Fact Check: New York Times Reporter Claims Michael Oren Advised Trump

It started on Twitter, then spread to journalists and their followers, and eventually to the pages of The New York Times.

In the end, a series of misquotes, distortions, and out-of-context comments contributed to the idea that Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. and a current Knesset member, had advised Donald Trump to play up the Muslim background of the man who murdered 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.

The claim, though, has no merit.

The discussion seems to have started with an English-language tweet by Israeli journalist Noga Tarnopolsky:

Michael Oren, ex Israel ambassador to US:”If I were Trump I’d emphasize the Muslim name, Omar Saddiqui Mateen. This changes race” @channel10

— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) June 12, 2016

It was a reference to Oren’s June 12 guest appearance on Israel’s Channel 10 station.

The post was shared widely on Twitter, and elicited plenty of overheated reactions: Twitter users called Oren a “horrible person,” a “one-man wrecking ball,” and a “scumbag terror agent.”

More noteworthy was Jonathan Martin’s contribution. Martin, a New York Times national political correspondent, shared Tarnopolsky’s tweet and snidely added: “Oren now offering services as political strategist.”

Oren now offering services as political strategist >https://t.co/pUuun3Mcvq

— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) June 12, 2016

This got the attention of The Atlantic‘s James Fallows, who criticized Oren for what he called a “crude” political response to the killings.

@jmartNYT Interesting to think if former USAmb, Memb of Cong, responded to deaths inside Israel in similar crudely political way. Oren…

— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) June 12, 2016

As some observers on Twitter raised doubts about the claim that Oren was somehow “advising” Trump, others tightened their grip on the former ambassador. A contributor to Israel’s radical online magazine +972, for example, wrote,

@kampeas Much worse: He advised Trump 2use racial/religious incitement2 reap political reward. The quote is there,he shd not be let off hook

— Dahlia Scheindlin (@dahliasc) June 12, 2016

Another Atlantic reporter, Jeffrey Goldberg, seemed more inclined to wait for more concrete evidence. “Is it confirmed that he said this?” Goldberg asked fellow reporters Fallows and Martin on Twitter, before quickly adding, “I’d like to see the tape.”

It was a smart response. It turns out that the words between Tarnopolsky’s quotation marks, which would later reappear between quotation marks under Roger Cohen’s byline in The New York Times, were not an actual quote. This by itself is an egregious error, as quotes are considered sacrosanct in journalism and beyond.

But there was another problem, more subtle but more directly relevant than the misquote, that remained, even after Tarnopolsky eventually shared Oren’s actual words. The context of Oren’s statement — context missing from Tarnopolsky’s quote, Martin’s jab, and Fallows’s quip — made it abundantly clear that Oren wasn’t offering advice, but simply engaging in political analysis, as journalists, experts and pundits are routinely asked to do on news programs like the one in question.

Indeed, Oren’s comments didn’t appear in a vacuum. Importantly, the entire discussion was prompted by a newscaster’s statement that the Orlando attack is “likely to impact on the American elections.”

The conversation unfolded from there. Oren responded to this prompt by suggesting the attack will help Trump and hurt Clinton, since it is perceived as an act of terror more than a hate crime. This, he said, will play negatively on Hillary’s gun control platform and positively on Trump’s “Muslim ban” promise, which had already bolstered the candidate’s polling numbers.

But this was an American citizen, another commentator on the program noted, suggesting that a ban wouldn’t have actually prevented this attack. Oren responded that this is true also of the San Bernadino shooter, but that this fact didn’t prevent Trump from successfully capitalizing on the earlier attack.

In other words, Oren was saying that, politically speaking, the details didn’t matter as much as the spin. He continued,

OREN: Even the first Twin Tower bombing in ‘93 was perpetrated by American citizens. This isn’t exceptional.

But if I were Donald Trump now, I would have come out the moment the FBI started to leak this morning that is a man operating from Islamic motives with ties — first of all the name itself, Omar Siddiqui Mateen, a Muslim name, son of immigrants from Afghanistan, who apparently kept in touch in some way with radical Islamic organizations, it very much influences the race for the presidency.

INTERVIEWER: And you’re saying that in your careful assessment this can actually strengthen Trump —

OREN: Very much

INTERVIEWER: — at the cost of Hilary Clinton who at this time is leading in the polls?

OREN: Again, as [inaudible] already said, a person can be deranged, but at the end of the day, people won’t look at the details of his motivations. …

If there are connections to Islamic extremism, even if the shooter attacked a LGBT target, this will be seen as terrorism, and that will be what has impact, Oren said.

In the context of the conversation, this was clearly analysis, regardless of whether Oren’s introductory phrase, “If I were Donald Trump, I would…,” might otherwise sound like advice.

Or might not. Is a commentator who uses such language normally thought to be “offering services as political strategist,” as Martin put it? Hardly. On CNN, Republican Representative Peter King has used the phrase “If I were Hillary Clinton….” So has CNN’s chief political analyst Gloria Borger. So has Republican strategist and Trump supporter Boris Epstein. So has Matt Lewis of the conservative Daily Caller.
Trish Regan has said the words, “If I were Hillary Clinton,” on her Fox Business Network show. But then, that same Trish Regan, and that same Matt Lewis, have also recently used the phrase, “If I were Donald Trump….” Regan and Lewis, of course, aren’t acting as “political strategists” to both Clinton and Trump. Nor was Clinton supporter Hilary Rosen “advising” Trump when she said the words “If I were Trump.” They were all just repeating a common figure of speech used by political analysts.

The New York Times‘s Jonathan Martin should have known better, especially in light of his newspaper’s call for reporters to “Take care that nothing you say online will undercut your credibility as a journalist,” and to “avoid editorializing or promoting political views.” His rush to slam the centrist Israeli politician certainly does undercut Martin’s credibility, and that of his newspaper.

Roger Cohen, meanwhile, has clearly violated the newspaper’s Guidelines on Integrity, which state that

Readers should be able to assume that every word between quotation marks is what the speaker or writer said. The Times does not “clean up” quotations. If a subject’s grammar or taste is unsuitable, quotation marks should be removed and the awkward passage paraphrased. Unless the writer has detailed notes or a recording, it is usually wise to paraphrase long comments, since they may turn up worded differently on television or in other publications. “Approximate” quotations can undermine readers’ trust in The Times.

CAMERA has called on the columnist to publish a correction, and will update this space as appropriate.

It is easy to speak in the abstract about “credibility” and “readers’ trust.” What will the newspaper to show it takes these values seriously?

June 17 Update: CAMERA Prompts Corrections; Tarnopolsky Responds
The Oren misquote that Noga Tarnopolsky first shared on Twitter also found its way to the Huffington Post and The Daily Caller. Following communication with CAMERA staff, both outlets removed the inaccurate quote and replaced it with the longer, correct quote.  (The New York Times has also published a correction — see below.)
Tarnopolsky’s response wasn’t quite so professional. Instead of simply acknowledging that she shouldn’t have used quotation marks in her initial tweet, or acknowledging nothing, she attacked this article’s author on Twitter with a string of insults including, but not limited to, “dumbo,” “stupid,” “pathetic,” “shameless sneering troll,” “sad obsessive clown,” and “cheap hack.”

@Ostrov_A Poor dumbo.Can’t tell difference between accurate post & his pals’ slander trolling. Sad!Need recommendation for remedial teacher?

— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) June 17, 2016

@Ostrov_A @GileadIni Two sad obsessive clowns who waste a week & still can’t admit they misunderstood an accurate quote. Pathetic.

— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) June 17, 2016

@Ostrov_A @GileadIni If you’re right he’s a shameless sneering troll who’s spent better part of a week smearing me. So lets hope he’s stupid

— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) June 17, 2016

@GileadIni You’re a cheap hack. You do disservice to @CAMERAorg & cause u pretend to serve. To his credit @DrMichaelOren ignored ur trolling

— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) June 17, 2016

June 21 Update: New York Times Corrects
Following communications with CAMERA staff, The New York Times has corrected the misquote, which had appeared in a piece by columnist Roger Cohen.
The correction appears as follows:
Correction: June 21, 2016 
An earlier version of this column included an Israeli journalist’s tweet that quoted Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, as saying: “If I were Trump, I’d emphasize the Muslim name, Omar Saddiqui Mateen. This changes race.” In fact this was a paraphrase of Mr. Oren’s comment. Translated from Hebrew, the comment was: “If I were Donald Trump I’d come out the minute the F.B.I. decided to start leaking this morning that we are talking about a man who acted out of Islamic motives, with connections. First of all
the name itself, Omar Siddiqui Mateen, a Muslim name, the son of immigrants from Afghanistan, who apparently was somehow in touch with extremist Islamic organizations. This already has a significant influence on the race for the presidency.”
This post has been updated to improve the translation of Oren’s comments..

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