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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Cancel the paper when you hate the story?

News coverage of the month-long battle between Israel and Hamas has triggered strong reaction among readers of some daily newspapers, particularly The New York Times.

Many people I know canceled their subscriptions to protest what they perceive as editorial bias against Israel. They are outraged by what they think is anti-Israel sentiment at the paper of record. 

These Times critics cite graphic reporting on the deaths of civilians in Gaza, especially the children. And they object to the Times’s front-page photos, day after day, showing Palestinian parents carrying wounded children, fleeing bombed-out houses and keening over the bodies of dead soldiers. One friend said he canceled his subscription, got a call asking him to reconsider, and told the sales agent, “Be nicer to Israel and I’ll read the paper again.”

One clear fact emerges from the complex and emotional turmoil in the Middle East: No newspaper, from the big dailies like the Times to local weeklies like the Heralds, can claim objective coverage of the war. Journalism’s standards require that we try to be objective, that we analyze ourselves for unintentional prejudices, that we balance a potential powder keg story by telling both sides. And still we unintentionally shade and twist and bend the truth, not because we want to, but because we’re human beings who bring unconscious biases to the process of reporting and writing the news.

I have no wish to defend The New York Times, but I don’t see canceling a subscription as the most effective way of registering disapproval of news coverage. Newspapers are the great public meeting houses of our culture. The place to dissent and argue is in a letter, call or email to an editor. The pages of a newspaper shouldn’t be mirrors that reflect back to us what we already know; they are, rather, a ticker tape of history in all its messy detail.

It is precisely on the pages of a newspaper that controversial issues should be reported. On the editorial pages, the same issues are analyzed. Agree or disagree, but don’t kill the messenger.

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