Foreign correspondents

Top notch New York Times who-done-it story comes up short on Hindu roots of India's caste system

Top notch New York Times who-done-it story comes up short on Hindu roots of India's caste system

The New York Times ran a fascinating story out of rural India over the weekend that to my mind underscored -- with one big caveat -- some of the complicated mechanics and very best qualities of foreign reporting.

Headlined, “How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India,” the piece, written in the first person by a veteran correspondent, showed — without explicitly explaining — the powerful connection between religion and everyday cultural expression. The writer was Ellen Barry, who shared a staff Pulitzer Prize while previously working in the paper’s Moscow bureau.

Conveying the daily experiences of ordinary people living in a distant and different culture requires a level of empathetic insight and writing skill greater than that of the average newspaper reporter. Barry’s that kind of journalist; she’s able to turn the travails of ordinary individuals into highly readable copy

This story focuses on how a man got away with murdering his wife -- a circumstance that unfortunately happens far too often in rural India.

For that he can thank corrupt local officials and ingrained male disrespect for women -- particularly poor women -- rooted in South Asia’s Vedic-origin caste system. The Vedas are Hinduism earliest scriptural writings and are estimated to be between 2,500 to 3,500 years old.

This, despite Indian laws making caste discrimination illegal.

(Before any non-Hindu readers dismiss this as solely a Hindu problem, note that the Wikipedia link in the previous paragraph, repeated here, makes clear that in India and neighboring (and primarily Hindu) Nepal, some Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews also have adhered to caste system protocols over the years.)

Barry’s story is long, around 3,500 words, but it stays interesting to its conclusion and it's worth reading in full.

I like how Barry documented her dogged reporting technique, returning time and again to re-interview people, often asking the same reworded questions over and over. That kind of intensive reporting becomes more rare with each passing news cycle.

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Why quote Haaretz big time when the left-leaning Israeli newspaper reflects a small minority's views?

Why quote Haaretz big time when the left-leaning Israeli newspaper reflects a small minority's views?

In the mid-1970s, I spent a brief period working for an English-language magazine in Lima, Peru. The Peruvian Times was,  at that time, a schizophrenic blend of business news and first-person adventure travel yarns. Guess which part subsidized the other.

The magazine's office -- just blocks from Lima's nearly 500-year-old central square -- was a hangout for English-speaking journalists passing through or stationed in the Peruvian capital. Many looked to the Times'  expat staff for story ideas, context and sources.

The Times was an example of a foreign reporting truism -- which is the reliance correspondents have on local journalists for ideas and contacts. This is particularly true for those new to a nation and those who cannot fully function in the local language.

In Israel, one preferred local journalism hub has long been Haaretz, which has been called that nation's equivalent of The New York Times.

Its a false comparison because Haaretz ("The Land" in Hebrew) has limited circulation, is unabashedly and consistently left wing in its news columns as well as its editorial positions, is hostile toward religious orthodoxy -- no small thing in a nation where religion plays an enormous role in public life -- and has no where near the domestic influence or corporate wealth of the Times.

What it does have is influence in international liberal circles, which I'd say includes the majority of the Western correspondents working in Israel.

Haaretz strongly opposes the right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular its policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank. On this issue, its editorials and columnists are often quoted by those in the international media who trend liberal-left.

As such, Haaretz wields more influence internationally than it does within its home nation, giving it outsized importance in the international debate over Israel -- which is why Haaretz should be a subject of interest to American consumers of Middle East news.

Let me be clear. My intent here is not to attack Haaretz or its views, some of which I agree with (Israel's ongoing settlements policy, in particular). Rather it is to underscore the influence local media, even one with limited appeal at home, can have in shaping the international media agenda when its views are in line with the prevailing foreign media mindset.

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Repeat, repeat, repeat: Israeli settlements are news even when there's no news to report

Repeat, repeat, repeat: Israeli settlements are news even when there's no news to report

The Washington PostLos Angeles Times and, of course, The New York Times, lead the pack when it comes to ongoing coverage of Israel and the Middle East by elite American newspapers. Some of their reporting is excellent, some of it is done poorly, and some of it is just repetitive.

That's about what one should expect, because journalists succeed and fail, I'd say in the absence of any hard evidence, roughly as much as any other human subset. 

Let's dissect the repetitive. And, yes, I'm well aware that given how often I post on Israel issues for GetReligion, I'm in danger of being repetitive myself. But, here goes anyway.

This week, the Post ran a news feature that it's editors (or at least those who produced Tuesday's edition) saw fit to give four-column, above-the-fold, page-one display in the paper's print edition. That, despite the story providing no new information.

The question is why?

Headlined, "A new wave in the West Bank?", the news feature struck me as a rehash of events that the Post and everyone else has widely covered -- which is what Donald Trump's election victory means for Israel's West Bank settlement project.

The bottom line is that Trump, and his designated appointee as U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, appear set to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a free-hand to continue settlement construction. That's the opposite of what President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry want.

If you support the settlements, Trump and Friedman are a welcome good-news story. If you oppose the continued building, as I do, they're utterly bad news.

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Rhino hide alert! Changing of the guard at New York Times bureau in Jerusalem

Rhino hide alert! Changing of the guard at New York Times bureau in Jerusalem

What presidential campaign reporting is to political junkies, the naming of a new New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief is to the most vociferous partisans in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's red meat for people on both sides.

The Times is arguably the world's most influential newspaper and the Jerusalem job is among its most visible perches. That means only the thick-skinned need apply. I'm talking rhino-hide thick.

Just about every story produced by the Jerusalem bureau -- for which the bureau chief is deemed responsible by friend and foe alike -- is perceived by partisans to be of ultimate importance in the closely watched, extraordinarily complex and seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It matters little if yesterday's story went your way, or that tomorrow's may as well. We're talking about virtually daily conflict reporting in which every ephemeral sentence is subject to microscopic scrutiny. Because who knows when some verb or noun chosen hastily under deadline pressure will sway world opinion?

The charges of bias fly fast and furious. And they come, at one time or another, from just about every faction -- from the far-right and the far-left, from Israelis and Palestinians, from those in-country and those outside it. From every angry troll with a keyboard.

(Nor does the partisan crowd seem to know or care that editors may chop copy for length, may change verbs or nouns on a whim, choose the accompanying art, and write the headline. The person in the byline always gets the blame.)

Oy, the pressure -- which I've written about before.

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The New York Times blows it, gets sucked into Israeli-Palestinian Temple Mount quagmire

The New York Times blows it, gets sucked into Israeli-Palestinian Temple Mount quagmire

There is no long-running conflict more closely covered today than the struggle-without-end between Israelis and Palestinians. The Website of the Foreign Press Association in Israel says some 480 correspondents from around the world currently work in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

That number swells, of course, when the conflict heats up, the simmer becomes an explosion, and more people die, as -- sadly -- is currently the case as Israelis cope with a wave of Palestinian knifings and other attacks. Adding to the total number of journalists writing about the situation are those doing so from outside the conflict zone -- like those churning out stories from the Manhattan headquarters of The New York Times.

Which brings me to a story about Jerusalem's Temple Mount (as Jews call it)/Haram al-Sharif (as its known in Arabic) produced by the Times' home office last week that provoked an angry backlash from Jews and other Israel-supporters to a degree I've not seen in a very long time.

The piece was headlined "Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem's Holiest Place." It was a mess of a story about what is arguably, as the cliche goes, the world's most contested piece of real estate, a site Jews consider their holiest, and Muslims call their third holiest.

The piece focused solely on the historicity of the two biblical-era Jewish Temples. Given the ferociousness of the conflict, such stories easily become about way more than archeology and whatever may be scholarship's current version of history. That's because they go to the very heart of the clashing Israeli and Palestinian narratives -- historically, theologically and, probably most importantly, politically. 

Even getting such a story "factually" correct is not enough, as fact and fiction concerning the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif vary in accordance with which partisan is talking. Still, this piece could claim no such cover.

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