This week, the paper of record callously, and somewhat blithely, committed at least two grave journalistic errors in relation to Israel and Gaza. One, the hiring of an avowed Hitler-worshipper to cover a Middle East hotspot, has yet to be righted. The other, propping up propaganda that blamed Israel for last week’s deaths at a Gazan hospital, kept smears online for six days, unfixed, un-apologized for, unexamined and largely uncorrected, notwithstanding the white flag of an Editor’s Note that was finally posted this morning
I spent 27 years of my life at the New York Times and its brazen self-assuredness and moral blindness in moments like these is breaking my heart.
Let’s start with the Hitler-lover. News organizations face obvious challenges trying to report from inside a war zone, especially one as treacherous as Gaza. That was Hamas’s launchpad for the massacre it carried out on Oct. 7, as heartless as anything in the Holocaust, and it is the place where some 220 captives from Israel continue to be held as human shields. The last thing I want to see is the safety of the journalists who go after an important story endangered, so I understand the Times is in a ticklish situation here. Still, I’m not sure those practical concerns justify re-hiring someone to help cover a sensitive part of the Middle East, as the New York Times just did, a freelancer who has extolled Hitler more than once on social media. Or at least, might I say, not this week? Israel has not even identified, let alone buried, all 1,400 of its dead.
In fact, the sweet nothings that Soliman Hijjy, a videographer, left sprinkled on Facebook, such as “How great you are, Hitler,” prompted the Times to cut him loose just over a year ago, back when his adoration of the Fuhrer first came to light. But the paper has brought him back into the fold, relying on his news-gathering skills for at least nine articles published since October 12. Asked about this by Ira Stoll of the Algemeiner, who first noticed Hijjy’s reappearance in the credits, the Times acknowledged that Hijjy’s past social media posts had been “problematic.” But the paper maintained that it now had the matter under control. Without going into specifics, it noted in the statement it had taken “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.”
Amazingly enough, “Mr. Hijjy followed those steps and has maintained high journalistic standards,’’ the statement reported. “He has delivered important and impartial work at great personal risk in Gaza during this conflict.”
Translation: we need all hands on deck now, and if we had to pester people about everything they had posted online since they were ten or make them forswear Nazism and other noxious ideologies before we allowed them to help shape our news report, we might disappoint readers awaiting their daily fix of news.
So, quit asking about how the sausage gets made, unless you want to see more recipes and word games filling out pages where there should be news.
Journalistic “standards” are good things, I agree, as are second chances for people who have seen the error of their ways. But this statement is evidence of an elementary lack of standards, not the re-imposition of them.
Second, the hospital. In a world on edge, the importance of getting even small stories right, competition be damned, was on display again when a deadly hospital blast shook Gaza and the globe. It was a tragedy that deserved our attention and our understanding. But the story, with its competing narratives, morphed quickly into something that, in itself, seemed all too capable of inciting another world war.
President Biden was moments away from boarding Air Force One for Israel when the Times, citing the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, an extension of Hamas, issued an alert at 1:36 p.m. Eastern time that “an Israeli strike hit the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, killing at least 200 Palestinians.” That news flash came from Hiba Yazbek, a member of the Times’s Jerusalem bureau.
Iran and other provocateurs, inflamed by the mounting reports of a “massacre” and “carnage” at a Palestinian hospital—words the Times repeated over and over that day—then called for an unprecedented “day of rage” as a show of protest. Embassies had to be locked down. An historic synagogue in Tunisia was torched, and Harvard students led another protest against Israel ostensibly for killing what their organizers now claimed was 800 people at a hospital without mercy. Some of the sit-downs President Biden hoped to have with leaders in the region also got cancelled.
The Times threw a lot at the unfolding story, and its coverage often sets the tone, as we used to say, for smaller news outlets with less manpower. I understood the perverse reason why the story had such inexorable appeal. The gruesome scene at the hospital dangled the possibility that Israel had indeed committed a “war crime,” much as many in the press prophetically warned would happen given their distaste for Israel’s policies, and, in some cases, for Jews as well.
The New York Times I recalled from my years as a reporter and editor there had always recoiled from the use of what it called “loaded” language that hyped facts or encouraged readers to prejudge one party or another. Some editors even frowned on adjectives because they tended to be subjective. Yet, in this case, the paper’s updates had no qualms issuing a steady drumbeat of words characterizing the “attack” as “staggering,” “horrific” and “devastating,” and a possible act of “genocide.”
As many of us now know, the story was ass-backwards. Whatever damage had been done to people and property at that hospital had been done by a jihadist ally of Hamas resident in Gaza as well, when one of the missiles it was launching at Israel from Gaza fell back into the hospital’s parking lot.
More neutral language could have been deployed at the outset until the fog of war lifted, especially since there were ample hints in plain sight that journalists needed to proceed with caution on this one. From the outset, the Israeli Defense Forces pledged to investigate the incident. It insisted that hospitals were not military targets and it promptly shared with the world photographic evidence and intercepted audio exchanges supporting its contention that the blast emanated from one of Hamas’ allies, Islamic Jihad.
By then, I expected the paper to pivot. To my dismay, it greeted these cautionary signals about who was really to blame for the blast with more skepticism, clinging to the narrative that the Israeli military was behind the slaughter and downplaying evidence supplied by Israeli authorities as the fruit of a mere “two-hour review.”
Why, I wondered, were claims of nondescript Gazan “officials,” a euphemistic shorthand the Times used to describe its sources, given higher billing and more credence than the claims of on-the-record Israeli military personnel offering tangible evidence to back up their assertions? Much of Gaza’s infrastructure is run by Hamas, a terrorist organization, but for too many days, those affiliations were glossed over in the attributions shared with readers.
Pretty soon, I felt like I was watching a modern-day blood libel take shape before my eyes. Despite the Editor’s note the paper finally posted six days after the blast, acknowledging that its editors “should have taken more care with the initial presentation,” and recognizing that the “prominent promotion it received” in headlines, news alerts and social channels “left readers with an incorrect impression,” I remain fearful that much of what the paper of record published in the blast’s blurry aftermath, continuing to point blame in Israel’s direction for the hospital’s dead, will live on in the narratives and lies that have been used throughout history to justify hatred towards the Jews.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog said as much on his own Facebook page. “Shame on the media,’’ he wrote, “for swallowing the lies of Hamas and Islamic Jihad – broadcasting a 21st century blood libel around the globe.” Hell, even the Archbishop of Canterbury came out this weekend to warn that blaming Israel on this one could be tantamount to anti-Semitic libel.
It’s a safe bet that more people will see those early, erroneous dispatches laying the blame for the tragic deaths at Israel’s door than will ever see the later, smoothed-over accounts acknowledging that Israel was not the likely culprit. This is one of the many reasons why journalists covering important stories have a duty not to make a terrible situation worse through lack of care, haste or bias. Once unleashed, these stories do not go back into their bottle, and historic synagogues that have been smashed cannot be restored to their former glory.
It is not enough to paper over the mistakes later with laments such as the one that eventually popped up on the New York Times’ website about the “fast-moving” nature of war stories that make it hard for journalists to get these stories right amidst the chaos.
Once the Americans seconded the Israeli claims, the language in the New York Times’ news feed began to soften, but there still seemed to be a reluctance to trust the Israelis’ word on much, and the Israeli denials consistently got lower billing than the continuing allegations of mass murder from vague Palestinian sources.
One source, whom the Times characterized as a “journalist,” claimed to have been an eyewitness to the strike. Yet, the voice message he left for the paper referred to the dead by saying “martyrs are everywhere.”
Shouldn’t that word have served as a tiny tip-off that his observations might need more vetting? In this later article on Al Jazeera, the same online influencer stated plainly that he saw his role in Gaza as “communicating to the outside world what the Israeli army is doing in its aggression against us.”
Readers had to glean from dribbled-out updates that the “feared” death tolls that the Times had rattled off earlier in the day were quietly inching downward. Shockingly, even the contention that it was the hospital that had taken the brunt of the blow—rather than its outdoor parking lot—had to be walked back. That admission, though, only came a full day after the blast when the paper appended an odd, easy-to-miss, three-line correction to one of its updates.
It read: “An earlier version of this article described incorrectly a video filmed by a woman at the hospital after the blast. The hospital itself was not ruined; its parking lot was damaged most heavily in the blast.” Readers were left scratching their heads as to how such a mistake could even happen—except if they understood it could only have happened in the midst of an environment in which there is a mad race on to judge Israel as a nation with unclean hands.
As late as this weekend, after other news organizations had debunked the Palestinian propaganda, there were still some quarters inside the New York Times clinging to the—dare I say hope?—that the earlier narrative might have been right, and Israel was at fault. How else to explain the epistemological insistence in yesterday’s report that it “may be impossible to draw a definitive conclusion about who fired’’ the deadly blast without rocket fragments that Hamas, alas, has failed to turn over? Followed, of course, by the reference to “disputed claims of responsibility” in its Editor’s Note published today, October 23.
I know there will be some in my profession who will shrug off my comments as an example of someone minimizing unavoidable challenges of covering conflict zones or harping on a matter of little consequence from which the world should move on.
But journalists have a cautionary tale in one incident that helped kick off World War II, something Hitler used as a pretext to invade Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Hours earlier, German “news” reported that Polish insurrectionists had crossed over the border into Germany and had overpowered a radio station in Gleiwitz, before being subdued. The New York Times and other news outlets ran with the story, exactly as it was presented to them by Hitler’s propagandists.
Except the entire attack was a sham. As Ashley Rindsberg detailed it in his 2021 book, The Gray Lady Winked, the “insurrectionists” were really concentration camp inmates and undesirables whom the Nazis had dressed up to look like Germans before killing them. This shameless ruse carried out by Hitler’s thugs cleared the way for Hitler to charge that “Germany had been attacked” first and had now been compelled to defend itself, all to justify the murderous rampage he was about to unleash on Poland and Europe.
Bottom line: We all stand in the debt of courageous correspondents who pursue the most dangerous and searing wartime stories out there. But journalism’s warriors must stick to the facts and leave the making of propaganda to someone else.