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Acts and Omissions: The NYT’s Flawed Coverage of the Gaza Protest

Photo by Matthew Hutchinson | Public Domain

The New York Times is justly renowned for its news reporting.  Its articles and headlines are generally accurate and insightful.   Yet its recent coverage of the Gaza March to Return protests appears deeply flawed.

In the past I would have voiced my complaints to the Times’ Public Editor. Unfortunately, however,  the newspaper eliminated that watchdog position last year.  So I turned by default to the person with overall responsibility for news reporting: Executive Editor Dean Baquet.

Because the Times’s articles referenced in my letters below contain some misstatements, inaccuracies and serious omissions, I felt it important to raise questions about journalism quality with Mr. Baquet, the person with overall quality control.  The relevant parts of my letters are reproduced below.

Re: “Israel Kills Dozens at Gaza Border as U.S. Embassy Opens in Jerusalem,” May 14, 2018, and “After Deadly Protests, Gazans ask: What Was Accomplished,” May 18, 2018.

+ Why the several references to a “border fence”?   The fence is not a border between countries, but rather an enclosure of two million people in an open-air prison (along with air and sea blockade).

+ Why the insistence that Hamas “organized the protests”?  Several on-the-ground observers called the protests mostly unorganized and the huge turnout largely spontaneous– with Hamas merely adding its encouragement and support. The “March” revealed a blockaded people expressing extreme desperation.  Is that the impression a reader would take away from the two Times’ articles?

+ Why did reports of the May 14 violence fail to mention the targeting of journalists and medics.  A wounded Canadian doctor reported on Democracy Nowthat one of his colleagues was shot dead while aiding an injured protester and that another 18 (including himself) suffered bullet wounds.

+ Why no specific reference to IDF use of exploding bullets?  The Times’ account says only that “some of the exit wounds from Israeli ammunition were ‘fist-size.’”

+ Why no mention of international law limits when your reporter quotes the hasbaraline that Israel has the “right to defend itself?”  Under international law, Israel had no legal right to use any lethal force against unarmed protestors.

+ Regarding the U.S.’s illegal move of its embassy to Jerusalem, why no reference to UN Security Council Resolution 478 (which reiterated the international status of Jerusalem and declared it off-limits to foreign diplomatic missions)?

+ In quoting an Israeli spokesperson that “Palestinian fighters were carrying firearms,” why did your reporters fail to ask why were there no Israeli casualties in the six weeks of protest?  If violence had been the object of the Hamas, why were there no rockets to accompany the demonstrations?

+ What evidence was offered to support your quoting of Israeli security forces that “some of the Palestinians who were killed had been armed with semiautomatic rifles?”

+ What basis did your reporters have for saying “Israel said the protesters were being use as cover by militants who intended to attack its soldiers and nearby communities”? The fact that some of the protesters killed may have been members of Hamas is irrelevant.

+ Why does the Times often refer to Hamas as a “terrorist organization?” If an organization that encourages its followers to lob stones and fire balloons is “terrorist,” what should  the IDF be called when it’s snipers fire exploding bullets on a peaceful crowd?

Re:  “Israel Calls Medic’s Killing Unintentional, ” June 6, 2018

The subject article is another example of bias toward Israel in your news coverage of the Gaza March to return protests.  The article:

+ Quotes Israeli official accounts of the killing three times, without citing any Palestinian accounts.

+ Fails to mention evidence from the chief medical officer of the as-Shifa Hospital in Gaza that Razam’s wounds were caused by exploding bullets.

+ Quotes the Israeli military as saying only “a small number of bullets were fired” by its soldiers. If so, how do Palestinian casualties in Gaza number (through yesterday) 123 killed and approximately 13,000 wounded?

+ States as fact that “Most of those killed on the Gaza side were shot by Israeli forces.”  If that were so, how did the others get killed.

Why does the Times regularly rely on the Israeli military and other official spokespersons for facts?  Don’t you have your own correspondents on the scene who can report on what they observe?  If not, why not?

Why do your reporters not reference the applicable international law for using lethal force?  Americans need to know the legal responsibilities of the parties.

Re: Israel Portrays Medic As an Agent of Hamas” June 6, 2018

The main problem with the journalism of this article is not so much its content but rather the headline.  Readers who get their news from headlines (as I often do) may conclude that Rouzam al-Najjar was a militant.  Shouldn’t the headline have highlighted conflicting stories about the shooting, in line with the article’s content– rather than once again repeating the official Israeli line?

A nagging question I forgot to ask in my earlier messages:  Ms. al-Najjar was killed on Friday, June 1.  Why did the Times delaying reporting her death until Wednesday, June 6?

Re: “At Gaza Protests: Kites, Drones, Gas, Guns and the Occasional Bomb,  June 8, 2018

+ Why did you feel it necessary to assign your reporter to a day with the Israeli military given the voice your reporters have already given to Israeli military spokespersons?

+ Why did Mr. Halbfinger pay so much attention to “smoldering fields” and “scorched earth” as if to say such “damage and destruction” fully justified the killing of 120 plus Palestinians and wounding 13,000 more?

+ Was your reporter certain that the “plumes of smoke” close to Israel’s fence was from farmland rather than from burning tires on the Gaza side?  The photos with the article are unclear where the smoke came from.

+ Did Mr. Halbfinger really see “repeated attempts to inflict harm on the Israelis?”  Did he observe soldiers being fired upon  and bombs or grenades hurled?  From the text I infer that such incidents came from the mouths of “military officials” rather than from the reporter’s own observations.  Yet readers would be inclined to take these reports as facts.

+ If there was such violence from the Gaza side as Mr Halbinger reports, why no Israeli casualties?

+ When your reporter says: “Soldiers chased them [“scores of Palestinians”] in jeeps and we heard a half-dozen live rounds,” he implies that the shooting came from the Palestinians when it more likely came from IDF soldiers who had the guns.  Accurate journalism?

+ Why did the reporter feel compelled to end his article with the Israeli senior commander’s quote: “Now you see the story– and this is a nonviolent day?”  With four Palestinians reported killed and 600 wounded, such a quote seems more than a bit ironic.

I  don’t expect a response from Mr. Baquet, but I hope my questions will inspire more accurate and balanced reporting on  Israel/Palestine issues.

More articles by:

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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