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Double standards: the case of Andrea Mitchell

We should not compromise when it comes to the truth, writes Erika Dreifus from New York

    Andrea Mitchell (US Dept of State)

    "I think journalism is challenged now as it never has been before in the 50 years that I’ve been a reporter, and that we have to be fearless, careful, accurate. We have to double and triple our sourcing so that we cannot be undermined or challenged by our own human error. We have to be vigorous and aggressive, and adversarial, and just refuse to compromise.”

    So said Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for American television network NBC and host of the weekday Andrea Mitchell Reports hour on cable and satellite news network MSNBC, upon accepting a Distinguished Journalist Award at The Forward’s 120th Anniversary Gala last November. I attended the esteemed Jewish newspaper’s celebration; Mitchell herself had remained in Washington and addressed the gathering via video-recorded message. Like the rest of the audience, I applauded her remarks. Who wouldn’t support an uncompromising commitment to accurate information?

    I recalled Mitchell’s words on the morning of January 22, when, in response to a scene in the Knesset during US Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Jerusalem, the journalist tweeted this message to her 1.6 million followers:

    “The 13 Israeli-Arab members of Israel’s Parliament held up signs saying “Jerusalem is the Capital of Palestine” and were forcibly removed by security as Pence started to speak. Can you imagine Capitol Police dragging members of the congressional black caucus off the House floor?”

    This remark — any “fearlessness” of which was matched perhaps only by its carelessness —rendered me momentarily wordless. Fortunately, others responded with more alacrity.

    “Wrong on several points,” Lahav Harkov, who reports on the Knesset for the Jerusalem Post, tweeted in turn: “1, they are not ‘THE 13 Israeli-Arab members’ – there are others. 2, it is always against the Knesset rules to hold up signs or use props and there are examples spanning decades of ppl being removed bc of it. 3, ushers, not security guards led them out”.

    A few other knowledgeable journalists challenged Mitchell specifically on her choice of analogy. Danielle Berrin, for one, responded: “1), The comparison is fallacious and mendacious. Black Americans were pure victims, enslaved and terrorized by a white majority. They didn’t seek to deny or delegitimise the existence of the United States as part of their civil rights struggle. They sought justice & equality.” Berrin continued: “2), The Palestinian national movement, a totally worthy enterprise, is often locked in violent conflict with Israel and connected to a terrorist-run territory in Gaza whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish State.”

    But neither Harkov nor Berrin has Mitchell’s reach. The damage was done. At this writing, Mitchell’s original tweet has been “liked” nearly 10,000 times and re-tweeted more than half as many again. Unfortunately, so far as I’ve been able to tell, none has included an apology or even a clarification from Mitchell herself.

    That makes this ostensibly small incident all the more troublesome. It’s bad enough to see an American journalist of Mitchell’s experience, stature, and platform — not to mention access to research and fact-checking resources — issue a statement like the one she did on January 22. It’s worse to see such apparent unwillingness to live up to the standards Mitchell herself has so recently espoused. And, for me, Mitchell’s own Jewish descent — in her acceptance remarks for The Forward gala, the journalist spoke fondly of her maternal grandmother’s loyalty to the Yiddish Forverts — rubs extra salt into this particular wound.

    What’s even more upsetting about this episode is how far from isolated it is. I consume my share of high-profile American media, so I know that Mitchell is hardly alone among journalists and, I include again, a dispiriting number of American journalists of Jewish background, who not only fail to apply vaunted standards of reporting and/or opining when the matter at hand concerns Israel, but also seem to be unable to confess the existence of their “own human error” in these cases.

    But I have only 750 words for this column. I lack the experience, reach, and resources of Andrea Mitchell, or New Yorker editor David Remnick (for whose magazine article on the Israeli television series Fauda I’ve been seeking an official correction since publication late last summer), and others whose own words and/or reporting exemplify similarly problematic qualities.

    Still, we should all remain fearless in our refusal to compromise on the truth. On that point, Andrea Mitchell’s words are worth heeding — and sharing.

    Erika Dreifus is a writer in New York. She tweets "on matters bookish and/or Jewish" at @ErikaDreifus

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