Vanity Fair reveals secret discussion at the NYT about using Hamas sources for headlines: “hedging” versus “attributing”

October 26, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Of all places, Vanity Fair has a short but interesting discussion of the New York Times headline fracas! You may remember that when there was an explosion in a Gaza hospital on October 17, the NYT reported what Hamas told it: first that there was an Israeli airstrike and then, when that became less credible, the paper still reported a highly inflated death toll given out by the Gazan Health Ministry, which is of course a mouthpiece for Hamas. Finally, the paper just said there was an explosion with 500 dead (an overestimate, it turns out), and, days later, the paper sort of apologized for its coverage.

Here’s the series of morphing headlines from The Free Press. These weren’t innocuous, because the acceptance by the “best” American newspaper of Hamas’s lies helped set off a conflagration in the Middle East, a conflagration that led to the canceling of a summit meeting between Biden and Abbas, as well as to riots throughout the region, including the West Bank:

As of today, the figures for the dead are anywhere between 100 (from the article below) and 470, with Hamas providing the higher figures. The actual number could be below 100. It’s sad, of course, but it’s not the fault of the Israelis. Pin this one on terrorists killing their own people.

Click below to read about the scuffle in the NYT newsroom over the headlines.  Vanity Fair somehow got hold of the discussion group among NYT staffers on a Slack account. (I’m sure there’s a lot of leaks in these discussions). I’ll give excerpts from the article (indented):

From the article:

A series of Slack messages obtained by Vanity Fair shows there was immediate concern inside The New York Times over the paper’s presentation of the Gaza hospital bombing story. But senior editors appear to have dismissed suggestions from an international editor, along with a junior reporter stationed in Israel who has been contributing to the paper’s coverage of the war, that the paper hedge in its framing of events.

Here’s how it went, with the more careful staffers warning about using Hamas as a source, but the journalists eager for a story (and one that blames Israel) insist that they’re not going to “hedge” the headline. Wanting to “hedge”, means not being so blatant about the headline, and the “hedgehogs” were opposed by the “attributors”: those who wanted a bold headline but with “Palestinians say” as the attribution, or source. More:

On the afternoon of October 17—shortly after the Times published its first version of the story, with the headline, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinian Officials Say”—a senior news editor tagged two senior editors on the Live team and wrote, “I think we can be a bit more direct in the lead: At least 500 people were killed on Tuesday by an Israel airstrike at a hospital in Gaza City, the Palestinian authorities said.”

One of the tagged Live editors replied, “You don’t want to hedge it?”

A junior reporter for the Times who has been covering the conflict for the paper from Jerusalem chimed in: “Better to hedge.”

The senior news editor replied, “We’re attributing.”

The exchange took place in a Times Slack channel called #israel-briefings, which hundreds of journalists have access to. Vanity Fair is withholding the names of the Times staff involved at this time. The Times declined to comment on the Slack messages.

A few minutes later, a senior editor on the International desk wrote in the same Slack channel, “The [headline] on the [home page] goes way too far.”

A second senior news editor asked, “How is it different than the blog hed,” referring to a headline in the paper’s live-blog format. “They both say Israeli strike kills, per Palestinians.”

“I think we can’t just hang the attribution of something so big on one source without having tried to verify it,” the International editor said. “And then slap it across the top of the [home page]. Putting the attribution at the end doesn’t give us cover, if we’ve been burned and we’re wrong.”

Then a second senior editor on the Live team replied to the International editor, asking them to confer with a senior Standards editor. “This was discussed with a bunch of people,” that second senior editor on the Live team noted.

The apologia took more than a week.

This is not how a newspaper should be operating, and I applaud the International editor (I guess you could identify who it was), who said, “I think we can’t just hang the attribution of something so big on one source without having tried to verify it, and then slap it across the top of the [home page]. Putting the attribution at the end doesn’t give us cover, if we’ve been burned and we’re wrong.”

But the hedgers won because they were Senior News Editors. I wonder if they’ll fire them, as they fired James Bennet, the editor of the NYT Opinion section, simply for publishing an editorial by a conservative Senator calling for the military to brought in to quash protests against police violence in American cities.That was said by black Times staffers to have created an “unsafe environment,” which of course was a bogus claim.

To my mind, publishing that opinion column was what the paper is supposed to do:  giving debatable views on diverse issues. In this case they took the word of a terrorist group to produce a clickbait headline. They apologized for that, but didn’t apologize for firing Bennet.

But if any media company is worse than the NYT in its Israeli coverage, it’s the BBC. The Vanity Fair article discusses its coverage, too, along with some others who jumped in too fast:

The BBC has also issued a mea culpa for its coverage of the immediate aftermath of the explosion, as a correspondent for the news channel, while emphasizing they had yet to verify who was behind the blast, suggested it was “hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli air strike or several air strikes,” based on his experience as a reporter in Gaza. “We accept that even in this fast-moving situation, it was wrong to speculate in this way about the possible causes and we apologize for this, although he did not at any point report that it was an Israeli strike,” the BBC wrote in a statement last week. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported Monday evening that other outlets that gave credence to Hamas’s version of events have either remained silent (The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, the Associated Press) or admitted no fault in their coverage of the blast (CNN, Reuters).

The Times’ own Opinion columnist, Thomas Friedman, said his paper made the wrong call on a podcast last week. “Islamic Jihad may have achieved its greatest PR victory in this world by blowing up its own hospital—inadvertently, by the way. By all evidence, they launched part of a missile barrage toward Israel, and as often happens, one of their rockets failed and landed in the parking lot of this hospital,” Friedman, who is among the US media’s leading voices on the Middle East, said on the paper’s Matter of Opinion podcast last Friday. “It immediately went around the world, headlines everywhere—Israel attacks hospital—including in a newspaper that we know very well. And by the time the truth had a chance to put its shoes on, this inflamed the entire Arab world.”

I have to say that since the war started, my trust in the “objectivity” of some media, especially the NYT and BBC, has waned considerably.

23 thoughts on “Vanity Fair reveals secret discussion at the NYT about using Hamas sources for headlines: “hedging” versus “attributing”

    1. The NYT piece analyses the Al Jazeera video. There are other videos, for example the one in this Tweet.

      It is taken from immediately North of the Gaza strip (you can see the walled border) looking South at Gaza City. You see a barrage of rockets fired East across Gaza towards Israel. Then you see the explosion, along the line of the rocket barrage. It’s too much of a coincidence for this to be anything other than a failed rocket (or part of one) from that barrage.

      Edit to add: in fact, if you watch carefully, you can see that two of the rockets seem to be slower and on a lower trajectory than the others. The trajectory and timing seem right for one of those to be the one that hit the hospital.

      1. Canada’s military intelligence has independently analyzed all the information available to it as a Five Eyes member, as I posted the other day. There were no Israeli “air assets” airborne in the area and no radar signatures to indicate launch of Israeli ordnance. An Israeli strike is ruled out with high certainty in their opinion and our Minister of Defence has endorsed the report. The leader of our government (and his Palestinian rump) would have loved to have something “both-sides”-y to pin on the IDF but the professionals in our military didn’t give him even a scrap.

        The professionals agree with you all that the explosion was most likely from a rocket fired from inside Gaza. It would take physical inspection of the site to rule in which jihadist faction launched it. Recall that 20% of these crude rockets fall short and many cause casualties in Gaza.

        It doesn’t matter to me what the NYT says now.

        FWIW, Hamas could have paraded fragments pulled out of the “hundreds” of dead people to “prove” it was an Israeli weapon if they wanted to. I guess they can’t even be bothered.

  1. I hope no science editors who eXtweeted about that NYT article got fired by their journals – or, maybe they had it coming like, oh, I don’t know, an eLife editor maybe his name is Michael Eisen or something but it was The Onion.

    Nothing to do with the article, see – the demiurge was harming everyone.

  2. I will point out that several people in the former “skeptic” movement eagerly jumped to the same conclusion as the NYT. As far as I can tell, they all stand by the original claims. These include:

    PZ Myers
    Dan Arel
    Ryan J. Bell
    Marcus Ranum (blogger at FTB)
    Peter “Humanisticus” Ferguson
    + plus countless commentators at FTB.

    Meanwhile, Hemant Mehta has been very quiet about it all. Sure, if Richard Dawkins says something true, he starts ranting, but on the issue of the biggest massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust, at the ends of Islamofascists, he is still mumbling about some obscure American preacher.

  3. I’m teaching a mass media course for upper-level undergraduates in the spring. I’m using this story and your commentary as one example illustrating the issue of waning trust in news media.

  4. I have to say that since the war started, my trust in the “objectivity” of some media, especially the NYT and BBC, has waned considerably.

    Red pill time*? Once you take the pill there’s no going back.

    *From Wikipedia: The red pill and blue pill represent a choice between the willingness to learn a potentially unsettling or life-changing truth by taking the red pill or remaining in the contented experience of ordinary reality with the blue pill. The terms originate from the 1999 film The Matrix.

  5. Just throwing out some numbers for comparison in case of any use in tackling Palestine boosters: The number of people in Lewiston killed by that [apparently deranged] shooter, 18, vs. the population of the state, ~1.4M, is vastly exceeded by the number of Israelis massacred by Hamas, ~1400, vs. the population of Israel, ~9.4M.

    1. I actually expected Israel’s population to be larger. 9.4M is about 10% less than the population of Sweden, and 20% less than Haiti.

      Otherwise, WordPress mysteries discovered by accident. I have to manually enter my username and email anymore. The first one I start on – doesn’t matter which – will auto-prompt after the first letter or two, but the second one insists that I enter the whole thing, UNLESS I backspace after the first few letters. THEN it auto-prompts.

  6. From what basement woodwork did those senior editors crawl. Very dismaying.
    Now have they learned a lesson? Or just ducked away until the next hospital or kindergarten is hit by Hamas rockets? Who’s the chief editor that could fire them?

  7. “I have to say that since the war started, my trust in the “objectivity” of some media, especially the NYT and BBC, has waned considerably.”
    Welcome to the rest of the world. Some of us have been here for a lot longer. I’m close to a decade myself.

  8. This is quite discouraging but, as others have noted, the deterioration of journalistic standards and methods has been going on for years at the Times. This circumstance I attribute directly to A. G. Sulzberger and the board of directors; it starts at the top. This doesn’t mean that the situation is irreversible, but for me it does mean that Sulzberger would need to go before any possibility of improvement could be expected.

  9. The word “genocide” is often used to describe Israel’s actions in Gaza. Here’s what has happened to the population of Gaza since 1960.

    1960 207,000
    1970 340,000
    1980 460,000
    1990 650,000
    2000 1,300,000
    2010 1,600,000
    2023 2,300,000

    The Palestinian authorities estimate the population in 2030 will exceed 3 million.

    1. The misuse of the term “genocide” in this context (and also by trans rights activists) is an insult to those actually massacred in actual instances of genocide, not least, of course, the Jews (but also Armenians and Rwandans and others).

    2. I think that an absolute precondition to achieve peace in the Middle East is to dismantle the UNRWA and any other organization that funds the Palestinian out-of-control breeding.

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