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Media Analyses





New York Times Public Editor – No Problem with Qaradawi Story


On February 18, 2011, The New York Times published an article about Yusef Qaradawi's triumphant return to Egypt and a speech he gave that day to thousands of people at Tahrir Square, the center of a revolution that resulted in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The article was written by David D. Kirkpatrick with input from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anthony Shaddid and Mona El-Naggar.

It was an important story about a pivotal figure in Egyptian politics and modern Islamism and the Times blew it.

As detailed in a CAMERA piece, the New York Times article portrayed Qaradawi as committed to pluralism and democracy despite the fact that he has condoned wife beating, supported female genital mutilation, endorsed the fatwa calling for the murder of writer Salman Rushdie, and called for a second Holocaust against the Jewish people to be carried out by Muslim believers. These are not the characteristics that most people would regard as tenets of democratic liberalism.

Approximately two weeks later, on March 4, 2011, Christian Century, the house organ for mainline Protestantism in the U.S., published an article of its own about Egypt that included an extended passage about Qaradawi's speech at Tahrir Square. The article was written by Paul-Gordon Chandler, an Episcopal Priest working in Cairo.

The Christian Century story, which also portrayed Qaradawi as a democrat committed to pluralism, included some sentences that were very similar to sentences that appeared in the New York Times article.

Here are the similarities between the two articles.

Similarity One

The New York Times article includes the following sentence: "On Friday, he [Qaradawi] struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching."
 
The Christian Century article includes a strikingly similar sentence: "In his sermon al-Qaradawi struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching."
 
Number of Matching Words: 13

Similarity Two

The New York Times describes Qaradawi as “a popular television cleric whose program reaches an audience of tens of millions worldwide …”
 
The Christian Century describes him as “A popular television cleric whose program reaches an audience of tens of millions worldwide …”
 
Number of Matching Words: 14

Similarity Three

The New York Times reports that Qaradawi “praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt's revolution …”
 
Christian Century reports that Qaradawi “praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt's revolution …”
 
Number of Matching Words: 10

Similarity Four

The New York Times reports that Qaradawi “even lauded the Coptic Christian ‘martyrs' who once fought the Romans and Byzantines. ‘I invite you to bow down in prayer together,' he said.”
 
Christian Century reports that Qaradawi “even lauded the Coptic faithful who once fought against the Roman and Byzantine empires. ‘I invite you to bow down in prayer together,' he said.”
 
Number of Matching Words: 25

Under normal circumstances, this last similarity, (particularly the direct quote “I invite you to bow down together”), could be explained as the result of two different reporters accurately reporting what Qaradawi said. As will be discussed below, however, it appears that this passage includes two mischaracterizations of Qaradawi's speech, indicating that two different reporters misquoted Qaradawi in exactly the same way – twice.

A Quelle Document?

In light of these similarities, CAMERA published, on March 5, a blog entry stating that the Christian Century's coverage of Egypt (which appeared on March 4), had parroted the Times coverage of Qaradawi's speech (published on Feb. 19), “word for word.”

In response to CAMERA's blog post, Christian Century Editor David Heim wrote a blog entry of his own, dated March 9, confidently stating that CAMERA got it wrong. Heim acknowledged that language from the two stories was “unusually close” before reporting:

… it turns out that reporters often make use of the frequent informal e-mail updates from Cairo that Chandler sends to his friends and churches—which is what appears to have happened in this case. Says Chandler, an Anglican priest in Cairo: “We are happy to help all those trying to get information out.”

Heim's blog entry suggests that the Chandler article published in Christian Century is based on an email he sent to his correspondents. The implication is that the similarities between the articles published in the New York Times and the Christian Century are the result of passages from Chandler's email finding their way into both articles – one written by Chandler himself for Christian Century and another appearing in the New York Times under the byline of David D. Kirkpatrick.

In light of Heim's statement, it appears that Chandler's email is the quelle or source document for passages regarding Yusuf Qaradawi in both of the articles. (Quelle, or “q” for short, is the German word used to describe an alleged compendium of sayings of Jesus that made their way into the Gospels. The compendium has never been discovered, but many biblical scholars assume its existence.)

In short, Heim's statement suggests that if anyone was liberally borrowing passages without attribution, it wasn't Paul-Gordon Chandler. Somebody was making use of Chandler's writing.

CAMERA corresponded with David Heim asking him if he could produce the original email that Chandler had sent to his correspondents. Heim did not provide the email to CAMERA but stated that he has “seen the email” and that “it answered questions to our satisfaction.”

The Times Responds

CAMERA also corresponded with NYT's Foreign Desk editor Susan Chira, alerting her to the similarities between the Kirkpatrick article and the Chandler article and the Christian Century's response. CAMERA asked that Chandler be included as a list of contributors to the New York Times in line with the paper's policy regarding the use of other people's reporting.

Chira asserted the similarities were “completely coincidental.”

In light of Chira's refusal to address the obvious similarities between the two articles in a substantive manner, CAMERA corresponded with Arthur Brisbane, public editor for the New York Times and alerted him to the similarities between the two articles and Heim's response.

Brisbane then conducted an investigation into the matter. In his correspondence with CAMERA, Brisbane stated that in the course of his investigation, he examined three texts:
 
1. Chandler's original email (which he was able to obtain).
2. Kirkpatrick's (unedited) article as it was submitted to the New York Times.
3. The article as it was finally published by the NYT (after editing).
 
Brisbane used a number of metrics to determine whether there was any borrowing between Chandler's email and the article as submitted by Kirkpatrick.
 
One metric was the possibility that the similarities were the consequence of “common phrasing.” Brisbane writes that “[o]ne significant similarity – the line about ‘standing together in Egypt's revolution'—looks to me like a case of fairly common phrasing in reporting on the events in Egypt. I found numerous examples of other headlines and stories that used the phrase ‘standing with.'”
 
This argument seems somewhat credible. Journalists do use common phrases.
 
Nevertheless, if one looks closely at the various similarities between the various texts, it seems unlikely that common phrases hypothesis is sufficient to explain all of them. Brisbane also asserted that there were “considerable variances” between Chandler's letter and the unedited Kirkpatrick article as it was submitted to the NYT and that the similarities that did exist were introduced during the editing process.
 
Here are three texts that Brisbane provided, apparently in an effort to demonstrate how the similarities were introduced during the editing process:
Chandler's email: “Sheik Qaradawi, a popular television cleric whose program reaches an audience of tens of millions worldwide...”
 
The original, unedited article submitted by David Kirkpatrick: “Mr. Qaradawi is both an influential theologian and a popular television preachers whose program reaches an audience of tens of millions worldwide.”
 
The edited article as it appeared in the New York Times: “Sheik Qaradawi, a popular television cleric whose program reaches an audience of tens of millions worldwide...”

Brisbane appears to have a point here. The similarity is strongest between Chandler's email and the final version of the article as it appeared in the New York Times.

Brisbane then compared another passage from the three texts – Chandler's email, the article as submitted by Kirkpatrick, and the final version. Here is what he presented:

Chandler's email: In his sermon today (which already this afternoon is on the internet) he struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching. However, most interestingly, he began his sermon by saying he was discarding the customary opening "Oh Muslims," in favor of "Oh Muslims and Copts," referring to Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. He praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt's revolution, and highlighted how Christians protected their fellow Muslims while they prayed in Tahrir Square. Heeven lauded the Coptic Christian "martyrs" who once fought the Romans and Byzantines. "I invite you to bow down in prayer together," he said.
 
Original Kirkpatrick draft: But on Friday, he struck themes of democracy and pluralism. He began his sermon by discarding the customary “Oh Muslims” to say instead “Oh Muslims and Copts,” referring to Eqypt's Coptic Christian minority. He praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in the revolution andeven lauded the Coptic Christian “martyrs” who once fought the Romans and Byzantines. “I invite you to bow down in prayer together,” he said.
 
NY Times published version: On Friday, he struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching. He began his sermon by saying that he was discarding the customary opening "Oh Muslims," in favor of "Oh Muslims and Copts," referring to Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. He praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt's revolution and even lauded the Coptic Christian "martyrs" who once fought the Romans and Byzantines. "I invite you to bow down in prayer together," he said.

Reading these three texts together reveals an overall pattern of similar language and chronology that simply cannot be explained by the use of common phrases and coincidence.

Qaradawi Misquoted?

Nevertheless, in light of these texts, Brisbane concludes that there is only one unexplainable similarity between Chandler's letter and the unedited version of the article submitted by Kirkpatrick: The passage reporting that Qaradawi “even lauded the Coptic Christian ‘martyrs' who once fought the Romans and Byzantines. ‘I invite you to bow down in prayer together,' he said."

Brisbane reports that he has read “two translations of the Qaradawi speech and neither appears to use the exact quote ‘I invite you to bow down in prayer together.'” Moreover, Brisbane reports that he could not “find in either translation a reference to Romans (only Byzantines).”

Brisbane concludes:

That said, an unexplained similarity involving two sentences (one of them a direct quote) doesn't add up to anything that, on its own, is clearly a problem, in my opinion.

The problem is, the direct quote is not an accurate one, at least according to Brisbane's research. Brisbane reports that he had seen two translations of Qaradawi's speech online and that he did not see any reference to Romans, nor did he see any invitation for the crowd to bow down in prayer. A Nexis search performed on June 1, 2011, indicates that the phrase “I invite you to bow down I prayer together” appears in only two news outlets: The Christian Century and the New York Times. A third outlet, a blog, also includes the phrase, but it's quoting The New York Times.

This raises a very simple question. What are the chances two different reporters would independently mischaracterize Yusuf Qaradawi's speech on two different details – in exactly the same way?
 
The chances are, simply put, astronomically low.

Given the similarities between Chandler's writing – whether in the email or in his article in the Christian Century – and the the New York Times's coverage of Yusef Qaradawi, it seems highly likely the Times relied on his reporting for its story.

Why it Matters

If the New York Times did rely on Paul-Gordon Chandler's reporting regarding Yusef Qaradawi's speech in Tahrir Square, his name should have appeared somewhere in the article – either in the text itself or at the bottom of the article where Anthony Shaddid and Mona El-Naggar were mentioned. This is not to give Chandler the credit he deserves, but apparently does not want. It is to inform the reader exactly who is responsible for the article as it was published. The Times' Guidelines on Integrity state the following:

Other People's Reporting. When we use facts gathered by any other organization, we attribute them. This policy applies to material from newspapers, magazines, books and broadcasts, as well as news agencies like The Associated Press (for example, "the Senator told The Associated Press"). In other words, even though The AP is a co-op and we are members, we do not treat its reporting as our own. When writing from a pool report, if we have not witnessed the events, we attribute them to the pool reporter. In a roundup, we may use a phrase like "reports from news agencies and New York Times bureaus."
 
Our preference, when time and distance permit, is to do our own reporting and verify another organization's story; in that case, we need not attribute the facts. But even then, as a matter of courtesy and candor, we credit an exclusive to the organization that first broke the news.

While Paul-Gordon Chandler is not a news organization, candor would require that readers be informed of his involvement in the preparation of this story. Chandler is, simply put, not a neutral observer to events in Egypt. As demonstrated in a previous CAMERA analysis, Chandler has “has worked to portray relations between Coptic Christians and their Muslim neighbors in Egypt in sympathetic and hopeful terms.”

This may be in keeping with his calling as a member of the clergy (an arguable point); it is not what one expects from the New York Times.


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