Some empathy, please, as New York Times Jerusalem chief bids adieu

About a month ago I wrote a post on the buzz developing around the changing of the guard at the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times. I noted then that Times coverage of the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about as closely watched -- and unsparingly critiqued -- as is any  produced by American journalism.

For the bureau chief, the job is a near guaranteed ulcer-producer. Still, the position is coveted by the Times' most ambitious, most skilled and toughest reporters. In the context of that super-competitive newsroom, that's saying something.

My early December post was pegged to the departure of Jodi Rudoren, who is leaving Jerusalem after four years. No replacement has been officially named as of this writing, but check out my earlier post if you're interest in the scuttlebutt about who that may be.

My return to the subject is prompted by a exit interview Rudoren gave to The Jerusalem Post, Israel's leading right-of-center and oldest English-language newspaper. Click here to read the entire exit interview published in the newspaper's weekend magazine.

It's well-worth your time as a primer on what it takes to cover a highly complex, super-important international conflict while under a microscope.

How does one prepares for such an assignment? How do you deal, just about daily, with angry, highly partisan readers who feel their side has been wronged? How do time and space constraints work against properly contextualizing daily events when one has decades of bloody conflict from which to draw?

Rudoren touches on all of this. Here's a sample from the interview:

She’s written hundreds of pieces from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, but says the criticism is always the same. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Everyone knows the Times hates Israel,’ or ‘Everyone knows the Times is pro-Israel.’ -- I respond, ‘Everyone you know!’ Just go on Google or Twitter, it’s not hard to find people who say the exact opposite thing from you about the exact same article.”
Whatever side she writes about ignores the reality of the other, she says.
“So many people in this conflict just ignore the idea that there is another side, another experience.

Rudoren's comments on journalism's undeniable subjectivity, a reality brought to the table by both producers and consumers, says a tremendous amount about the limitations built into the profession I've been associated with, and still adore, for a half-century.

No matter how hard we insist otherwise, individual outlooks and the biases we conflate with objective reality will always be the keyhole through which we make sense of the universe in which we exist. Well, at least, that's my individual outlook and overarching bias.

More interesting to me than that "truism" are Rudoren's comments on empathy and its importance to the journalistic process. Here's a chunk more from the interview:

With all of the criticism of her work, Rudoren says that the things she is most troubled by are accusations that she lacks empathy -- and how accusations like these are used to undermine journalism in general.
She gives the example of one particular story. For Remembrance Day [Israel's equivalent of our Memorial Day, minus the blatant consumerism] Rudoren profiled the mother of a soldier who fell in the Yom Kippur War. Since his death, there have been 23 people named after him -- Gil’ad. Every year for more than 40 years, the mother holds a memorial service to honor her son and celebrate those who are keeping his memory alive.
“I thought it was this very important story, a very perfect wonderful human story … and it told you a lot about Israelis and how they mourn their war dead, which is very different from Americans,” Rudoren says.
But this story was also not without its criticism. “I got a text message from a Palestinian official: ‘Your lack of empathy for Palestinians is unbelievable.’ I thought, how does this have anything to do with Palestinians? And since when does empathizing with this woman mean I don’t empathize with Palestinians?” Rudoren continues, “Empathy is a key tool of journalism. It is a major and important factor in conflict resolution, and I think it’s a basic thing of being a human being. I’m pro-empathy; I don’t think it’s limited, I don’t think it’s finite.
“You do need empathy to tell the story of the prisoner [a reference to a piece she did on a Palestinian prisoner that was criticized by the pro-Israel side] in a way that dimensionalizes him, but it dimensionalizes him in all of his mess; whatever you find, you put in. I didn’t think either of those stories were pretty stories about the prisoner or the stone thrower [yet another story, this one about a young Palestinian who described throwing stones at Israelis as his "hobby"]; I thought they were tough stories.”

Rudoren -- who's work in Jerusalem I personally found, under the circumstances she labored, to be consistently strong -- concluded:

... What rattled me about the comment [from a critic] was the notion that even empathy was understood here as a zero-sum game.
The general ‘score-keeping’ by advocates as a frame for analyzing news coverage is bad enough, in terms of reducing the complexity of life and this conflict to some kind of zero-sum situation, but empathy? Always seemed to me it was infinitely available/accessible and empathy for one person need not have impact on empathy for another, regardless of their relationship.
“Of course it’s difficult to empathize with two people, or two peoples, in conflict, but it’s not only possible, it’s essential for mainstream journalism and outsider understanding of this place.”

Empathy -- a key to better journalism. Wise words from a battle-tested and highly skilled practitioner of our craft.

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