Quick thoughts on HuffPo & Arianna Huffington, because of a tweet.

Yesterday Arianna Huffington tweeted a ridiculously cloying aphorism. Being in a bad mood, I responded thusly:

Because, you see, Arianna Huffington built a media empire on the unpaid labor of a huge percentage of her content producers, and you know what? Wealthy, influential “Progressives” who build any part of their wealth on unpaid labor make me very, very angry. Because it’s wrong.

(Full-disclosure: My work has appeared on The Huffington Post, and I knew ahead of time that I would not be compensated. I agreed to those terms because the content was old and my reach is small, and I am beaten down enough to just be glad that it would get a broader audience).

My tweet got a bunch of RTs (for whatever that’s worth) and one person (only one) replied to tell me that I should Google HuffPo’s business practices going back nine years — that HuffPo employs paid journalists, and bloggers post “without expectation of being paid.” All of which is true. And yet. Aside from the fact that the dividing line between “journalist” and “blogger” isn’t actually a line (I’m a journalist who writes for blogs. What does that make me?), here’s how that whole “bloggers post without expectation of being paid” thing happened:

The world of print media was in the throes of a long, drawn-out wasting illness when it collapsed spectacularly in the spring and summer of 2008. This wrecked futures and ruined lives. People who had made their livings and used their hard-won skills to build careers slowly and carefully watched all of it crumble and fall, through no fault of their own.

People like Arianna Huffington (and there are a lot of them) recognized a depressed market, and, savvy business people that they are, understood that they could profit from the chaos. In Huffington’s case, she understood that she could profit financially and extend her cultural and political influence by exploiting the labor of people who had literally lost their means to make a living. Get lots and lots of hungry writers to agree to give you their skills, experience, and time in exchange for “exposure,” and your news outlet (and the full time journalists who you do pay) will have the constant churn of content required to keep it relevant and competitive in a market that demands constant churn.

This situation is now industry-wide, and I hate it no matter where I see it, because it is wrong.

It is wrong. It is wrong. Let me repeat myself: IT IS WRONG. It is wrong to make a profit off of someone else’s unpaid labor. IT. IS. WRONG.

But, as I say, the entire industry looks like this now, so it’s very hard to combat. Everyone publishing anything is doing so with on a very slim budget, and if you want to be able to compete, there’s only so far you can go in trying to stand up for what’s right. So of course there’s a sliding scale: Is your site largely an advocacy site and your writers are doing their work as a contribution to the cause and even the people making salaries aren’t getting rich? Well, ok. Is your site a small for-profit site, and you at least make a good-faith effort to pay folks a little something out of respect for their time and effort? Well, ok. (And I should note that I hold no anger, grudge, resentment, or even judgement toward the people actually employed by these organizations — they are not the problem).

But HuffPo (and the many other sites and online presences of dead-tree publications with similar business models, the names of which I won’t try to list now) fits in neither of those categories. HuffPo, with Arianna Huffington at its head, became a large, money-making venture with genuine sway over American culture, its uber-wealthy founder a player in national politics. So, a) it’s wrong; b) it’s a very bad look for an influential Democrat; and c) what this ultimately means is that HuffPo and its ilk are the Walmarts of publishing.

We lefties sure like to take Walmart to task for keeping wages down across the entire economy by virtue of it being the single largest employer in the country and paying its hungry-for-any-job employees terribly. What Walmart does literally affects mid-to-low-paying jobs everywhere, because it sets the bottom-line standards against which every other employer has to compete.

Which is precisely what HuffPo, et al, do when they continue the “bloggers who don’t expect to be paid” model. They perpetuate and deepen a terrible, unethical industry standard that writers (and photographers and artists and so on) should not simply expect to be paid for their work — that on the contrary, merely having one’s work used for someone else’s profit should be seen as recompense enough.

So yeah. If you’re a creative, ask yourself: Are you living your dream or are you living somebody else’s dream? Because unless you’re one of the relative few who’ve managed to get a decently paid full-time gig out of this (and confidential to my young writer friends: If you have a full time, professional job and still have to live with roommates — you’re not paid enough), then you’re living Arianna Huffington’s dream.

UPDATE: Please note Brian Spears’s comment below re: Huffington’s celebrity buddies, because that is absolutely part of the problem.

*correction: Thanks to my girl Minna’s eagle eye, I’ve corrected the spelling of Huffington’s first name throughout (this is what happens when you can’t afford a copy editor, amirite?)

** Please also note: It occurs to me that in my white-hot fury, I forgot to note that The Huffington Post was bought by AOL for an obscene amount of money a couple-three years ago. Which doesn’t change the basic point — AH made literally millions and millions of dollars off of that sale — but she’s not the one CURRENTLY exploiting unpaid labor. Just her name is.

Thing I would like to tattoo on Bill Maher’s forehead inre: Islam.


That in reply to this.

And if you’d like to see just a little of the endless stream of Muslim condemnation (to which no one seems to listen) of extremist violence, click here.

In case you missed it, here’s the memo.

Women, no matter how successful, powerful, or influential, must display their bodies for public consumption, and direct their gaze toward men.

Mika Brzezinski posing with Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough.

Mika Brzezinski posing with Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough.

There is a bright, shining line between the above, and Miley Cyrus’s routine at the VMAs (a bright, shining line that appears to have eluded Mika Brzezinski).

There’s a reason that the following picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono remains so odd, and so powerful.

lennon ono

Some thoughts on the Trayvon Martin verdict and Cory Monteith’s death.

trayvon-martin-2401) I was and remain absolutely gutted by the not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. Legal expert Andrew Cohen does a good job of explaining how the system allows such outcomes, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is right when he explains that “The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.” The death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, the death of 14 year old Damani Henard, the death of 22 year old Oscar Grant, the death of 17 year old Jordan Davis, the death of 13 year old Darius Simmons — these all reflect a society and a culture that have long demonized and dehumanized black people, warehoused many of them in conditions that breed despair, and then punished young black men for their own dehumanization. I cannot imagine what it was like to wake up the parent of a black boy on Sunday morning.

2) And that’s the thing: I really cannot imagine what it was like to wake up the parent of a black boy on Sunday morning. There is no way I will ever be able to feel that in my bones, never feel the resonance of history communal and personal, never know what it’s like to look at my beautiful boy and fear for his all-too American skin. I felt on Saturday night, as the news came out and the responses poured in, as if I were at a national wake, a national shiva call, that all I could do was bear witness and offer love. Mouth words that had no meaning and never could.

3) I suspect that Trayvon Martin would not want to be a symbol or have his name serve as a rallying cry. That he would rather fall in love, hang out with his friends. Eat those Skittles. But from this moment in American history, his death and his name will serve a national purpose, and if we work very hard, they will help us to perfect the union that failed him so badly. Trayvon’s death is bigger than him, because he is a portent of all that Andrew Cohen and Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about, and a symbol of that bone-deep fear that far too many of my fellow Americans feel when they hold their boys in their arms.

4) The Saturday death of Cory Monteith, who played Finn on Glee, is a tragedy of an entirely different nature. Without yet knowing what killed a 31 year old alone in a hotel room [UPDATE 7/16/13: The coroner has ruled that his death was a result of a “mixed drug toxicity” of heroin and alcohol], the fact of Monteith’s addictions and repeated attempts at recovery suggest a powerful, and for me, agonizing picture. I’ve lost people, nearly lost people, and lived with people in the throes of addiction, and there is nothing glamorous or entertaining about it. Cory Monteith’s death was likely the end result of some pretty horrifying struggles, and given his efforts to fight his demons, his famously sweet nature, how much I’ve cared for the character he brought to life and who now dies with him, and the reactions of millions of people who loved Finn and Cory, too (many of them kids who he had inspired to seek a better reality for themselves) — his death saddens me deeply.

5) Some have complained about Americans paying more attention to Monteith’s death than to the Zimmerman verdict, often complaining in a way that paints Monteith as privileged and spoiled, as if it’s his fault that Americans pay more attention to their TV than they do to social justice. And sure: He was privileged, as a newly-famous white man, and he was probably some kind of rich. He was well-known and well-loved. And none of that mattered in his final moments. If I’m right and the death was somehow addiction-related, Cory Monteith’s final moments were not privileged. They were awful. My hope is that whatever it was, it induced sleep, and the end was painless. But the steps that brought him to that end — those were not happy steps.

6) It is possible to mourn Trayvon Martin and Cory Monteith at the same time. It is possible to look at both deaths as tragedies, and to hope that neither man died in vain — that we will wrench some new kind of justice from our justice system, that we will find better ways to reach people who are held in their pain and their addictions. That we will give our children, ourselves, and our nation new tools, tools that keep more people alive and genuinely healthy.

7) If you don’t like the way that some Americans — millions of whom felt they “knew” Cory Monteith, after years of hosting him in their living rooms — are more focused on the death of a rich, famous actor than they are on that of the young boy who was just walking home, take that up with America. Don’t badmouth a dead man for how badly he timed his terrible death.

“We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them…”

mlk martyred children*

h/t profragsdale; for the full speech, click here.


Texas Senator Wendy Davis literally standing up for reproductive choice.

wendy davisI heard over the Twitter that Texas Senator Wendy Davis needs more material for the heroic filibuster she’s undertaken today in an effort to kill a really, really bad anti-choice bill that otherwise stands to be passed by the Texas state legislature, so I edited my now-thrice posted story of my own abortion. Following you can read what I sent – I hope it helps, but I really wish I could just go and stand in her place for a few minutes. I’m so grateful for what she’s doing – she’s absolutely an American hero.

She has to make it until midnight tonight, a little less than three hours from now – if you have a story you’d like to send, you can send it to Jessica Luther who is in Austin and will pass it on: luther [dot] jessica [at] gmail. (If you don’t live in Texas, just don’t mention your locale).

I’ve had an abortion. Have you?

The current legislative effort to essentially eliminate abortion in the state of Texas has generated a great deal of raucous argument; as usual, the argument suggests the existence of clear-cut opinion, the “supporting” or “opposing” of the act itself.

What is never discussed are the gray areas.

Of course, women within the reach of this story know their own answer to my question; what many of the men in their lives don’t realize is that they would be surprised by the truth.

Many men don’t know that their wives, sisters or mothers have, in fact, terminated a pregnancy. They don’t know because the women they love fear their response. Will he see me differently? Will he — figuratively or literally — kill me? Witness how shocking it was when Wyoming State Representative Sue Wallis, a Republican, disclosed her own abortion in 2011.

As a result of these fears we – as a nation and as individuals – largely don’t talk about abortion. And when we do, we’re often not honest. The shadow of perceived opinion is very long. Publicly we speak as if there were two clear positions — but in private, most of us know this isn’t the truth.

My abortion is a thing of which I’m neither ashamed nor proud. I wish that I hadn’t had to do it, but I did.

The average person might want to know why — because most of us have a sliding scale of morality. Even some staunch opponents will agree in cases of rape; others where there is genetic defect; a larger number, if the abortion takes place early in the first trimester; many, of course, think it’s always a woman’s choice.

I believe there is a vast middle ground made up of most Americans, those who feel abortion is neither irredeemably evil, nor free of moral implication. Witness polls conducted recently by the Pew Research Center: just over half of Americans think that abortions should be legal in all or most cases; 25% are willing to countenance the idea in very specific instances. Only 16% want to ban abortion outright.

At least some of our national ambivalence reflects more about our culture than anything endemically human: Japanese society, for instance, maintains a standard ritual, mizuko kuyo, to memorialize aborted or miscarried fetuses and stillborn babies. In a paper discussing the rite, Dr. Dennis Klass, a Webster University psychology of religion professor and a grief expert, writes: “The abortion experience is seen as a necessary sorrow tinged with grief, regret and fear which forces parents to apologize to the fetus and, thus, connect the fetus to the family.”

This describes my own experience well — but I’m an American. I carry a different culture, and I fear that in apologizing, I accept some notion of personhood that somehow “makes” the entire thing — murder. So, I hesitate.

I ask myself: When I aborted my first pregnancy, did I kill a baby? No. But did I stop the potential for life? Absolutely. Insofar as life itself is simultaneously the most mundane and most divine fact on our planet, this means something.

But I’m willing to say that I don’t know what that something is. I can only function in the cold reality of my own world — and as such, I alone can judge whether my abortion was a moral choice. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t happy, but it was the least-bad of two bad choices. It was moral.

I don’t know anyone for whom abortion is easy; I don’t know anyone (any woman, at least) who sees abortion as birth control. These choices are stunningly complex. When we deny that, when we talk as if we are all 100 percent clear on this issue, we deny our humanity. And we deny our grief.

And why, in the end, did I have my abortion? I’m not going to tell you that—as Rep. Wallis said in 2011, it’s “none of your damned business.” You and I don’t know each other, and my reasons are personal. I don’t need to defend them.

And neither does your neighbor, the stranger at work — nor, perhaps, your wife.


Bigotry is bigotry.


Wayne Brady at the AIDS Project Los Angeles’ annual AIDS Walk in 2006.

I like Wayne Brady a lot. I’ve liked him a lot since the first moment I saw him on Whose Line is it Anyway? (and am so happy he’ll be joining the show’s new incarnation this summer), and have continued to like him a lot in dramatic roles (the much-lamented Kevin Hill comes to mind), in self-effacing roles (thank you, Dave Chapelle) — hell, I even like the man in commercials. Between the singing, the dancing, the acting, and the comedy, he is a phenomenal talent and I will never understand why he isn’t more of a household name. Get on that America!

Ok, I think I understand part of why Brady isn’t more of a household name.

a) He’s a minority entertainer and (as a long list of minority entertainers can attest) while it’s hard for anyone to follow their passion, it’s even harder for people of color in the entertainment business, and b) he’s a black man who doesn’t present as angry or threatening or magical, and Hollywood just doesn’t know what to do with black men who don’t present as angry or threatening or magical.

Which is, in turn, why he’s often the butt of people’s utterly unimaginative jokes about non-threatening black men. Bill Maher, for instance, often uses the name “Wayne Brady” as a kind of shorthand for “black man who doesn’t fit the stereotype that I like to employ when talking about Real Black Men.”

Bill Maher, on the other hand, is a bona fide bigot, and of the worst kind — the self-satisfied, ostensibly liberal kind. The kind that thinks its ok to be a misogynist, or an Islamophobe, or to make sweeping and destructive statements about what Real Black Men are like, statements that traffic in the dehumanization of whole segments of society, because it’s just a joke. Or because any right-thinking liberal would hate Muslims, because, ewww Muslims, mirite? Because he’s high on his own fumes, basically.

So, to sum up: I really like Wayne Brady, and I really dislike Bill Maher.

Thus, when I saw that Wayne Brady was publicly responding to Maher’s bigotry, I was initially thrilled, because come on now. It’s enough already! Bill Maher is an uber-wealthy, influential, straight white dude happily ensconced in America’s entertainment elite — making jokes at the expense of anyone who is not in (roughly) the same position is ugly and lazy. Speak truth to power, Bill, I know you can! But stop using people as props in your apparently endless display of smug self-regard. Please.

And then.

Then I watched the interview Brady gave to Marc Lamont Hill on HuffPost Live, and here’s the thing. I’m with him — I’m so totally with him! — except for one thing. See if you can spot it:

When [Maher] starts to drag me in to use me as the cultural lynch-pin in his “[Barack Obama’s] not black enough” argument, that’s bullshit. Because a) Bill Maher has never walked in my shoes, nor in any black man’s shoes… Just because you’ve been with a black woman or two, and I’ve seen some of them, it’s questionable if they were women, just because you’ve done that…now you lived the black experience? Oh, now you’re down? No.

Dude, come on!

I do not know the black experience, male or female. But I know bigotry when I see it, and gay/trans*-bashing in the course of telling someone to drop their racist bullshit is just not ok. Not ok! Not even remotely, a teeny-tiny bit, ok.

I don’t get handed a get-out-of-jail-free card if I say something racist because I’m a woman and I’ve lived with misogyny; gay folks don’t get handed get-out-of-jail-free cards if they launch into a step-and-fetch-it act. And black comedians are no more handed get-out-of-jail-free cards for homo- and/or transphobic jokes than anyone else (not to mention the misogyny inherent in the quip. It was a very, very full quip).

Mr. Brady — you’re incredibly talented. Overwhelmingly talented. Gobsmackingly talented. Moreover, you’re absolutely right about Bill Maher, I know you’re on the side of the angels when it comes to LGBTQ rights, and I suspect you’re on the side of the angels when it comes to women’s rights.

But it is lazy, unkind, and bigoted to prop your laughs on sweeping and destructive cultural attitudes about Real Women, attitudes that trade in the dehumanization of LGBTQ people and What Real Women Should Look Like and Who Real Men Date. So please — stop. And if you have a moment, you might even apologize. Because aside from anything else, and not to put too fine a point on it, but stuff like that feeds into an atmosphere that literally gets people killed.

Acceptable alternatives. (Or: Please stop insulting my genitalia). (And yes: Here be curse words).

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:THATCHER_Margaret.pngMargaret Thatcher has died. I have a lot of opinions about Margaret Thatcher (aside from anything else, bear in mind that at the height of the AIDS crisis, I had friends who were sick and dying) but I have a pretty firm rule about not speaking ill of the dead in the immediate aftermath of their deaths. May those who loved Margaret Thatcher be comforted in this time of mourning.

However, lots of other people on my side of the political map will have lots to say, and one of the things they have already started to say is the word “cunt.”

And so I hereunder re-up my piece about using *ahem* certain words as insults (with a small edit or two to make it au courant). It might make you laugh! Who can tell.


Ok, I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it againandagainandagain. But.

Insulting someone with a word that is meant as a rude descriptor of female genitalia is





You know why it’s not ok?

Because it’s misogynist and lazy and unkind and sexist and dehumanizing and fucking wrong.

No, you may not call that right-wing nut-job a cunt just because she is a right-wing nut-job. Not even if you feel that she is an evil right-wing nut-job, not even if you feel that she is beneath all contempt and should be treated as naught but a grease stain on the fabric of life.

Because it is always wrong to insult someone by dehumanizing an entire class of human beings. 

Furthermore you may not call someone who is lacking in courage, or is perhaps weak, or is perhaps unwilling to face an unpleasant reality, or is just, bottom line, someone you really detest, a pussy. Not only because doing so indicates a gross misunderstanding of the relative fortitude of the various human genitalia (here, let Hal Sparks explain it for you), but mainly because it is always wrong to insult someone by dehumanizing an entire class of human beings.

I realize, however, that habits being what they are and human culture being a slow-moving thing, it may be hard to think outside the dehumanizing-women box.

“Why Emily!” you declare. “How can I insult the memory of a once powerful British Prime Minister and/or Ann Coulter without access to my words?! I need my words!!1!”

And to that I say: Heck, this is your lucky day!

The English language is positively chockablock with words! It’s so full of words, some folks have made dictionaries to hold ‘em all. No, I mean it!

Thus, as a public service, I offer hereunder a smattering of acceptable alternatives to the words “cunt,” and “pussy,” for all your insult needs:

Cunt – may I suggest: Asshole, assclown, asswipe, fucker, dung-beetle, bunghole, imbecile, putrid waste of human skin, reprehensible sociopath, evil-doer, psycho-hack, lying sack of filth, human dregs, piece of shit, or, indeed: naught but a grease stain on the fabric of life. If you’re on Twitter and character-count is an issue, may I suggest: Ass (not only does this simple yet elegant descriptor convey contempt, it even saves you an entire character!).

Pussy – here I humbly offer: Wimp, weakling, coward, quitter, failure, rat, gutless, gutless rat, worthless piece of spineless trash, fraidy-cat, scaredy-cat, feeble, or, if you’re feeling particularly fancy that day: Poltroon.

There! /dusts off hands/

You may want to print this out and carry it around in your wallet for easy reference; you may also find that a thesaurus is your friend. Either way, now you know: There are many acceptable alternatives to “cunt” and “pussy” out there. Go, fly, be free! Go find new words!

But if you call yourself a progressive and still want to cling to words that demean and belittle me, my daughter, my mother, my sister, and every single woman you know (including those who may not have been born with female genitalia but are nonetheless women)?

Then you had better check not your dictionary, but your own damn self.

/ellaesther out

On the evolution of the political class regarding marriage equality.

stonewall-300x202I’m seeing a lot of moaning, groaning, dismissal, and general snark about the fact that ALL OF A SUDDEN, it’s politically expedient for national politicians to say that they support marriage equality.

Coupla things.

First of all, these are politicians. These are people whose literal bread and butter rests in judging the public mood and working to achieve a political end which will enable them to continue to earn their bread and butter. For the most part, radical politicians don’t get remembered because they don’t get elected, and elected politicians who think outside their party’s box either have to walk very carefully and learn how to pick battles and balance needs, or they get primaried. You will recall that Barney Frank himself didn’t come out until he was already in the Senate House, and he reports that he “almost lost on suspicion.”

Second, this is how society goes. There’s a problem — A Big Problem — such as slavery, or women’s right to participate in the democratic process, or the denial of civil rights to LGBTQ Americans, and outliers recognize it before anyone else. They lead their people to freedom on dark roads, or they risk violence to go to Seneca Falls, or they build barricades outside the Stonewall Inn in heels and a feather boa, and they shout righteousness to the world. They shame us, so we ignore them, we demonize them, we try to silence them, we often try to kill them. We do this, again and again, with varying levels of violent intent, but even as we do, a few more people hear the shouts, a few more people see the humans doing the shouting, and a few more people come around. A little. They come around a little, and then a little more, and then they bring a few more people with them, because while they may not be shouting, they’re speaking, and now, now, now, the edges of the mainstream are talking and seeing the world in a different light, and the shouts and the speaking goes on, and now, now, now, the edges close in closer to each other and we still try to ignore them, and demonize them, and silence them, and we still kill them, but there are more and more voices, more shouts and more whispers and more people standing silent witness and now, now, now — the mainstream sees. The mainstream changes. The outliers, the freaks, the demons become the pioneers, the leaders, the role models. And now: That’s where we are. The mainstream has changed.

The world would be a better place if all people could equally value the shared human dignity of all people — but we don’t do that. We never, ever have. We have to be taught, again and again, not to hate (whatever the song from South Pacific might have us think). And the only way people will be taught, is if other people do it.

I’m not contained in any of the letters in “LGBTQ,” so if someone who is wants to tell me to take a seat, I will find a seat and take it. But for my money, this is not a day for snark, but a day for genuine joy — let us rejoice and be glad in it! (To borrow a phrase).

It is a fine thing when the bandwagon jumpers jump on the wagon of social justice. It is a fine thing when politicians begin to repeat the words that we’ve been saying for years. Evolution is a damn fine thing.

So rather than snark, maybe send a thank you note and a donation to GLAAD or Lambda Legal, or any of the folks who have been on the front lines all these long years, and will continue to be on the front lines, long after the rest of us (especially the straight of us) think we can sit back and don some laurels.

And allow yourself a smile. Because it is a fine thing to be alive at a time such as this.

How to put the Ethiopian-Israeli birth control controversy to rest.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Government_Press_Office_(GPO)_-_Ethiopian_immigrant_women_celebrating_the_Sigad_holiday.jpgLast week Haaretz corrected its reporting of a story I covered in these pages: Ethiopian-Israeli women have been saying for years that they’ve been injected with Depo-Provera (long-acting birth control) by state-mandated health providers without their informed consent. That story—recently investigated by Israeli television and carried by many other sources in addition to Haaretz—led to global controversy, including scattered and unfounded accusations of sterilization and/or genocide.

Under a headline that read “Israel admits Ethiopian women were given birth control shots,” Haaretz wrote on January 27 that:

A government official has for the first time acknowledged the practice of injecting women of Ethiopian origin with the long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera. Health Ministry Director General Prof. Roni Gamzu has instructed the four health maintenance organizations to stop the practice as a matter of course.

The next day, I wrote, “On Sunday it was reported that Israel has finally admitted to systematically depressing the fertility of the Ethiopian immigrant community…”

Haaretz followed up on February 28, reporting that the Health Ministry was launching an investigation into the practice, and last Wednesday appended a correction to that piece:

The original version [of this story] failed to state that [Gamzu’s] instruction was issued “without taking a stand or determining facts about allegations that had been made.

The upshot of this is that Haaretz made a mistake in its January report, one which I then replicated: The state didn’t “admit,” nor did a government official “acknowledge,” any responsibility for the allegations being made by the immigrants.

It is of course important to correct the impression that Israel acknowledged playing a role in this story, and as such, whether these events were systematic or haphazard is as yet unclear. If investigation reveals that there was no systematic effort, I will happily say so. If I’d known that the government had not acknowledged playing a role, I would’ve written my own post a little differently: “The government has acknowledged no fault, but activists and immigrants report that…,” for example.

The more important news here, though, is the actual reason for Haaretz’s follow-up—the Health Ministry investigation:

The [investigation] will check the reports that the women were given Depo-Provera shots to prevent pregnancy—often against their will and without being informed of potential side effects—in what was an allegedly deliberate effort to reduce births in the Ethiopian immigrant community.

The committee is being set up at the instruction of [Deputy Health Minister] Litzman, who had earlier denied that the phenomenon existed, after it was revealed by an Educational Television documentary by journalist Gal Gabai in early December.

Some followers of news out of Israel have seen last Wednesday’s correction as a vindication, suggesting that the entire story can now be seen as little more than an anti-Israel smear advanced by bad actors, and that potentially irreversible damage has been done to Israel because Haaretz wrote that a government office admitted to something to which it did not, in fact, admit—as if an official admission of culpability is the only valid source for the information at hand.

What these people are failing to note is that the source of the controversy is not one mistaken mischaracterization by one news source—the source of the controversy is the women themselves. As I wrote in January, many, many Ethiopian-Israeli women report being threatened or lied to about the Depo-Provera injections: “We didn’t want it,” one woman is quoted as saying in the February 28 article. “We refused and objected. We said we didn’t want to.” (More such comments can be seen herehereand here).

Thus, while accuracy is always important in reporting and Haaretz was right to issue the correction, what we really have here is a classic case of vulnerable citizens complaining of governmental abuse, their government denying that abuse, and a group of observers privileging the government’s version of events over that of the people complaining. It is precisely these kinds of stories that we pay journalists to cover; that’s why we call journalism the fourth estate.

We are right, of course, to take issue with those who characterized this story as one of forced sterilization or genocide. Controlling a woman’s fertility with long-term contraceptive drugs without informed consent is a terrible thing, but it’s a long way from forced sterilization.

But unless and until it’s established that the immigrants in question are lying, I will listen to the many women who say they were frightened or misled into accepting the administration of Depo-Provera. It’s my opinion that the stories of real women’s lives damaged by the acts of a few people in positions of power are more important than one newspaper’s (corrected) mistake.

If Israel wants to see this controversy put to rest, it will investigate these deeply troubling allegations thoroughly, and address any issues raised with transparency.

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