I’m afraid I’ll be posting more about the war today—but from various angles. The angle here is the failure of the New York Times in reporting the war, and especially the explosion at Al-Ahli Hospital. The Times, relying entirely on information from Hamas and its agencies, published an initial headline (see here and here), “Israel strike kills hundreds in hospital, Palestinians say.” Yes, they did qualify it with “Palestinians say,” but those Palestinians were in fact Hamas, and it’s simply not kosher to implicate Israel in a headline like that, regardless of what “Palestinians say.” Nor did the NYT note that Hamas and the Palestinian media simply can’t be trusted to give an objective view of what happened.
Now we know that in all likelihood the “Israel strike” was a misfired terrorist missile whose parts and fuel landed in the parking lot of the hospital. This is the result of many independent news sources and analysts, the latest being CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Nor do we know how many people were actually killed or wounded.
This kind of journalism is inexcusable, and I attribute it to both the NYT’s well-known bias against Israel and its credulousness in accepting the claims of terrorists as “news.” Its reporters on the crisis are often people who we know from elsewhere are Israel haters.
The article below, from The Dispatch via yahoo! news, is an excellent analysis of what went wrong with the NYT, and with the media in general, as instantiated in reporting the hospital explosion. I’ll just give a few quotes, and you can judge for yourself. Click on the screenshot to read: No author is given although the writer uses the first-person “I”. Kudos to him or her, anyway.
As we discussed on a recent episode of Dispatch Live, the Times does great reporting on any number of important subjects, but it also has real problems when it comes to a handful of very big issues: Israel and the Middle East, the so-called social issues in domestic politics (notably sexuality and guns), and religion—especially in traditional, conservative, orthodox forms. The Times knows this. When he was executive editor, Dean Baquet observed that the paper and its New York- and Washington-based peers simply “don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.”
They don’t get religion, but they clearly think they must impart it to the reader, most recently evidenced by Anglican pastor Tish Harrison Warren’s endless series of tedious and banal columns about how Jesus can make things better. (Fortunately, the paper gave her the pink slip not long ago.)
But on to the Gaza incident:
The Times’ account of the Gaza hospital explosion was headlined, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.” The truncated version that initially appeared on Google News and in many social media posts even omitted “Palestinians say.” But “Palestinians say” isn’t the kind of cover the Times editors seem to think it is. For one thing, it may very well be the case that there was no Israeli strike and no hundreds dead, and you need more than a “sources say” to hang an airstrike on. “Please note it did not read ‘Missile Strike Kills Hundreds at Hospital; Investigation Ongoing,’” Commentary’s John Podhoretz wrote. “The formulation of the headline sentence was designed to make Israel the motive actor, even if the final clause acknowledges it as a Palestinian claim.”
The formulation also raises the question of which Palestinians? In this case, the source was a health ministry in Gaza controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization that is not exactly known for being scrupulous with the truth. The Times headline appeared over a photo of a wrecked building that most readers would conclude was the hospital in question—but it wasn’t. The actual site of the explosion seems to have been the parking lot at the hospital, and experts looking at the evidence have cast doubt both on the claim that the damage was the result of an Israeli bomb or missile strike and the claim that nearly 500 people were killed.
The Wall Street Journal offered this headline, later updated: “U.S., Experts Cast Doubt on Palestinian Claims of Israeli Strike on Hospital; analysts say deadly explosion was more likely due to misfire by local militant group, but anger in Middle East builds.”
Every newspaper—and every reporter—makes mistakes. If you aren’t running regular corrections, you probably aren’t doing enough work. But genuine errors are random. When the errors follow a particular pattern, generally run in the same way, and almost always serve the political interests of one of the involved parties in the controversy being covered, that is bias. And if it seems to you like the Times’ Israel-Hamas coverage takes a distinctly sympathetic view of Hamas and a distinctly hostile posture toward Israel—especially when Israel is being governed by a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu—then there’s a reason for that.
The last paragraph is telling. The Times‘s reportage of news generally leans the same way: against Israel and for Palestine, despite some initial honest reporting about the October 7 massacre. But that has given way, in the paper and among the mainstream media in general (and among the “progressive” American Left), to article after article about Palestine and the humanitarian crisis that, everyone says, is solely the fault of Israel. (I deplore the “siege” and favor immediate aid, but worry that relief will go into the hands of Hamas.) The hostages and the butchery have been forgotten.
Here’s some straightforward writing, which makes me want to know who wrote this.
If the Times gets so easily wrongfooted by this kind of amateur-level disinformation—similar claims of official atrocities while at war have been a staple of martial propaganda for centuries—how is it going to deal with the avalanche of radically more sophisticated and voluminous disinformation that is headed its way? I am a Times subscriber, and, like many other readers, I do not count on the Times for a neutral or unbiased account of hot-button issues, but I do count on being able to assume that events I read about underneath that big blackletter “T” are things that actually happened. That is not the same as things Hamas claims have happened. This matters, because the Times does enjoy that prestige I mentioned above, and for that reason, it has real power to shape readers’ understanding of public events—well beyond its own pages.
And, the ending:
Among newspapers, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have names that mean (with apologies to my friends at both papers) almost as much as that of the New York Times, and there are a few non-U.S. players that have something like the necessary standing, the Financial Times and the Economist prominent among them. And, of course, ultimately the work will fall to more than one institution—specialization will be necessary and desirable. But we need somebody to do what the New York Times pretends to do, promises to do, and, more often than critics might admit, actually does. Like Congress, the New York Times suffers from an excess of self-importance and a deficit of self-respect, both of which undermine its ability to do its job. And the job needs doing.
I have little hope that the NYT will shape up. It didn’t even apologize for its initial misreporting, but simply imputed its changing headlines to “changing claims”, not to its initial reliance on a palpably unreliable source, known for its lies and hatred of Jews. The paper slowly and gradually corrected its headlines, but the damage was done: people believed the first version and, I think, this contributed to riots in the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East.
I no longer pay to get the NYT as our library offers it for free, and I do rely on it, but it could do a lot better, starting with eliminating its bias in reporting.