporting Iran Deal?

On July 23, the New York Times published an op-ed by Shmuel Rosner, political editor at The Jewish Journal and a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute, which made the following claim:

“There are American organizations (such as J Street) that support goals that barely any Israeli agrees with, that nevertheless flaunt the pro-Israel label.”

No explanation was given of what these goals are, nor was any evidence given that “barely any Israeli” agrees with these goals.

While New York Times editors didn’t make Shmuel Rosner specify what the alleged goals of J Street are that “barely any Israeli” agrees with, context suggests the most obvious explanation: J Street has backed the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran and is backing the Iran nuclear deal, and that’s why opponents of the Iran nuclear deal are attacking J Street and saying that J Street’s claim to be “pro-Israel” is dubious.

So let’s assume that this is about diplomacy with Iran and the Iran nuclear deal. (The New York Times should certainly clarify this; you can urge them to do so here.)

Should the New York Times have allowed Shmuel Rosner to assert without evidence that J Street’s backing of the Iran nuclear deal represents “barely any Israeli” and calls into question whether J Street is “pro-Israel?”

Here, here, here and here are examples of senior members of the Israeli national security establishment speaking in support of the Iran nuclear deal. Think about their US counterparts, and imagine that someone claimed that “barely any American” held a view that all those people held. Would the New York Times print such a claim?

Moreover, polling data indicates that the majority of US Jews back the deal. So if Rosner’s standard for “pro-Israel” is opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, then according to Rosner’s standard, the majority of US Jews would not be “pro-Israel,” which proves that Rosner’s standard would be absurd. If someone claimed that the majority of US Jews are not “pro-Israel,” would the New York Times print that claim?

It is a kind of swiftboating to claim that J Street is not “pro-Israel” because it backs the Iran nuclear deal, when senior members of the Israeli national security establishment and the majority of US Jews support the deal.

And this swiftboating concerns everyone who supports diplomacy with Iran, because for many congressional Democrats, “J Street supports this” is a marker for “it’s relatively safe for congressional Democrats to stand with the Obama administration on this, without too much fear of being attacked as ‘anti-Israel.'” J Street is protecting Democrats who support diplomacy. The opponents of diplomacy are attacking the J Street shield.

Some people cynically dismiss concerns about the New York Times regarding war and peace: What do you expect from the New York Times? Judy Miller, blah blah blah. This response, while perhaps seeming “radical,” is counterproductive to efforts to promote peace. The New York Times has too much power to promote war for people who want less war to ignore it. The New York Times has more power to promote war than most members of Congress. Most members of Congress are pretty jazzed if the New York Times reports something that they say on a single day. The New York Times is shaping debate on war and peace every single day more than most individual members of Congress are on a very good day.

If we want to prevent war in the future, we need to take seriously any hint of warmongering at the Times, and that includes any swiftboating of advocates for diplomacy.

Perhaps you might think: Well, it’s an opinion piece, that’s that guy’s opinion, he’s entitled to his opinion.

But the New York Times claims to fact-check its op-eds; indeed, they fact-check letters to the editor. According to the Times, people are not allowed to say whatever they want in the Times, even in an opinion piece.

I know this intimately from personal experience of submitting letters to the New York Times. I have had the following experience repeatedly: I submitted a letter to the Times; the Times expressed interest in printing the letter; they then presented me with an edited version of my letter that was substantially different from the letter that I submitted, claiming that this was necessary to comply with their standards for factual accuracy. When I provided evidence for the factual claims that they were disputing, they said: this is the letter that we’re willing to print, take it or leave it. At that point, I have always capitulated, on the theory that it would be better to have the Times print its version of my letter than no letter at all.

A sharp example when this occurred is publicly documented. In April 2000, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, by his own later account, was a dogmatic “free trader,” someone who supported anything labeled “free trade” without bothering to examine the actual details. Subsequently, emulating the exemplary John Maynard Keynes, he changed his mind in the light of new evidence. But in April 2000, Krugman attacked me by name in his Times column, as a representative of people who were then protesting the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In Krugman’s account, my criticism of the World Bank’s role in the destruction of Mozambique’s cashew nut processing industry was ignorant of economics (actually, it was someone else’s criticism, I had forwarded an article by a Mozambique expert to the people managing the protesters’ website.) Krugman’s argument was: Robert Naiman is ignorant, therefore all the protesters are ignorant, therefore the protesters’ concerns can be dismissed.

I figured that having been attacked in the New York Times by name, I had the right of response. I asked for an op-ed, and was told that the Times doesn’t allow op-eds in response to columns, but that I could send a (much shorter) letter to the editor, which I did. You can see here both the letter that I sent and the Times-written letter that the Times agreed to publish instead. (I experienced some vindication when a Washington Post reporter went to Mozambique to investigate and wrote this; a Mozambican official had suggested to me that I try to recruit a reporter to settle the dispute. Harvard development economist Dani Rodrik later wrote this.)

I bring this up now not to revisit the fight with Krugman, who as far as I am concerned has reformed his ways and is now an ally beyond measure to the critics of the IMF and the corporate-managed trade agenda, but to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the New York Times does not take the position that you or I can write whatever we want in an opinion piece at the Times.

Critics of the Iran deal are talking about the president of the United States like this. There is a group of people that they are trying to organize and inflame with claims that Obama is “anti-Israel” and the Iran nuclear deal is “anti-Israel” and people who support the Iran nuclear deal are “anti-Israel.” The support of J Street for the Iran deal is a big obstacle to this story line. That’s why these people are going after J Street. The big crime of J Street for the Iran nuclear deal opponents is that J Street is defending President Obama. They’re swiftboating J Street as part of their project of swiftboating President Obama.

You can urge New York Times editors to investigate this unsubstantiated attack on J Street here.