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Media Analyses





A Convict's Tall Tale is All That's Fit to Print


Feb. 12 update: After our extended correspondence with The New York Times about the news story discussed below, the newspaper published a correction.


The Palestinians are "more than just victims." That, at least, is what New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan said in her recent piece on the newspaper's coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which she called on editors and reporters to "strengthen the coverage of Palestinians," among other things.

But Sullivan's colleagues didn't seem to get the memo. Muhammad Sabaaneh, for example, is just a victim, according to The New York Times. He insists he was arrested for publishing provocative anti-Israel cartoons in his brother's book. And his word is so strong, or his description of victimhood at Israeli hands is so enticing, that Times reporters accepted the claim as fact — and as the only "fact" readers needed to know about.

Here's how the newspaper described his recent arrest and conviction:

Mr. Sabaaneh's cartoons have at times gotten him in trouble with the Israeli authorities. In February 2013 he was detained at the crossing between Jordan and the West Bank and was held for five months in an Israeli prison. He has said that he was charged in a military court with collaboration with the Islamist militant group Hamas because he had published some cartoons in a book written by his brother, who is a member.

Note that the first sentence is stated as fact, in the voice of New York Times reporters, who seem to credulously accept Sabaaneh's version of the arrest relayed in the paragraph's last sentence. But there are other versions of the arrest — more credible versions — that newspaper should have shared with readers. And it's not only Israel that pokes holes in his account. It's Sabaaneh's own lawyer.
 
Radio Netherlands Worldwide spoke with Sabaaneh's lawyer, who told the Dutch public broadcaster that his client was charged with helping Hamas after he "received funds from abroad during his recent visit to the Jordanian capital of Amman and tried to enter the Palestinian territories." The North American Desk of the IDF spokesmen's unit says Sabaaneh was sentenced in April 2013 to five months in prison for transferring money to a terror organization.
 
The website Cartoon Movement, which is sympathetic to Sabaaneh and which, unlike The New York Times, doesn't even promise "all the news that's fit to print," cited the Radio Netherlands Worldwide interview, and noted that Sabaaneh admitted to taking the money but denied trying to carry it across the border:
According to his lawyer, Mohammad is accused of accepting money in Jordan for his brother Tamer, a member of Hamas who is currently in an Israeli prison. Mohammad denies this, and claims he handed the money to another person while still in Jordan, because he suspected the funds were linked to Hamas.
That was in March 2013. Sabaaneh is entitled to plead his innocence. He and his allies are free to suspect Israeli motives and push their "cartoon martyr" story. But readers expect The New York Times to report fully and fairly. They expect that it won't be outdone by Cartoon Movement or the Arabic desk of Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
 
Times reporters have the resources to research Sabaaneh's damning accusation. They have the resources to pick up the phone and contact an Israeli spokesperson. The have the resources to "strengthen the coverage of Palestinians," as the public editor called for. But instead, the newspaper simplified and skewed to turn the Palestinians, specifically Sabaaneh, into "just victims" of Israel, as it has so many times before.
 
New York Times reporters have been informed of the distortion. We will update this piece if they publish a correction informing readers of the full circumstances of Sabaaneh's indictment and conviction.

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