Journalism: fact-checking and full disclosure
Omri Ceren is none too pleased with the LA Times. After reading his post, I doubt you will be, either.
I haven't read the full backup materials to which Ceren links (it's a book-length Strategic Studies Institute document), just a summary and the excerpts Ceren offers. So I haven't done my own independent analysis, and am relying on his. With that caveat, though, I must say that he makes an excellent case that the Times op-ed piece in question, by George Bisharat, is at the very least misleading.
Here's Bisharat's opinion piece from the Times. And here's the SSI--US Army War College document on which Bisharat based his article.
Bisharat's thesis is as follows:
To avert Iran's apparent drive for nuclear weapons, concludes Henry Sokolski, a co-editor of "Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran," [the SSI report] Israel should freeze and begin to dismantle its nuclear capability...[T]here is an Achilles heel in our nonproliferation policy: the double standard that U.S. administrations since the 1960s have applied with respect to Israel's weapons of mass destruction. Israel's suspected arsenal includes chemical, biological and about 100 to 200 nuclear warheads, and the capacity to deliver them.
Initially, the United States opposed Israel's nuclear weapons program. President Kennedy dispatched inspectors to the Dimona generating plant in Israel's south, and he cautioned Israel against developing atomic weapons. Anticipating the 1962 visit of American inspectors, Israel reportedly constructed a fake wall at Dimona to conceal its weapons production.
Since then, no U.S. administration has effectively pressured Israel to either halt its program or to submit to inspections under the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nor has Israel been required to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The apparent rationale: Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an ally are simply not an urgent concern.
Yet this rationale neglects a fundamental law of arms proliferation. Nations seek WMD when their rivals already possess them. Israel's nuclear capability has clearly fueled WMD ambitions within the Middle East. Saddam Hussein, for example, in an April 1990 speech to his military, threatened to retaliate against any Israeli nuclear attack with chemical weapons Ã the "poor man's atomic bomb."...
[The SSI report's] suggestion is comparatively mild: Israel should take small, reversible steps toward nuclear disarmament to encourage Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
I've quoted Bisharat at some length in order to be fair to him. The thrust of his message to the casual reader who hasn't read the SSI report (and my guess is that that would be close to 100% of his readers), is that the report recommended that Israel start disarming, and that Iran would then follow suit.
That is indeed a distortion of the report's message. Here is a summary of the report's recommendations, taken from the report itself (which, by the way, is almost totally about the threat posed by Iran):
To contain and deter Iran from posing such threats, the United States and its friends could take a number of steps: increasing military cooperation (particularly in the naval sphere) to deter Iranian naval interference; reducing the vulnerability of oil facilities in the Gulf outside of Iran to terrorist attacks, building and completing pipelines in the lower Gulf region that would allow most of the non-Iranian oil and gas in the Gulf to be exported without having to transit the Straits of Hormuz; diplomatically isolating Iran by calling for the demilitarization of the Straits and adjacent islands, creating country-neutral rules against Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty state members who are suspected of violating the treaty from getting nuclear assistance from other state members and making withdrawal from the treaty more difficult; encouraging Israel to set the pace of nuclear restraint in the region by freezing its large reactor at Dimona and calling on all other states that have large nuclear reactors to follow suit; and getting the Europeans to back targeted economic sanctions against Iran if it fails to shut down its most sensitive nuclear activities.
Ceren, who has apparently read the full report, states that what it actually recommends is this:
(1) The SSI report explicitly calls for Israel to "not yet dismantle" any nuclear capability, in direct and undeniable contrast to Bisharat's claim that it calls for Israel to "begin to dismantle its nuclear capability"
(2) The report deals only with Israel mothballing fissile material - not nuclear weapons. This is a critical distinction - it's the difference between Israel resting on its arsenal of 150-200 nuclear weapons in an otherwise de-nuclearized Middle East, and Israel weakening itself by dismantling its arsenal. The SSI report does not believe that Israel actually disarming would have any effect on Iranian motives for proliferation because Iran is not developing their arsenal for defensive purposes. They're developing it to destroy Israel...
The report recommends that Israel trade its ability to produce future bombs for Iran's ability to produce future bombs...There's a very specific reason why the SSI authors do not recommend that Israel publicly dismantle its nuclear arsenal - because they think it would risk a regional nuclear war.
In Bisharat's piece, he omits the details--and, as usual, the real story is in the details. If one reads Ceren's piece first and then reads Bisharat's, one can see that Bisharat does not actually say, point blank, that the report asks Israel to start disarming its nuclear arsenal, although one can also see that, if one has read only Bisharat's article, a typical reader might easily come to the conclusion that that is what he's saying.
Yes, Bisharat does mention that the report asks that Israel perform "small, reversible steps towards disarmament." By this he no doubt is referring to the steps Ceren mentions, which involve mothballing fissile material and freezing a reactor, in exchange for a host of similar steps and obligations by other Arab and Moslem countries. But by failing to explain precisely what those steps asked of Israel are, and by not emphasizing the quid pro quo aspects of them, he is misleading the reader.
This is not an isolated case; it seems that, when op-ed pieces (or even straight news pieces) are written based on documents about policy recommendations, those recommendations are frequently distorted almost beyond recognition (remember Duelfer?). Is this a reading comprehension problem on the part of the writers and journalists composing these pieces? Or a writing problem? Or is it deliberate obfuscation?
What is the obligation of editors at newspapers such as the LA Times to fact-check these pieces by reading the original reports, and to see if the articles fairly represent what's actually in them? And do those editors have a duty to fire journalists who consistently distort such reports? In addition, what should the editors' standards be in choosing op-ed writers, and do they need to identify those writers in such a way as to clarify whatever agendas they may bring to their works?
When we see an op-ed piece by Pat Buchanan, for example, or by Jimmy Carter, we pretty well know what we are dealing with. We know their history and their political agendas, and we know how to weigh what they are saying, adding into the mix our own notions of how they might be predisposed to slant things to advance those agendas. If this piece had been written by the Iranian ambassador to the UN, for example, we'd know where he was coming from; likewise, if it had been written by his Israeli counterpart. That doesn't mean either would be lying, by the way; it simply means they would be bringing known biases to the table. The reader should always evaluate each piece of writing on the merits of its own logic, of course. But knowing what biases to look out for can only enhance our ability to perform such evaluations.
So, it is in that spirit that I ask: who is Bisharat, and what are his political biases in the area of the Middle East and Israel? Does he have any? The Times identifies him as: is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East. And this is, in fact, the case.
But if you read the entire bio to which I just linked, you'll find the following:
[Bisharat's] study of the impact of Israeli occupation on the Palestinian legal profession of the West Bank, Palestinian Lawyers and Israeli Rule: Law and Disorder in the West Bank, was published in 1989. In recent years, Professor Bisharat has consulted with the Palestinian Legislative Council over the structure of the Palestinian judiciary, reforms in criminal procedure, and other aspects of legal development.
Again, let me emphasize that such a history is not a disqualification for writing on this subject. Nor is being a Palestinian (or a Jew or an Israeli, for that matter), a disqualification; not at all. But we do need to know whether Bisharat is or is not an objective observer here; does he have a relevant political agenda?
With just a bit more research, one can easily come up with more information about a possible political agenda.
Here, for example, is a piece written in early 2004 by Bisharat for the extreme leftist periodical Counterpunch. It's entitled, "The Right of Return: two-state solution sells Palestine short." The opening paragraph:
It is a tragic irony that, more than 55 years ago, one desperate people seeking sanctuary from murderous racism decimated another--and continue to oppress its scattered survivors to this day. In 1948, about 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, their land and possessions taken by the new Jewish state of Israel. This included the Jerusalem home of my grandparents, Hanna and Mathilde Bisharat, which was expropriated through a process tantamount to state-sanctioned theft.
One can only conclude that Bisharat does have a clear political agenda. The rest of the piece is basically an indictment of Israel and a call, not only for a two-state solution, but for a full implementation of the "right-to-return" for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants. And it's clear that Bisharat considers himself one of those descendants, and wants to have that right; in fact, he uses the term "we" consistently throughout the article to refer to Palestinians desiring to return, and to Palestinians as a whole.
I have no intention in this post to debate the issue of the right to return, or the conditions under which the Palestinians originally left and under which they remained unassimilated refugees in other Arab lands. Suffice to say there are nearly innumerable websites that present each side of the question. You can (and perhaps you already have) certainly read them for yourself, taking into account the possible biases of their respective authors, and weighing the issues as best you can on the preponderance of the evidence presented, as well as its authenticity and veracity.
At any rate, my point in quoting the "Right of Return" article by Bisharat is merely to say that, clearly, this is not a disinterested and impartial party. Now, getting into identities and assuming bias on the basis of those identities is one of those slippery slopes that feel dangerous. So I'm not saying Bisharat's objectivity is questionable because of his Palestinian origins or his cultural identity. Rather, it's because Bisharat has the clearest of political agendas--one which he has stated unequivocally in a public forum--and it is a fairly extreme one.
Of course, Bisharat is entitled to his position about Palestine, the SSI report--or for that matter, anything else. He's also entitled to state it, and the LA Times is entitled to print it, if they so choose. But, before publishing it, shouldn't the Times check to see whether he's presenting the report fairly? And doesn't the LA Times also have a duty to inform us about Bisharat's extremist agenda, rather than to present him as a neutral and disinterested party? Of course, if the first were true (we could rely on the Times to make sure his article was fair before they printed it) the second (identifying his agenda) would not be necessary--it would be irrelevant.