NRC Handelsblad is arguably the most respected newspaper in the Netherlands. Hans Moll was an editor there for twenty years. He is now retired, and has a few things to say about what he experienced there.
In his new book, Verzwijgen als of het gedrunkt staat, of Hoe de nuance verdween: NRC Handelsblad over Israël, de Islam en het integratiedebat (How the Nuance Vanished: NRC Handelsblad on Israel, Islam, and the Integration Debate), Moll provides a very valuable document of our time: an insider look at the kind of day-to-day reportorial and editorial decision-making, in matters big and small, that leads a newspaper to convey a less than objective view of the world.
Moll’s accounts of his professional experiences do not necessarily apply only to his own former employer. Like many other “newspapers of record” across Europe and in the U.S., NRC Handelsblad leans to the left, and the stories Moll tells about his newspaper provide insight into the mentality of journalists and editors at elite dailies ranging from The New York Times to The Guardian to Le Monde.
Moll began as a freelance editor, and then a full-time editor, for NRC’s book section. Back then, in the late 1980s, he was proud to work for NRC, which he considered the summit of Dutch journalism. The newspaper once called itself “a whetstone for the spirit “ and prided itself on its objectivity and nuance. But no more. Its coverage, especially of Islam-related issues and of the Middle East conflict, has been increasingly one-sided. It is now distinctly pro-Hamas and anti-Israel. “If you’re seeking news about the misconduct of young Moroccan men,” laments Moll, “you must read something other than the newspaper NRC Handelsblad.”
In the offices of NRC’s book-review section, Moll tells us, there is a bookcase crowded with recently published titles. Most of them are books that reviewers aren’t interested in writing about, and that therefore can be taken home by anyone who wants them. After 9⁄11 and the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh, Moll grew increasingly interested in Islam in the West – and discovered many works on the topic in that bookcase full of discards. He found some of them “very interesting.” But why, he wondered, weren’t these books by people like Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Sam Harris, Roger Scruton, and Paul Berman not being reviewed? The answer soon became clear enough. These authors, according to his colleagues, were “neocons” – and, therefore, untouchables. When a fellow NRC reporter saw Moll with a copy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book My Freedom, he clicked his heels Nazi-style and, rendering the title in German, said, “Good book, huh – Mein Freiheit!”
At the other end of the NRC spectrum from “neocon” Nazis like Hirsi Ali are people like John Esposito, who was interviewed for NRC by its Middle East editor, Carolien Roelants, when his book Who Speaks for Islam? came out. Roelants identified Esposito in her piece as a professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University; what she omitted to mention was that he runs Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center, named for and funded by a member of the Saudi royal family. Moll notes that some might call Esposito a “’bought” professor; but Roelants appeared to be at pains to stress his supposed “neutrality.” As Moll points out, Esposito’s sanguine message about the future of Islam in the West is hard to reconcile with – among much else – 2009 survey results showing that one-third of British Muslim students consider it legitimate to kill in the name of Islam and that forty percent support sharia law in the U.K. But such information, Moll observes, has yet to make it into in the NRC.
Then there’s Israel. When a new synagogue opened in Amsterdam last year, Israeli Ambassador Harry Kney-Tal gave a speech in which he mentioned Israel’s shabby treatment by the media. He had sent a letter to the NRC about an article in which Israel’s founding was recounted entirely from a Palestinian perspective. Nowhere in the article, complained Kney-Tal, was there “even the slightest reference to the fact that the newborn Israel in 1948 was dealing with a war of extermination.” NRC never ran the letter.
Nor does one ever read on the front page of NRC about “Palestinian dignitaries, politicians and imams calling for the destruction of Israel.” While Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) reports almost daily online about anti-Semitic and anti-Israel “TV broadcasts, radio speeches, textbooks, plays, sermons and historical treatises” in the Palestinian territories – which teach “that the Protocols of Zion are authentic,” that “Israel spreads AIDS,” that “Jews are intrinsically bad,” that “Israel has no right to exist,” that “the Holocaust was an exaggeration,” that “terrorist attacks against women and children are warranted,” and that “children may commit terrorist attacks” – such news is not fit to print on the front page of NRC. Yet while it deep-sixes Muslim Jew-hatred, NRC eagerly declares Geert Wilders to be a hater of foreigners and attributes to Israeli parliamentarian Aryeh Eldad the view (which he has never expressed) that Muslims are not human.
Nor does NRC say anything “about the background of the Israeli blockade” – namely, that it was necessitated by attacks on Israeli targets by Hamas, a group committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. When NRC refers to Israeli figures, moreover, its way of identifying them almost invariably gives away the paper’s slant. In 2009 Moll read in NRC about an Israeli writer who, as he discovered through a quick Wikipedia search, described himself as “left-wing”; butNRC described him simply as “the writer Yossi Melman.” By contrast, when the same reporter, in the same column, mentioned Caroline Glick, he called her – absurdly, in both Moll’s view and mine – “the ultra-conservative columnist for the Jerusalem Post.” In NRC one can see Hamas and Hezbollah described not as terrorist groups but as “movements”; a 2009 NRC review of two books about Hamas contains no reference whatsoever to its anti-Semitism. And what of the notorious case of Mohammed al-Dura, in which France 2’s report on a Palestinian boy’s murder by the IDF was later shown by journalist Philippe Karsenty to be a hoax? NRC chose to ignore the evidence and stand by France 2’s story. Against the explicit opposition of the foreign desk, Moll managed to publish a review of the documentary The Child, Death, and the Truth (2009) by German journalist Esther Schapira – which marked the first time NRC chose to pay attention to this infamous incident.
Moll also writes about the now-infamous commentary, published in NRC on May 6, 2002, in which editor-in-chief Folkert Jensma viciously misrepresented Pim Fortuyn, then the leading candidate for prime minister of the Netherlands, as a racist, xenophobic threat to the Netherlands’ open society. That very day, Fortuyn was murdered in cold blood. Jensma did not learn his lesson. On October 2, 2010, he warned against “strong speakers” who preach discrimination. He mentioned no names, but he was clearly referring to Wilders. For Moll, the current philosophy of NRC is summed up in a single inane statement by Jensma: “It is the pride of the Netherlands that we believe one culture is not superior over the other.” On the contrary, insists Moll, it is the pride of the Netherlands that it possesses a “humanistic culture” that is indeed “better than those found in patriarchal, Islamic cultures where violence against women, Jews, and apostates is glorified.”
One story is this book is especially unsettling. Less than an hour after the slaughter of Theo van Gogh, Moll, was standing at the crime scene surrounded by horrified passersby. Next to him, a teenage girl of Mediterranean origin said with a laugh that van Gogh should not have insulted God. Moll decided not to quote her words in the article he wrote that day – perhaps, after all, she was just an isolated fool whose insensitive remark was not representative of anything. Yet within twenty-four hours after the murder it was clear that Bouyeri enjoyed widespread support among Dutch Muslims. Moll was reminded of 9⁄11, after which Dutch Muslims also celebrated in the streets. But “only a small proportion of these reactions make it into the newspaper….Nobody dares to suggest that there is broad support for such views.”
Such, more or less, is the editorial culture not only at NRC but also at many an elite left-leaning newspaper in the Western world today. This is why Hans Moll’s book is so important. If only some conscientious soul would quit the Times or the Guardian and give us an earful between hard covers, just as Moll has done! Memoirs by defectors from these institutions, if properly attended to, could go a long way toward demystifying the aura of authority and objectivity that, alas, so many of them still enjoy in so many quarters – and might actually immunize many otherwise intelligent and sensible people to their insidious propaganda.
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