By Bill Kirtz
Journalism’s toughest assignment?
Being The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief is right up there when the same story gets you called both a self-hating Jew and a Zionist mouthpiece.
After three and a half years in the hot seat, Jodi Rudoren leaves more concerned than ever about the “dueling narratives” that prevent Israelis and Palestinians from understanding each other.
“There’s a growing sense of hopelessness on both sides,” she told a Northeastern University audience last week, and “very few agreed-upon facts.”
She analyzed that political situation recently in the Times.
Rudoren, who will become a deputy editor on the Times’ foreign desk, is no news novice. She’s been the paper’s education editor, deputy metropolitan editor, and Chicago bureau chief after six years at the Los Angeles Times.
But she still finds it “bizarre” to be excoriated for writing too much about people who commit acts of violence. “This is myopic,” she said. “We have to know their motivations. We humanize them. We don’t glorify them.” Referring to the shooter in the recent Colorado Springs attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic, she asked, “Don’t you want to know who Robert Dear was?”
She called empathy a key to being a journalist—and being a human being: “If empathy’s only for one side we’re in big trouble.”
Rudoren rebutted critiques of Times stories that are based on numbers or the ratio of victims to attackers. She called it “simplistic. Numbers don’t tell the whole story.” She said it’s more important to write about the few who perpetrate violence than about their many random victims.
One of her stories drawing intensive fire from both sides profiled a family of Palestinian stone throwers.
“Children have hobbies, and my hobby is throwing stones,” she quoted one as saying.
Some pro-Israeli readers mistakenly thought that she thought it was a hobby, Rudoren said.
But not to worry: Palestinians hated the story too, she said.
Reporters are routinely chastised for not doing the impossible: putting a complicated story into full context.
Recalling critiques for not going back in Middle Eastern history every time she’s on a tight deadline and word count, she quipped that every 800-word story should note, “Abraham had two sons.”
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.