Mar
21
2013

How to Read Stories About Israel in the NY Times (Hint: Very Carefully)

FireShot Screen Capture #401 - 'Israel’s Iron Dome System Is at Center of Debate - NYTimes_com' - www_nytimes_com_2013_03_21_world_middleeast_israels-iron-dome-system-is-at-center-of-debate_hSome days the Newspaper of Record says a lot–not always in ways you might expect.

Today (3/21/13) a story by Mark Landler and Rick Gladstone about allegations of chemical weapons in Syria includes something you see often–anonymous government sources. That can often be a bad thing; but today it's pretty useful:

Two senior Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, said that Israel was sure that chemicals were used, but did not have details about what type of weapons were used, where they came from, when they were deployed, or by whom.

A third senior official, also refusing to be identified, said, “It is possible that chemical weapons were used, or some concoction of chemical substances,” but he said he had not “seen clear confirmation.”

Why is this helpful? Because other Israeli officials, speaking publicly and for attribution, pretended to be more certain. From the very same Times piece:

Two senior ministers in Israel’s new cabinet said publicly on Wednesday that chemical weapons had been used, and several government officials said in interviews that Israel had credible evidence of an attack. The ministers, Tzipi Livni and Yuval Steinetz, were among those who met with Mr. Obama here on the first day of his trip.

and:

Israeli officials provided no proof of their assertions but appeared more confident that chemical weapons had been used.

Ms. Livni, the new Israeli justice minister, said in an interview with CNN, "It's clear for us here in Israel that it’s being used," adding, "This, I believe, should be on the table in the discussions."

Mr. Steinetz, the minister for strategic affairs, said on Israel's Army Radio, "It's apparently clear that chemical weapons have been used against civilians by the rebels or the government."

So is the Times, in its own way, telling us not to trust the officials speaking on the record? That's certainly one way to read the piece.

Elsewhere in the paper we learn that part of Barack Obama's visit to Israel includes a look at the country's "Iron Dome" missile defense system, which is funded by the U.S. government. In one story, by Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren, we read this:

Mr. Obama was driven across the tarmac to inspect a battery of the Iron Dome air-defense system. The system, built by Israeli companies but financed by the United States, is credited with intercepting more than 400 rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli towns….

Israeli officials say that Iron Dome has been a huge success, intercepting 86 percent of the 521 incoming rockets it engaged in the Gaza conflict. Some American missile-defense experts have questioned that figure, putting the hit rate at closer to 10 percent.

So they either knock down almost every rocket, or almost none. That's pretty unhelpful; but the Times has another piece that actually digs into the evidence ("Weapons Experts Raise Doubts About Israel's Antimissile System"). According to this account, "a growing chorus of weapons experts in the United States and in Israel…suggest that Iron Dome destroyed no more than 40 percent of incoming warheads and perhaps far fewer."

 One former Pentagon official says there's no system that is 90 percent effective. And the article, by William Broad, includes this:

Theodore A. Postol, a physicist at M.I.T. who helped reveal the Patriot antimissile failures of 1991, analyzed the new videos and found that Iron Dome repeatedly failed to hit its targets head-on. He concluded that the many dives, loops and curls of the interceptors resulted in diverse angles of attack that made it nearly impossible to destroy enemy warheads.

"It's very hard to see how it could be more than 5 or 10 percent," Dr. Postol said.

Mordechai Shefer, an Israeli rocket scientist formerly with Rafael, Iron Dome's maker, studied nearly two dozen videos and, in a paper last month, concluded that the kill rate was zero.

Reading all of that, it's hard to imagine anyone could really believe the Israeli claims about Iron Dome's success rate.

So if you want to get a handle on Iron Dome, ignore the story on page 10 and pay attention to the story on page 11. And if you're trying to figure out which Israeli officials to trust on the Syria chemical weapons story, the unnamed sources seem to be the ones who are more forthright about what they know.

That's a lot to ask of readers, isn't it?

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.