The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: The NYT Forgot this “Narrative”

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When The New York Times observes contemporary history unfolding, it uses its reputation as a “newspaper of record” to demonstrate its philosophical hauteur. Describing the dramatic clashes in Gaza related to the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Times reporter David Halbfinger calmly explains: “For generations, both sides of the conflict have been locked in competing, mutually negating narratives, with only sporadic flickers of hope for peace despite the efforts of a long list of presidents and secretaries of state.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Narrative:

Somebody else’s story, signifying it need not be taken seriously

CONTEXTUAL NOTE

Glossing the same sentence from The New York TimesJames North writing for Mondoweissnotices the paper’s devious tactic: “The implicit question: Who knows which side is right?” Halbfinger’s “both sides” echoes Donald Trump’s notorious “many sides” trope when he attempted to assess the blame for the 2017 clashes in Charlottesville resulting in the death of Heather Heyer.

The article uses the classic subterfuge of evoking “competing narratives” to establish in the reader’s mind its own position as an objective observer, seeking only the truth. But Halbfinger disingenuously achieves his real goal, which evades the question of truth.

By focusing on the details from “both sides,” he deflects attention from the real issues: the historical background and the complex geopolitical implications of the clash. He effectively dismisses history by introducing the clause “for generations,” leading us to conclude, from the start, that constructive debate, were it to exist, would be futile.

By the end of the sentence, he has eliminated any modicum of geopolitical reflection with the phrase, “despite the efforts of a long list of presidents and secretaries of state.” He leaves us with the implicit assumption that the United States has, over the years (“for generations”), been nothing but exemplary in its handling of the Israel-Palestine issue. This also implies the truth of a corollary — that if a solution were to emerge it would come as a result of the US alone.

The telling epithet in the sentence is “competing narrative.” The author expects us first to accept that the fact that we are dealing with two (and only two) narratives means that we need not take either of them seriously. By adding “competing,” he takes the position similar to that of a reporter on a sporting event. We can sit back and evaluate the strength and skills of the competitors. Let the best man win!

HISTORICAL NOTE

Apart from what we might call the two “partisan” narratives Halbfinger identifies, there are actually two other narratives that help to understand the events in Gaza by putting them in perspective, both of which The New York Times evades completely. The first obvious narrative concerns the drawn-out history of peace talks, always in the balance, which The Times mentions only to conclude that they appear to have reached the end of the line. The only references to peace cited in the article are in surreal quotations from Jared Kushner and Benjamin Netanyahu, in which the Israeli prime minister refers to Trump as a “truth-teller.”

Compare the Associated Press’ coverage of the same story, which analyzes in some depth the psychological impact of Trump’s policies and relates them to the wider historical context. In the first paragraph, we learn about the context and the stakes: “The day fueled global concern that U.S. policies are tipping the broader Middle East into deeper, intractable conflict.” The AP article connects the Gaza drama with Trump’s initiative of pulling out of the Iran deal, whereas The Times limits its narrative to the tension between Israel and the Palestinians.

Perhaps the most dramatic contrast occurs around the mention of “solutions.” The Times quotes Kushner’s Manichean blame of the Palestinians for the Israeli massacre: “[T]hose provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution.” The AP article focuses on the central historical fact: that Trump’s policies mean the US has radically changed its role in the conflict. In the words of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Washington is “no longer a partner and a broker.”

In contrast with Kushner’s facile attribution of violence to the dead and wounded victims of Israeli snipers, Erekat offers a much more objective narrative: “They have become part of the problem not part of the solution, a big part of the problem. Mr. Trump’s administration is the biggest problem.”

Some narratives are clearly better than others. And some organs of the press are clearly more informative than others.

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