January 31, 2008
Keeping it fair and balanced at the Los Angeles Times
Q&A with Op-Ed Editor Nicholas Goldberg
As the Los Angeles Times' editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section, Nicholas Goldberg oversees publication of about four opinion pieces per day and eight to twelve on Sundays. The most volatile topic on those pages by far -- even more than the war in Iraq, the election campaigns or immigration -- is the Middle East and Israel. |
Goldberg, 49, a secular Jew raised in New York who worked as a reporter for 15 years, including four based in Jerusalem covering the Middle East for Newsday, talked with The Journal about the L.A. Times' Israel coverage, whether he would publish a piece written by Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden, and why in this polarized time people need to keep an open mind.
Jewish Journal: What is your mission?
Nicholas Goldberg: I think the mission of the Op-Ed page is to run the broadest possible range of opinion on a wide variety of subjects. A lot of people think that we run articles that we agree with, or that somehow the pieces that appear on the opinion pages reflect the view of the paper, the editorial board, the publisher or even the owner of the paper -- but that's not the case. We want pieces that come from all different sides of issues. We also try to run pieces that are nuanced, that are politically indeterminate and harder to categorize.
JJ: You worked for Newsday for 10 years. What has your experience as a journalist taught you and how is different from working on the opinion pages?
NG: My experience as a daily reporter has been extremely helpful to me because I can really work with people on all sides. I work day in and day out with people I disagree with and I help make their pieces stronger, and I help them make their arguments more logical, and I hope I help them make their pieces better. My experience as reporter gave me a lot of background in many of the subjects that we write about on the page.
JJ: From 1995-1998 you covered the Middle East, living in Jerusalem. Did you go in with a certain opinion?
NG: I went it with the open mind of a reporter who doesn't know much about the subject. For four years I was engrossed in nothing but the subject. I did a lot of traveling -- I was in Iraq and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Sudan and Egypt -- but I spent more time in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank than I did anywhere else.
When you live in Israel, particularly when you're a journalist you spend all day and night working on stories, you sort of live and breathe the conflict. The 1990s were the height of the peace process. I arrived just months before Rabin was killed and I was there for Peres and Netanyahu and Barak. The fates of the peace process went up and went down, there were a lot of bombings in Jerusalem when I was there, cities war given back to the Palestinians in the West Bank and retaken by the Israelis. There was all kind of change and ferment as there is now.
JJ: Living in Jerusalem, did you learn new things about the region?
NG: I emerged with a more sophisticated and nuanced viewpoint than I had when I went in. My job was to cover the place as a reporter: to go out and to interview people, to talk to people about what they think, and that meant going to Hebron and talking to settlers and going to Gaza and talking to the guys from Hamas, and it meant interviewing Shimon Peres and Bibi Netanyahu. Of course my view of the place changed, but I tried to keep as open minded as I could, and to report stories as fairly as I could.
I do feel that the way the region is covered, and especially the way the conflict is covered in the opinion pages in America, has generally been very narrow compared to what you read in Israel. If you read Ha'aretz, if you see the Arab newspapers -- if you see Al Ahram in Cairo -- you will be exposed to points of view that you don't hear in the United States. One of the things I decided when I became Op-Ed editor is that I would like to bring a broader range of viewpoints on the Middle East to the page. I've tried to do that.
JJ: Are you Jewish? How does that affect your job, or your stance on Israel?
NG: I am Jewish. When I went to Israel as a correspondent, that was immediately an issue, people said, "Oh you're going to go to Israel and you're going to feel like you've come home, and you're going to be a Jew in Israel and that's going to be a moving and a powerful experience, and you're going to learn so much about being Jewish."
I come from a secular New York Upper-West Side Jewish background. Of course it affected me, of course I was interested in it -- I had relatives there, relatives of friends -but I tried to put that aside as a journalist and cover the story as honestly and objectively as I could. I tried not to say that I come from this team or this side, that these are my people. I tried to go out as reporter and talk to everyone about what was happening and to report as honestly I could.
As an op-ed editor I do the same thing.
JJ: How would you categorize your personal viewpoints on the Middle East? NG: My personal feelings about this situation are immaterial. Regardless of what I think, I certainly believe that that the opinion pages of the L.A. Times are a place where people can argue all sorts of things that can totally disagree with my feelings. And we publish writers from Alan Dershowitz and Natan Sharansky on one side, and Edward Said and Khaled Mashal from Hamas on the other. These are important issues, complicated issues, life-and-death issues.
JJ: Are there any positions or people that you would not publish on the opinion page?
NG: A lot of people ask me (particularly Jews who get angry about some of the things we've published on the page), "How can you run this stuff? Aren't there some things that don't deserve to be published? If Adolf Hitler came to you and wanted to publish something on your opinion pages, would you publish him?"
That's a hard question. Some things are so offensive, so wrongheaded, so racist, that we wouldn't publish them. We do have certain standards. But at the same time, we try to err on the side of publishing rather than not publishing. If I got a piece in tomorrow from Osama bin Laden, chances are I'd publish it. If I had received a piece from Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq War, I'd have published that. I think it's important for readers to hear all different sides.
JJ: Some pro-Israel media watchdog groups say that by publishing articles by members of Hamas you are fomenting propaganda against Israel or disseminating disinformation.
NG: If a guy from Hamas writes a piece, he's probably trying to propagandize. Much of what is submitted to the Op-Ed page is propaganda. Still, I think that publishing these points of view can sometimes be extremely important.
It's important for people in the United States to know what Hamas thinks, or to know what Hamas says; when Hamas won an election in Gaza we took that seriously, and we wanted to know what the new prime minister had to say about it. And we published a piece he wrote about what could be expected in the months and years ahead. Will it all come to pass? Was he trying to put one over on us? Can he be trusted? Well that's for you, the reader, to determine.
JJ: CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, published advertisements alleging that you put out 50 percent more pro-Arab Op-Eds than pro-Israel Op-Eds in a 19-month period and that your pages are biased.
NG: I think their numbers are misleading. They took a bizarre time period of 19 months for some reason ending last July, and they left off a number of pieces that we've run on the Op-Ed page that didn't seem to help their cause.
I went back and I looked at the pieces that we've run in the last year and a half, and what I found was that about 30 pieces we ran were highly supportive of Israel, from people on the right or people who were defenders of the Israeli government like Alan Dershowitz, Michael Oren, Max Boot, Natan Sharanksy, Moshe Ya'alon, Yossi Klein Halevi and Zev Chefets. I also found a handful of pieces that were pretty centrist, for example, by American diplomats writing about the future of the peace process.
Then I found about 30 pieces that were critical of Israel. But these 30 pieces weren't "pro-Arab," as CAMERA would want you to think: 17 of those came from Jews or Israelis who are Zionists, who are pro-Israel, but who are in some way critical of Israel. Of the remaining writers, there's a small number that a group like CAMERA would say are terribly offensive. For instance, we've published Jimmy Carter; John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who wrote "The Israel Lobby"; UCLA professor Saree Makdisi; and on two occasions we published representatives of Hamas.
That's my count, and it's quite different from theirs. My count shows a balance.
JJ: Is balance something that you're interested in?
NG: Balance is important to us. Not just on this issue, but on all issues. We do not do a scientific count saying, "If we ran a piece on this side, then we must run a piece on that side tomorrow." We want to get the best possible pieces, so we don't keep a day-to-day count of what we have to run next. But yes, over time, we certainly are extremely interested in not tilting too far to one side or the other; we definitely keep an eye on it.
JJ: CAMERA also alleged that the illustration accompanying the Walt-Mearsheimer piece on Jan. 8, which showed a Jewish Star shackling Uncle Sam, was anti-Semitic and echoed a Der Stermer Nazi cartoon from 1938.
NG: They said it echoes Nazi imagery. I would say that's an unfortunate coincidence -- but that's all it is. We're not Nazis here at the Los Angeles Times; we're not anti-Semites. The fact is that before the State of Israel was created, the use of the Star of David in an illustration like that was meant to represent "the Jews." Today the Jewish star, which sits on the Israeli flag, is used by illustrators not just as a religious symbol, but as a national symbol. That's what it was meant to represent in this case. The illustration was about American politicians feeling pressure to support Israeli policies, which was what the piece was about.
I don't think the illustration was anti-Semitic or Nazi-like.
JJ: Are there criteria for illustrations and cartoons, in terms of whether this will offend people? NG: Sure. We get cartoons on a not-infrequent basis that we look at and say there's something that's offensive about this, that we think people are going to react badly. Sometimes we're willing to run them anyway because we want to be provocative. We don't want to offend people needlessly or gratuitously.
JJ: What do you think about these media watchdog groups who count editorials and send in corrections all the time?
NG: I've heard from CAMERA often since I've been here. In many ways, they're performing a useful and valuable service: They're holding our feet to the fire, to make sure that we get our facts right and that we correct our mistakes. They force us before we publish to think hard about the fact that there are a lot of people watching and that we'd better get it right. That part of their mission is valuable.
But sometimes they assault us with so many complaints -- some of them small and some of them large, some of them meaningful, some of them silly, some of them simply meant to irritate. I sometimes think that they're trying to cause us so much work and hassle in an effort to dissuade us from publishing the kinds of pieces they disagree with. I certainly don't intend to be scared out of running a piece by a Palestinian author that's critical of Israel just because I'm worried that CAMERA may not like it.
JJ: Is this the hottest issue of all your many different issues?
NG: I think at most big papers in the country, the issue of Israel is the most controversial subject there is. In Los Angeles, the issue of the Armenian Genocide is very controversial. The war in Iraq is controversial. But there's no question -- when we run pieces on Israel and Palestine we'll get a huge reaction. Every article that makes someone happy will make someone unhappy.
JJ: Does that make you feel like you are doing your job, because there are people who are happy and unhappy?
NG: If we publish a strong opinion on one side of any issue we'll always make other people unhappy. That's part of the job. I'd never expected that everyone would be happy with what we ran. But I guess it's disappointing to me the degree to which people don't want to read opinions that are at odds with what they believe.
I have always been interested in hearing what people I disagree with have to say; I want to hear their arguments. I want to be able to unravel their arguments, I want to be able to contradict their arguments or maybe be persuaded by their arguments. It's not interesting to me to pick up the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page and read only opinions on one side of the ideological spectrum.
But many readers apparently only want to see things on the Op-Ed page that validate what they already believe. I'm not just talking about the Middle East, but other subjects as well. That's apparently the way some people are. But it's too bad. People gain a lot by reading arguments that they don't think they agree with.
JJ: Are there other Arab or media groups doing the same thing?
NG:For years and years there were not. There are several groups of people who now solicit op-ed pieces from important or thoughtful or smart Palestinians to make sure their works are translated well into English and to make sure they get to the right people at newspapers. I get a lot of those. That was an attempt on the Palestinian side to match what's going on on the Israeli side. But there's no Arab or Palestinian media advocacy group that comes and reads pieces very closely and tells us, "You made a mistake here, you made a mistake there."
JJ: You're not responsible for the letters page, but would you say the response in letters is equal on both sides of the issue?
NG:We get far more letters from people supportive of Israel writing in, either to agree with something we wrote or to attack something we wrote. There are no question that letters come much more heavily from Jews that from Arabs, from pro-Israel people than anti-Israel people.
JJ: Do you think there is an objective truth when it comes to the Middle East or it's just a difference of opinion?
NG: There is certainly truth when it comes to the facts, and there is truth when it comes to the history, and it's very, very difficult sometimes to find out what that truth is. It's the job of reporters and historians to try to dig as deeply as they can to try to get to that truth. But the Middle East is so emotional that the subject is so emotional and there's so much bitterness and so much history and so much anger that it's hard to cut through to the facts and you have to look at it through this prism of opinion.
In this issue more than others there's a really valuable role for opinion pieces to play. And you can really learn a lot from opinions. It's very unusual for Jews and Israelis to think about what's gone on that part of the world from a Palestinian point of view. I think it's hard for the Palestinians to understand what they look at as "The Nakba," and to see the Jewish experience. To that end, essays and commentary and the kinds of pieces we run in the Sunday op-ed section can really be important if people will read them.
What I found is that many people are much too closed-minded to read pieces by others who they don't agree with. But we keep publishing them. Reading pieces you that you disagree with is terribly important, in my opinion. If you really want to understand an issue, you really want to hone your own arguments to be sure that your own preconceptions are correct. We should all always be re-evaluating what we think, and re-arguing our arguments and taking on our opponents, it's the only way to work through it.
JJ: But what if your opinion won't change because it's based on emotions?
NG: Everyone's opinion is based on emotion, but you have to empower your opinion with facts and new information and some kind of empathy for other people's emotions. It's hard to do. Really this is not just about Israel and Palestine, this is about many, many of the issues we write about on these pages.
The Correction Process
Media watchdog groups sometimes claim that Los Angeles Times' Op-Eds contain factual errors, and they ask how the editing process works, as well as corrections for articles.
Times' Opinion Editor Nicholas Goldberg said many of the Op-Ed pieces -- especially sensitive ones -- go through a fact-checking process, and the newspaper has a "strong policy" to correct errors that occur.
What merits a correction?
"Sometimes even that's a judgment call," Goldberg said. The decision is usually made collectively by the readers' representative, the Op-Ed section editors and the editors who worked on the piece.
"A correction is for a factual error. If we say something is the case that is not the case indisputably, then that merits a correction," Goldberg said.
Issues of interpretation and opinion will not be corrected. In those instances, readers can respond by writing letters to the editor or to the online "Blowback" column by sending to firstname.lastname@example.org.