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.