Journalist Michael Kinsley once famously defined a gaffe as an instance “when a politician tells the truth–some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s recent reference to the “occupied territories” would certainly qualify; the supposedly straight-shooting Republican’s quick apology shows that you’re not supposed to say certain things.
At March 29 event sponsored by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, Christie said this in describing a recent visit to Israel:
I took a helicopter ride from the Occupied Territories across and just felt personally how extraordinary that was to understand, the military risk that Israel faces every day.
By many media accounts, the crowd was stunned. After hearing from some of those in attendance, Christie apparently apologized personally to Adelson (Politico, 3/29/14).
But a media that bolstered Christie’s image as a tough-talking truth teller sure didn’t seem interested in his bizarre walkback.
In reality, the West Bank remains under Israeli occupation; though the term is not used all that often in the media anymore (Extra!, 1/01), it is perfectly correct to refer to the Occupied Territories. But the media reaction to the whole thing is downright bizarre–as if Christie had uttered a forbidden phrase. A Los Angeles Times story by Maeve Reston (3/29/14) put it like this:
Christie’s mention of a helicopter flight over “occupied territories” –terminology used by Israel’s critics –during his trip to Israel sent murmurs and whispers of surprise through the conservative audience.
But calling the West Bank occupied isn’t “terminology used by Israel’s critics”–it is a totally factual way of describing reality. As Annie Robbins of Mondoweiss (3/30/14) pointed out, the US State Department calls the West Bank occupied. As does the American Jewish Committee (6/6/12), even when it’s criticizing boycott campaigns against Israel.
Some of the other media reactions were less about the facts and more about the PR. Fox News Sunday (3/30/14) viewers saw this bizarre exchange between host Chris Wallace and Ron Fournier of National Journal:
FOURNIER: We saw a big mistake yesterday. If he was just focused on running for president, would he have talked about the occupied territories in a pro-Israel group like he did yesterday?…
WALLACE: He was in Las Vegas meeting with Sheldon Adelson and a number of other big Jewish contributors and at one point he talked about flying over the Occupied Territories, which implies that Israel is occupying parts of the West Bank or Gaza.
FOURNIER: It doesn’t imply–it says that.
WALLACE: Yeah, right. And that is not something that a lot of Jews like.
It’s not clear where Wallace gets the idea that most Jewish Americans reject the term “Occupied Territory”; 61 percent of Jews say they believe a Palestinian state could exist peacefully alongside Israel (Pew, 10/1/13), which suggests that most don’t see Israel holding the territories permanently.
BURTON: If you look at what happened in Las Vegas where he referred to Palestine as Occupied Territories, I mean, that’s the sort of thing that shows that he’s not on top of his game like you need to be when you’re a presidential candidate.
CROWLEY: Right, but he’s not in a presidential…. I mean, they are all going to make really stupid mistakes, which that was one.
So a CNN journalist thinks using an accurate description of the West Bank is “really stupid”?
He immediately goes to the Republican Jewish Coalition and talks tough, and then says something about Occupied Territories, which kind of gets him in trouble. But that has always been his stock in trade: “I am the tough talker, I’m going to tell you the truth.”
To the extent that something interesting happened here, it’s not that Christie said something that upset “a lot of Jews” or that he “got in trouble.” Contrary to Ifill’s analysis, Christie apologized for telling the truth.
The episode tells you something about the power of GOP donors like Adelson to get a politician to apologize for saying something true, and it might suggest that the media-manufactured image of Chris Christie might not have much to do with reality. Neither of those conclusions seem particularly popular with the media.