The failure(s) of the New York Times

October 22, 2023 • 10:30 am

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.

16 thoughts on “The failure(s) of the New York Times

  1. Thanks I don’t read headlines but reporting with insufficient data or evidence is wrong. An editorial did point out issues in the area many miss but. I posted a note from Massimo Pigliucci on Cicero and need for facts and Epictetus to my Zionist friend
    Journalists should avoid to social media idea of news, itiyillstion.
    I’d rather be known as a skeptic.

  2. The Dispatch: “[The NYT] 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 …

    The two topics where it has the biggest bias of all these days, trans issues and race, are too “problematic” to even be mentioned here.

  3. This Substack by Nick Cohen, on the similar errors by the BBC, is worth a read. Quotes:

    “Hamas understood the first principle of propaganda: tell the suckers what they want to hear. People are most likely to believe lies when they want them to be true.

    “In the case of Gaza, some, by no means all I should say, but some liberal journalists were so uncomfortable with the sympathy for Israel after Hamas engaged in the largest slaughter of Jewish civilians since the holocaust, they yearned to see the score evened.”


    “Like a fool, I believed him. I grew-up in a 20th century Britain where it was inconceivable that a BBC reporter would deliver a judgement, straight to camera, that might incite anti-Jewish racism back home, without first checking whether it was true.”

    [The only bit where I disagree with Nick Cohen is his digs at Musk (“Elon Musk wants fake news”.) No, I don’t think he does, and this event illustrates why he is right to be suspicious of the mainstream media. Twitter was actually the best place to find early dissent from the NYT/BBC version of this event.]

    1. Twitter was actually the best place to find early dissent

      If you knew where to look…of course.

      The problem with Musk and his changes to Twitter, is that he has allowed bots, trolls, Kremlin/CCP-funded bot networks, and other bad actors, to purchase themselves the “verification” mark, which then boosts their reach.

      [The only bit where I disagree with Nick Cohen is his digs at Musk (“Elon Musk wants fake news”.) No, I don’t think he does

      Well, whether Musk does or doesn’t want fake news, he has implemented the conditions where it thrives on his network.

      1. Well yes, one does indeed have to evaluate the reliability of the sources one is following on Twitter, but that’s not such a bad thing. The point is that the traditional strategy of “trust the BBC and NYT” doesn’t work so well these days either, and having alternative sources available to be consulted is valuable.

        As for whether fake news “thrives on his network” or is worse than before, do we have hard data on this? The problem is that more-or-less all opinions on that come from pressure groups that are trying to push it one way or the other. One could also suggest that fake news now gets replied to by crowd-source scepticism more readily than it did.

    2. Twitter was actually the best place to find early dissent

      It’s also the best place to look to find pro Hamas propaganda.

      Early dissent is just as bad as early consent, if there’s no evidence to support the view.

      If you want a source that reports accurately based on evidence, Twitter is not it. Such a source id always going to be behind the curve in terms of breaking “news” because it takes time to uncover the evidence.

  4. See “Buried by the Times” in Wiki, which summarizes a detailed review of the NYT’s reporting during WWII: “Buried by the Times is a 2005 book by Laurel Leff. The book is a critical account of The New York Times’s coverage of Nazi atrocities against Jews that culminated in the Holocaust. It argues that the news was often buried in the back pages.” The book notes, inter alia, that the grey lady managed to cover the desperate revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 without mentioning that its inhabitants were, uhh, Jews. So the NYT’s slant re Israel is nothing new. I recommend The Economist, or a digest of multiple wire services (including Reuters), rather than the overrated NY rag.

  5. Hi
    No comments.

    Read please an article of Andrzej Koraszewski…
    We have a pandemic of hatred which never ends.
    I hope the new generation will be wiser…
    Best regards

    Stanisław Różewicz wrote:

    “knife should be cutting bread!”

    He survived the War,
    he knew better.

  6. At the risk of stretching da roolz, let me point out the delightful possibilities raised by the last two words of the NYT headline in question. In the late 1930s, we could have had headlines like this: “Fiendish Plot by Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Germany, and Britain Uncovered, Soviets Say”. In the 1940s: “Theresienstadt A Lovely Tourist Destination, Germans Say”. Last week: “Zemensky, Nazis, and NATO Working to Destroy Russia, Russians Say”. Tomorrow: “Hot Weather Due to Sunspots, Exxon Executives Say”.

  7. It has been the NY Times’s wont to employ the locution, “. . . according to sources familiar with the situation.” I suppose the Times felt it couldn’t get by with that this time.

  8. Whatever the NYT says has become irrelevant. They showed a photograph of a seriously damaged building, that was not that hospital, Which is profoundly unconscionable. And they hid behind ‘Palestinians say’ instead of ‘according to Hamas sources’. The NYT has lost even the tiniest sliver of credibility.
    I’m not a subscriber, but if I were, I’d ditch my subscription right now. I had some trust in the NYT as a source, but I’ll never take anything the NYT says seriously again.

  9. According to HonestReporting, one of the contributors (according to Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan) to the NYT initial article about the rocket attack is a certain Soliman Hijjy (also spelled Sulaiman Hejji) . He was recently re-hired by the NYT after being fired for posting pro-Hitler messages on social media.

    The NYT justified his re-hiring with this statement:

    ” We reviewed problematic social media posts by Mr. Hijjy when they first came to light in 2022 and took a variety of actions to ensure he understood our concerns and could adhere to our standards if he wished to do freelance work for us in the future. Mr. Hijjy followed those steps and has maintained high journalistic standards. He has delivered important and impartial work at great personal risk in Gaza during this conflict.”

    The HonestReporting article and link to a petition is here:

    1. Well, if that article emanated from Hijji, he should be fired again for being egregiously partial.
      And I particularly think the one who posted that photograph of a randomly destroyed building should be fired. As well as the redactor that allowed it without even perfunctory screening.

  10. I highly recommend this article on Israel and Palestine. It’s succinct and clear. Excerpt:

    “Even when the horrors of mutilation, rape, and hostage-taking are acknowledged, we are told that these events must be understood in their proper “historical context.”

    The problem with this argument is that the proposed historical context is selectively chosen. The Hamas attack claimed the lives of at least 1,300 Israelis, but its “root cause” was almost immediately attributed to “the occupation,” rather than to the doctrines of its participants. According to this narrative, Hamas is only reacting to life in the pressure-cooker of a besieged Gaza Strip. But placing the pogrom in the historical context of “the occupation” explains nothing unless “the occupation” is also explained in its historical context. Nor is the Israeli response to the pogrom properly contextualised in this explanation. No thought is given to the likely consequences of Israel not striking (or striking inadequately) at Hamas in response to the massacre.”

  11. Actually, the NYT’s overall coverage of Israel/Palestine and of contentious culture war issues is NOT completely monolithic. There have been very well-researched and insightful articles on trans issues, for example, as evidenced by the fact that GLAAD continues to demonstrate outside the NYT offices, accusing the NYT of being “transphobic.” On Israel/Palestine, today’s OpEd by Thomas Friedman is an extremely thoughtful exposition of the policy choices Israel faces now.

    The problem seems to be with the factual reporting of events as they have just happened, and with the editorial oversight of such reporting. In this area, where we expect the Times to be at its most accurate and objective, it consistently disappoints. Some reporters need to be disciplined and some editors probably need to be fired.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *