Participants in a panel discussion sponsored by The New Republic and Saudi Arabia are claiming that their most hard-hitting criticisms of the kingdom were edited out of a transcript that appeared in the magazine.
Billed as an opportunity to talk about Islam and its contemporary relationship with the West, the November 13 panel discussion was the second in a series of discussions organized by the Saudi government and the magazine, known for its support of Israel and criticisms of Arab regimes. Panelists Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Jay Tolson, a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, told the Forward that they were surprised by the extent to which many of their criticisms of the Saudis were cut from a partial transcript of the event that ran as a four-page advertising supplement in the magazine’s December 15 issue.
“The major points were covered, but I think that they were able to gloss over some of the things that made the Saudis look bad,” Schanzer said.
New Republic editor Peter Beinart denied that the Saudis had any role in editing the supplement and pointed out that a Web address containing a copy of the full transcript was listed in the advertisement.
“All the panels are edited because you can’t possibly put up the whole transcript,” Beinart said. “They’re never edited for ideological content whatsoever. Only for space.”
The flap comes after initial news of the lecture series drew criticism in some circles. Some detractors focused on The New Republic’s decision to disinvite Stephen Schwartz, a leading critic of the Saudi government, from an October 2 panel discussion. Others objected to a respected American journal agreeing to co-sponsor a lecture series with a government accused by some critics of financing radical Islam and in some cases terrorism.
The third forum was scheduled for December 9 but did not take place. Beinart denied that it had been canceled, saying the event would be rescheduled for a later date.
Participants in the November 13 forum discussed the roots of the Wahhabi strand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, the teachings of the Koran, America’s support of authoritarian regimes and the Saudis’ role in promoting Islam as a political mobilizing force.
During the event, Samer Shehata, a professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, and author Natana J. De Long-Bas attempted to distinguish the Saudi royal family from the more extremist proponents of Wahhabist ideology.
Schanzer and Tolson, however, were critical of the Saudi government’s role in financing extremism. Schanzer pointed to the government’s continued support for the dissemination of Dar es Salaam Korans, which are published in Saudi Arabia and condemn Jews and Christians as nonbelievers, and then turned his sites on three American-based charities with Saudi connections that he accused of helping to fund terrorist attacks.
In the published transcript of the recent event, Schanzer’s accusation about Saudi funding for Hamas remained, but not his other criticisms regarding Saudi-linked charities. Similarly, Tolson’s description of Saudi Arabia as a society that denies women equal rights but enlists them to run between one-third to one-fourth of the small businesses in cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh was cut out of the transcript.
Beinart insisted that only space considerations were at work in the editing process. But such financial arrangements between publications and advertisers are bound to raise questions of editorial independence, said Aly Colon, a professor of ethics at the Poynter School for Professional Journalism.
For the past two years, The New Republic has held monthly public policy discussions in conjunction with business sponsors such as United Parcel Service, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the American Gas Association.
Through September The New Republic reportedly had suffered a 14.1% drop in advertising pages over the prior year. The magazine, according to the Mediaweek Monitor, an industry trade publication, entered into a mid-six-figure deal with the Saudi government in exchange for running 12 ad pages and four panel discussions.
As a result of such a deal, The New Republic runs a risk of having people question its overall credibility, Colon said. Readers often “know you by the company you keep.”