Clarifying the debate about Roger Cohen

A piece in Sunday’s U.K. Guardian takes a belated look at the controversy surrounding New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and his columns about Iran, Jews in Iran and Israel. The piece reports:

A row has broken out over allegations of antisemitism at the New York Times, America’s most vaunted name in journalism and a newspaper with a large Jewish readership.

The storm centres on a column about Jews in Iran written by New York Times journalist Roger Cohen and a cartoon attacking the recent war in Gaza.

The newspaper, and Cohen in particular, has been accused of being too critical of Israel and an apologist for Iran and its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In typical British fashion, the Guardian gets the point about criticism of Israel wrong.

Contrary to what some Britons may think, there is no invisible, forbidden line in America when it comes to criticism of Israel that, when crossed, becomes certifiable anti-Semitism. Reasonable people can argue about what constitutes anti-Semitism, and whether certain criticisms of Israel fit the bill.

I’m not sure what other critics of Cohen have been saying to the New York Times, but my problem with his columns isn’t his criticism of Israel (or anti-Semitism) but his bad journalism. Cohen has the right to criticize Israel — as do I, you or anybody else. The problem isn’t that Cohen has criticized Israel too much, crossing some unspoken line, but that he’s simply been wrong or duplicitous in what he has written about Israel, Iran and Iranian Jews.

It’s bad journalism to suggest the Jews in Iran live tranquil lives, without fear of a regime that has made a practice of sponsoring attacks against Jews around the world. It’s bad journalism to fail to provide context about the regime in Tehran. It’s bad journalism to take gratuitous swipes at Israel in columns about other subjects.

It’s bad journalism to get the facts about Hamas wrong, and to mischaracterize Israeli actions. It’s bad journalism to impute to President Obama’s message to Iran elements that aren’t actually there.

The question for the New York Times isn’t whether Cohen or the paper is anti-Semitic — to suggest that either is true is silly — but whether the paper is promoting bad  journalism by printing column after column that misstate, skew or ignore important facts.

Newspapers ought to have some leeway when they get things wrong on occasion (Lord knows I’ve made plenty of mistakes of my own), so long as those mistakes are made in good faith and are corrected as quickly as possible. And columnists have the freedom to present their perspectives. The question is whether Cohen is acting in good faith with his Israel-can-do-no-right attitude.

Cohen’s recent visit to a synagogue in Los Angeles to discuss his column suggets he is acting in good faith, but the columns he has written since suggest he hasn’t learned much.

(As for the cartoon controversy that the Guardian mentions, the Times says it did not print the Oliphant cartoon, but merely provided a link to it  — something JTA did as well, albeit with context).

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