At NY Times, Subtle Skew Hides Amid the Big Blunders

“Israel launched its assault on Gaza after a Hamas-led attack against Israel on Oct. 7 in which an estimated 1,400 people were killed or taken hostage,” a recent story in the New York Times recalled.

In isolation, the passage isn’t noteworthy. It communicates chronology, timing, and casualty figures, and it does so efficiently.

But contrast this line to the same piece’s paragraph about Palestinian casualties and a striking discrepancy emerges. That paragraph reads:

As the war in Gaza rages on, the situation in the battered enclave is one of devastation and despair. More than 29,000 people have been killed, according to Gaza health officials, the majority in a relentless Israeli bombing campaign. Neighborhoods have been flattened, families wiped out, children orphaned, and an estimated 1.7 million people displaced.

By comparison, the “efficient” paragraph about Israelis looks downright sterile. All detail is scrubbed away, and with it any hint of the humanity of Israeli victims. The reporters certainly know that Israeli villages have been destroyed; that entire Israeli families have been wiped out; that Israeli children have been orphaned; and that hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been displaced by attacks from Gaza and Lebanon, most of whom remain uprooted. But the piece treats their suffering as unworthy of mention. A casual reader might not pick up on the discrepancy. But it’s likely to have an impact.

The New York Times has made spectacular mistakes. Early in this round of fighting, it rushed to boost Hamas’s claims that 500 Palestinians were killed by an Israeli strike on Gaza’s Ahli hospital, before eventually admitting it had “relied too heavily on claims by Hamas” and “left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.” The account wasn’t credible. Western intelligence agencies agreed that a misfired Palestinian rocket caused the explosion and that it took far fewer lives than Hamas had claimed. In past reporting on Gaza, the newspaper had fabricated a story about a moderate professor, invented a collapsing fishing industry, and misrepresented quotes by US officials. It has corrected errors large and small, or not corrected them, depending on the day.

But as the example we open with shows, the newspaper can change the impact of a story without erring on the facts, in ways that the average reader is unlikely to notice.

When a story about “Israel’s intention to send troops into Rafah” fails to report that the four of Hamas’s six remaining battalions—out of 24 that existed before the war—are in holed up in the Gaza Strip city, reporters prevent readers from being able to draw conclusions about the military importance of the planned operation.

The piece concedes that “Israel has said” troops on the ground in Rafah are “necessary to defeat Hamas.” But to say that alone is to effectively conceal why that might be the case. To say that alone in a story that references Rafah civilians five times is to steer readers from remembering that the war is ultimately about protecting Israeli civilians from a terrorist army. And to avoid even a single mention of Hamas’s fighters, weapons, commanders, tunnels—any reminder whatsoever that the group is an active belligerent in this war—is to obscure the very existence of that terrorist army.

Often, seeing the newspaper’s subtle skew requires looking beyond a single story. Consider the differences between an early February piece about cease-fire talks and another from later in the month. A story posted online on February 7 was headlined, “Netanyahu Spurns Hamas Offer for Gaza Cease-Fire.” A Feb 27 online piece was titled, “Hamas Rejects Cease-Fire Proposal, Dashing Biden’s Hopes of Near Term Deal.”

Similar enough. But the print edition, which carries stories that had appeared online the previous day, gave editors another chance to emphasize and spin. The former piece, about Netanyahu, was placed the front page, above the fold, with essentially the same headline: “Netanyahu Snubs Hamas Proposal For a Cease-Fire.” The “spurn” became a “snub.” The latter story, though, was relegated to page 10, and the online headline about Hamas’s “rejection” was polished to a glossy sheen: “Hamas Says No Breakthrough Yet, Dousing Biden’s Claims of Close Deal.”

The front-page story on Netanyahu’s “snub” wasn’t enough. The paper doubled down the next day, publishing a follow-up piece on page 8—still earlier in the print edition than its story on Hamas’s cease-fire rejection (or its statement-of-non-breakthrough, as print editors would have hit). Here, the reporters took aim at Israel’s government for its supposed responsibility for lack of progress in the negotiations:

  • “Mr. Netanyahu appeared more intent on delivering a fiery message aimed at his domestic audience.”
  • “He denounced the very proposal the Americans saw as a potential opening to a negotiated solution.”
  • “One stumbling block during [US Secretary of State] Anthony Blinken’s visit seemed to be the considerable domestic political pressures facing the Israeli prime minister.”
  • “But if Mr. Netanyahu prioritizes his domestic audience in the negotiations with Hamas, he could test the patience of Arab leaders…”
  • “Despite the potential rewards of a peace deal, Mr. Netanyahu sounded intent on pressing on with the war.”
  • “Mr. Netanyahu has rejected claims that he has allowed personal considerations to supersede Israeli interests.”

All these statements were in the voice of the reporters themselves, who made their message of Israeli intransigence clear, even as they spared the antisemitic terror group, fresh off its orgy of murder, mutilation, and abduction, any such analysis.

Day in and day out, news consumers have been on the receiving end of such subtle, almost subliminal, messaging. In the early aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, New York Times coverage, though never without problems, largely took seriously the unprecedented horrors inflicted on Israelis. But as the conflict continues, its old habits have reclaimed more and more territory on the newspaper’s pages.

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