It is unusual for politicians to namedrop journalists. And so it should be; our job as reporters and commentators is to expose the harm done by the powerful, not to curry favor with them. One exception I recall was during a 2003 press briefing given by Jim Wolfensohn, then the World Bank’s president, most of which he spent listing his influential acquaintances. Among them was Thomas Friedman, who, Wolfensohn reminded his listeners, “belongs to your profession.”
After reading The Imperial Messenger by Bélen Fernández, the thought of sharing a profession with Friedman revolts me. Fernández demonstrates meticulously how The New York Times columnist seeks to make racism respectable.
His racism is directed at one ethnic group: Arabs. In 2001, he even implied that Arabs are innately backward, writing: “In an age when others are making microchips, you are making potato chips (116).” The following year, he effectively advocated the mass slaughter of Palestinian civilians. Three days before Israeli troops went on their March 2002 rampage in Jenin refugee camp, Friedman called on Israel to “deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay (xv).” Israel’s murder of 1,200 people, mostly non-combatants, in Lebanon during 2006 was, in Friedman’s view, part of the “education of Hezbollah” (142).
More Middle East than Minnesota?
Even though just one chapter is specifically focused on the “special relationship” between Israel and the US, Friedman’s commitment to Zionism is criticized throughout the book. While Friedman has claimed he learned he was “more Middle East than Minnesota” on his first visit to Jerusalem in 1968 (55), Fernández stresses that his refusal to analyze Zionism and its legacy from a critical perspective means that all his work on the region must be treated with circumspection (54). In any event, his claim is a dubious one; a great deal of his travels are spent in the Westernized environments of golf clubs, luxury hotels or hamburger restaurants (one typically ludicrous Friedman theory is that no two countries hosting a branch of McDonalds have gone to war against each other (3)).
Perhaps the best thing about this book is how it highlights the shoddiness of Friedman’s research and how someone who has been lauded by Pulitzer Prize judges for his “clarity of vision” is frequently muddled and inconsistent. Last year Friedman stated that “when widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem (135).” Yet his own copy is known to rely on sources of questionable veracity, in particular the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which, according to Friedman offers “an invaluable service” by translating foreign-language articles written by Arabs and Muslims into English (61). MEMRI is a somewhat shadowy neoconservative outfit, yet it is upfront about one of its goals: to aid the US government and military in their “war on terror.” By definition, then, the “invaluable service” is fighting a propaganda battle on behalf of American foreign policy.
Another telling example of why Friedman should not be trusted is that he concluded Yasser Arafat was a “bad man” based on a Google search, which yielded more hits when Arafat’s name was combined with “jihad” and “martyrdom” than when it was combined with “education” (106). Meanwhile, Friedman’s view of Israeli settlements has veered from arguing their continued expansion was as irresponsible as drunk-driving (96) to dismissing them as “extraneous” to the underlying conflict (93) within the space of a seven-month period.
Perhaps the strongest indication that Friedman’s ego is out of control came in his 2002 collection of essays Longitudes and Attitudes. In it, he sought credit for the Saudi plan to establish relations with Israel in return for a withdrawal from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Friedman has convinced himself that the genesis of this initiative was a column he wrote on transforming Saudi Arabia “from terrorist factory to peacemaker”. Fernández derides this self-important twaddle by querying its pertinence: Friedman’s boast was pointless, given how he recognized that Ariel Sharon was determined to reject the Saudi offer (124).
My only complaint with this book is that it doesn’t go into much depth in examining how Friedman is symptomatic of a wider malaise in the mainstream media. A reader unfamiliar with the American press could come away with the impression that Friedman is a singular buffoon, when, in fact, his prejudices are shared by many of his senior colleagues. But that is a tiny gripe. I fully accept that this is a brief polemic targeting Friedman and does not purport to be the definitive history of an American institution.
Few books on current affairs merit being called page-turners; because of Fernández’s witty and punchy style, this one does. Her conclusion turns to the urgent task of developing a counter-narrative to that of Friedman and other writers who pander to a corporate and political elite. The healthy growth of alternative publications on the internet is certainly helping that task and hopefully this trend will continue.
Nonetheless, it is sobering to reflect on how Friedman remains something of a role model for aspiring journalists (at least, that is what I have gleaned from speaking to reporters younger than me). It is vital to explain that the high salary he commands is atypical of his trade and, the way newspaper sales are declining, is bound to become more so. Even more fundamentally, it is vital to ask whether or not Friedman can really be considered a journalist. Fernández indicates that he has essentially become a copy-writer for big business, the US military and the state of Israel.
Does America’s best-known columnist have trouble thinking for himself?
●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 4 November 2011.