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Patrick Lawrence: The Crisis at The New York Times

The author flogs The NYtimes in the public square for its cynical moral bankruptcy, as it deserves to be.

by Patrick Lawrence
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Patrick Lawrence

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By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

It has been evident to many of us since the genocide in Gaza began Oct. 7 that Israel risked asking too much of those inclined to take its side. The Zionist state would ask what many people cannot give: It would ask them to surrender their consciences, their idea of moral order, altogether their native decency as it murders, starves and disperses a population of 2.3 million while making their land uninhabitable. 

The Israelis took this risk and they have lost. We are now able to watch videos of Israeli soldiers celebrating as they murder Palestinian mothers and children, as they dance and sing while detonating entire neighborhoods, as they mock Palestinians in a carnival of racist depravity one would have thought beyond what is worst in humanity—and certainly beyond what any Jew would do to another human being. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports, as American media do not, that the Israel Defense Forces covertly sponsor a social media channel disseminating this degenerate material in the cause of maintaining maximum hatred.  

It is a psychologically diseased nation that boasts as it inflicts this suffering on The Other that obsesses it. The world is invited—the ultimate in perversity, this—to partake of Israel’s sickness and said, in a Hague courtroom two weeks ago, “No.”   

Post–Gaza, apartheid Israel is unlikely ever to recover what place it enjoyed, merited or otherwise, in the community of nations. It stands among the pariahs now. The Biden regime took this risk, too, and it has also lost. Its support for the Israelis’ daily brutalities comes at great political cost, at home and abroad, and is tearing America apart—its universities, its courts, its legislatures, its communities—and I would say what pride it still manages to take in itself. When the history of America’s decline as a hegemonic power is written, the Gaza crisis is certain to figure in it as a significant marker in the nation’s descent into a morass of immorality that has already contributed to a collapse of its credibility.    

We come to U.S. media — mainstream media, corporate media, legacy media. However you wish to name them, they have gambled and lost, too. Their coverage of the Gaza crisis has been so egregiously and incautiously unbalanced in Israel’s behalf that we might count their derelictions as unprecedented. When the surveys are conducted and the returns are in, their unscrupulous distortions, their countless omissions, and—the worst offense, in my view—their dehumanization of the Palestinians of Gaza will have further damaged their already collapsing credibility. 

We come, finally, to The New York Times. No medium in America has had further to fall in consequence of its reporting on Israel and Gaza since last October. And the once-but-no-longer newspaper of record, fairly suffocating amid its well-known hubris, falls as we speak. It has erupted, by numerous accounts including implicitly its own, in an internal uproar over reportage from Israel and Gaza so shabby—so transparently negligent—that it, like Israel, may never fully restore its reputation. 

Max Blumenthal, editor-in-chief of The Grayzone, described the crisis on Eighth Avenue better than anyone in the Jan. 30 segment of The Hill’s daily webcast, Rising. “We’re looking at one of the biggest media scandals of our time,” he told Briahna Joy Gray and Robby Soave. Indeed. This well captures the gravity of The Times’s willful corruptions in its profligate use of Israeli propaganda, and Blumenthal deserves the microphone to say so. Since late last year The Grayzone has exhaustively investigated The Times’s “investigations” of Hamas’s supposed savagery and Israel’s supposed innocence. 

This is more than “inside baseball,” as the saying goes. We now have a usefully intricate anatomy of an undeservedly influential newspaper as it abjectly surrenders to power the sovereignty it is its duty to claim and assert in every day’s editions. It would be hard to overstate the implications, for all of us, of what The Grayzone has just brought to light. This is independent journalism at its best reporting on corporate journalism at its worst. 

What we find as we read The Timess daily report from Israel, and from Gaza when its correspondents unwisely accept invitations to embed with the IDF, is a newspaper unwilling to question either its longstanding fidelity to Israel or its service to American power. These two ideological proclivities—well more than what its reporters see and hear—have defined the paper’s coverage of this crisis. This is bad journalism straight off the top. 

It was inevitable, then, that The Times would serve as Israel’s apologist as soon as the IDF began its murder spree last October. This was not a rampage worthy of the Visigoths, as plentiful video footage carried on social media and in independent publications revealed it to be: It was dignified as “a war,” a war waged not against Palestinians but “against Hamas,” and Israel fought it in “self-defense.” Hamas is “a terrorist organization,” so there is no complexity or dimensionality to it, and therefore no need to understand anything about it.

"What we find as we read The Times’s daily report from Israel, and from Gaza when its correspondents unwisely accept invitations to embed with the IDF, is a newspaper unwilling to question either its longstanding fidelity to Israel or its service to American power. These two ideological proclivities—well more than what its reporters see and hear—have defined the paper’s coverage of this crisis. This is bad journalism straight off the top..."

It has been a question of minimizing and maximizing in the pages of The Times. Israel’s genocidal intent is indecipherable to anyone relying on its coverage. The physical destruction of Gaza is never described as systematic. The IDF does not target noncombatants. The newspaper has reported the shocking statements of Israeli officials, some openly favoring genocide, ethnic-cleansing, and the like, only when these have been so prominently reported elsewhere that The Times could no longer pretend such things were never said.  

The taker of the cake in this line is a January 22 piece by David Leonhardt, who seems to be one of those desk reporters in New York who write whatever they are told to write. Under the headline, “The Decline of Deaths in Gaza,” we read that Palestinian fatalities declined “by almost half since early December.” Setting aside the fact that the record since does not seem to bear this out, inviting Times readers to celebrate a daily death toll of 150 instead of 300 lies somewhere between poor judgment and poor taste. But anything, it seems, to soften the look of things in Gaza. 

There is also the question of humanization and dehumanization. We have read very numerous and intimately detailed Times stories of Israelis attacked last Oct. 7—individuation being essential to shaping this kind of coverage—while Palestinians are an indistinct blur so far as Times correspondents report on them. The Times has fully indulged the pretense that history began on Oct. 7, erasing the previous 76 years or the previous century, depending on how one counts—the history, this is to say, wherein the Palestinian story is told. There is no Palestinian story in pages of The New York Times, as a walk through the archives of the last four months will make clear.  The Times has recently taken to publishing exceptions to these patterns in its coverage, and I will come to them in due course.   


There is one feature of The Times’s coverage that must be singled out, as it is very key to the whole of it. This concerns the question of evidence. Almost all of the reportage coming out of Israel, and on rare occasions Gaza, relies on evidence Times correspondents have obtained from the Israeli military, Israeli government officials, the Israeli police, or those representing some other part of the Israeli power structure. On some occasions, Times reporters will take a cue or a theme from Israeli information managers and then do their own reporting—Blumenthal calls this “alleged reporting”—to dress up the piece subsequently published as an independent piece of work. There are two things to say about this. 

One, the Israelis have been intent from the first to manipulate the imagery of the Gaza crisis—what it looks like—and keeping very tight control of evidence, including a great deal of conjured “evidence,” has been essential to getting this done. For the Israelis to make themselves a correspondent’s primary source—or the only source much or most of the time—and for correspondents to accept this arrangement implies a certain kind of relationship. It is evident that  this relationship has been routinized over the past four months.

Two, Times correspondents—and again, their colleagues at other Western newspapers and broadcasters, too—never raise questions of quality, veracity, provenance, or chain of custody when relying on evidence or  “evidence” supplied by Israeli authorities. In pro forma fashion, they will occasionally note that this or that account of events “cannot be independently verified.” But the procedure—Israelis supply evidence, correspondents turn it into reportage—is kept entirely from view. “According to Israeli officials,” “Israeli military sources said,” etc. is all readers get. On goes the report from there, in which evidence or “evidence” the Israelis have supplied is presented at face value.

In every case I know of, I should add, stories of this kind are one-source stories—even if they feature multiple voices saying the same thing in different language. This is a tired old trick at The Times and among other mainstream media: 5 and 2 are 7, 4 and 3 are also 7, so are 6 and 1, and so on. I have just termed the relationship implied here as routinized. Now I will call it a highly objectionable relationship: At its core is a symbiosis wherein The Times abandons its sovereignty and, corollary point, The Times obscures this abandonment from its readers.

The Times’s unprofessional handling of evidence and “evidence,” to state what may by now be obvious, has made it an instrument of official propaganda as Israel’s crimes in Gaza have proliferated these past months. This is open-and-shut the case, as the record shows. It is not an unusual circumstance for The Times: It is inevitable that a paper wherein ideologies determine what is published will assume this role, elsewhere as in Israel. 

But propaganda, as noted elsewhere, is crudely made in most cases. The propagandist much prefers simplicity and impact to sophistication or, God knows, nuance. The Israelis are not exceptions to this rule. The correspondent trafficking in propaganda must consequently be very careful to avoid reproducing what is patently cheap goods. This is especially so when working within the sort of relationship The Times has with the Israeli propaganda machine, whose output since they began their assault on Gaza has often been primitive and obviously overdone. If you are not careful you can get left holding the bag. 

Jeffrey Gettleman seems to have been other than careful in his reporting after he transited from Ukraine to Israel immediately after the events of Oct. 7. He did not, in fairness, do anything other than what Times correspondents routinely do when reporting “the Jewish state.” He opened wide and swallowed what the Israeli authorities fed him—the goose and the foie gras farmer. But when he began a grand investigation to expose the Hamas militias’ heinous use of sexual violence as a weapon of terror on Oct. 7, he does not seem to have recognized wildly implausible horror stories when the Israelis told them. Neither could Gettleman see, apparently, the immense implications of his piece once subjected to a scrutiny he may not have anticipated. 

Incautious Jeffrey Gettleman is now holding the bag—scrambling, so far as one can make out, to salvage reportage that looks to me too faulty to save. His newspaper is now in an uproar. This is not just about Gettleman’s piece: At issue is The Times’s  coverage of the Gaza crisis altogether. The routinized relationship between The Times and the Israeli authorities is now exposed to more light than was ever supposed to shine on it. Ditto the slack, sloppy, unprofessional mediocrities mainstream media altogether have made of themselves.

The Israelis began alleging that Hamas militias were guilty of rape and sexual violence during their Oct. 7 incursion into southern Israel more or less immediately after the events of that day. They claimed to be developing “considerable evidence”—Gettleman’s phrase in his initial report, on Dec. 4—from witnesses, photographs, and emergency medical teams. In the same piece, Gettleman quoted a police official saying that women and men numbering in the dozens had been raped on Oct. 7. Women’s rights advocates convening at the U.N. at this time introduced the thought that the alleged sexual abuses were part of a pattern: They were systematic, weapons of terror.

After these initial assertions the Israeli police authorities seem to have subtly but swiftly softened. No, there were no autopsies, witnesses were hard to locate, people at the scene of alleged incidents did not collect evidence, no, they had nothing to say about interviewing victims of alleged rapes. Gettleman’s Dec. 4 file was, at least relative to what was to come, suitably cautious—a what-we-know, what-we-don’t piece. But the drift was clear. “Extensive witness testimony and documentary evidence of killings, including videos posted by Hamas fighters themselves,” Gettleman wrote, “support the allegations.” 

If I read Gettleman’s clipping file correctly, it was with that sentence that he began his walk into trouble. As it has turned out, the witness testimony he cited has proven spongy and less than extensive, the documentary evidence proves little, and the videos, unless there are videos we do not know of, prove nothing at all. The phrase “witness testimony and documentary evidence” includes a link to a lengthy piece on Hamas’s post–Oct. 7 political deliberations that makes no mention of rape or sexual violence and has nothing whatever to do with the topic of Gettleman’s piece. 

Gettleman’s byline did not appear again in The Times until Dec. 28, when his sprawling investigative takeout appeared under the headline, “‘Screams Without Words’: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct.7.” It took as its central figure “the woman in the black dress.” This refers to a corpse found and videoed on the side of a road on Oct. 8. “In a grainy video,” Gettleman writes, “you can see her, lying on her back, dress torn, legs spread, vagina exposed. Her face is burned beyond recognition and her right hand covers her eyes.”

Gettleman reports this woman’s identity as Gal Abdush, a 34–year-old mother of two who was partying with her husband along the Gaza border in the early hours of Oct. 7 and was later murdered, as was her husband. Within seven paragraphs of his lead, it appears perfectly clear Gettleman has taken the “evidence” bait as proffered by Israeli officials: 

Based largely on the video evidence—which was verified by The New York Times—Israeli police officials said they believed that Ms. Abdush was raped, and she has become a symbol of the horrors visited upon Israeli women and girls during the Oct. 7 attacks.

Let us study this passage briefly. Are you interested in what Israeli police say they believe? I’m not. I’m never interested in what officials in such positions believe or feel or, a lot of the time, think: I am interested in what they know, and they did not tell Gettleman that they knew anything. Do you see the air these officials put  between the rape theme and their reputations? Equally, The Times “verified” the video, did it? In what way this? What did it verify, exactly? That the video existed? Is Gettleman suggesting that The Times verified from the video that Abdush was raped? No video of a dead body could verify this. 

This video has a strange story, to stay with it briefly. Gettleman wrote that it “went viral,” but it is nowhere to be found on the internet, and nobody recalls referring to Abdush as “the woman in the black dress.” There is also a chronology question attaching to this video, as a Jan. 3 report in Mondoweiss analyzes. Gettleman recounts the last text message, with time-stamp, Gal Abdush sent to her family. During this time Abdush’s husband, Nagy, was with her and sent his own texts to the family, also time-stamped. Four minutes elapsed between Gal Abdush’s last message and the time Nagy Abdush messaged the family to report his wife’s death—a message Gttleman did not mention. Nagy Abdush made no reference to rape. He sent his own final message 44 minutes later – a message Gettleman’s report does mention.  

Did one or more Hamas militiaman rape a woman in the presence of her husband, then, in one or another sequence, murder her and burn her, then murder the husband—all not in 44 minutes, as the Gettleman piece implies, but in four? Since Gettleman published, Abdush’s family, evidently irate, has accused him of distorting the evidence and manipulating them in the course of his reporting. “She was not raped,” Mira Alter, Gal Abdush’s sister,  wrote on social media a few days after Gettleman published. “There was no proof that there was rape. It was only a video.”

This is how it is for the 3,700 words Gettleman gave his investigation, which also carries the bylines of Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella. There are witnesses who change their stories once, twice, or several times. There is a witness proven to have lied in similar circumstances. There is the testimony of a rescue organization with a compromised relationship with the Israeli military and an extensive record of corruption widely reported in Israeli media. There is a witness who told Gettleman he saw two teenage girls lying naked and alone on the floor of a house, one of them with semen all over her back, while it was later proven they were burned so badly they were hard to identify and they were found not alone but in the embrace of their also-burned mother. 

And so on. You have descriptions of all kinds of unimaginable, B–movie perversities—militiamen playing with severed breasts, militiamen walking around with armfuls of severed heads—that rest upon “witnesses” whose testimonies, given how often they shift or do not line up with what was eventually determined,  simply cannot be counted as stable. 

And then there are the official statements. Among the most categoric of these is one from the Israeli police, issued after The Times published “‘Screams Without Words’” Dec. 28 and asserting that they have found no eyewitnesses to rapes on Oct. 7 and see nothing in media reports such as The Times’s  constituting evidence of systematic sexual violence. 

I rarely urge readers of this column to read The New York Times—some, indeed, write to thank me for reading it so they don’t have to do so. On this occasion I think reading the Gettleman pieces is a good idea—but only back-to-back with The Grayzone’s work. Mondoweiss, a U.S. publication that reports on Israel and Palestine, has also done work worth reading. It is a chance to see what sclerosis looks like when placed next to vitality. 

Blumenthal and Aaron Maté, his colleague at The Grayzone, began scrutinizing The Times’s reports on alleged sexual violence immediately after Gettleman’s first piece appeared Dec. 4. Two days later The Grayzone published a detailed account of ZAKA, the discredited rescue organization that featured prominently among Gettleman’s sources. Three days after “‘Screams Without Words’” appeared Dec. 28, Blumenthal and Maté aired a 42–minute podcast exposing the long list of inconsistencies in it they had by then identified. Two weeks later, on Jan. 10, The Grayzone published a lengthy letter it sent to The Times urging it to address the many defects and ethical breaches in Gettleman’s pieces. “The Times report,” the letter began, “is marred by sensationalism, wild leaps of logic, and an absence of concrete evidence to support its sweeping conclusion.” The Times has since been silent—publicly, if not internally.     

The Times could hardly have worked itself into a more awkward corner over the “‘Screams Without Words’” disaster had it tried. It seems to have been some while building and to have exploded as follows into the mess now before us.  

Unease as to The Times’s coverage of Israel, inside and outside the Times building, is a long story. Times correspondents whose children serve in the IDF, correspondents with apparently improper relations with lobbies such as the Anti–Defamation League: These kinds of things have over the years prompted critics to question of the paper’s proximity, where it puts itself in relation to the Israel story, the balance of its coverage. Nearer to the present, there had been sustained criticism of the paper’s Gaza coverage emanating from the newsroom well before Gettleman’s piece appeared. A Jan. 26 piece in The Intercept, citing newsroom sources, described “a rolling fight that is revived on a near-daily basis over the tenor of Times coverage of the war in Gaza.” 

This seems to have reached high-decibels acrimony as The Daily, The Times’s premier podcast, became involved. The Daily is where the paper showcases what are supposed to be its better enterprise pieces, as those with lots of original reporting are called, and it scheduled a segment based on “‘Screams Without Words’” for release on Jan. 9. Joe Kahn, The Times’s executive editor, had already touted the the piece in an internal memorandum as among several “signature pieces of enterprise on the Israel–Hamas war” and described it as executed “in a sensitive and detailed way.” Kahn may have leapt before he looked. The Daily’s producers soon pulled the segment as the defects began to accumulate in the piece Gettleman and his colleagues filed. They subsequently wrote a revised script addressing some of the problems—inserting qualifiers, The Intercept reported, and altogether leaving ample room to question, if not doubt, the factual certainty Gettleman wrote into his prose. 

The revised segment is now “paused,” whatever that turns out to mean. This leaves the paper effectively stuck with a Hobson’s choice that makes me marvel: It can run the original segment, pretending discredited work remains valid, or it can run the rewritten segment, so discrediting the Gettleman report by itself. 

Max Blumenthal thinks the crisis inside The Times reflects a deep divide between the newsroom, where there seems to be a surviving cohort of conscientious  journalists, and the upper reaches of management, where the paper’s ideological high priests reside. I have not been inside the Times building in well more than a decade, but there is a history to support this thesis. It goes at least as far back as the 1950s, when Aurthur Hays Sulzberger, as publisher, signed a secrecy agreement with the Central Intelligence Agency and gave tacit approval to correspondents who wanted to work for the agency.

But we have to look beyond the tall glass building on Eighth Avenue to grasp the magnitude of the crisis Jeffery Gettleman has precipitated. His careless work, to put the point mildly, has exposed a process that is prevalent across the mainstream. CNN, The Guardian, MSNBC, PBS, various others: They all followed the same procedure as they reproduced the “systematic sexual abuse” story as the Israelis gave it to them. We are face to face now with the destructive power of corporate media as they dedicate themselves to serving the interests of the policy cliques who run the imperium and its appendages. Face to face, too, with the responsibilities that fall to independent publications in consequence of so basic a corruption as this.   

“These are lies that kill,” Blumenthal remarked on that segment of Rising noted earlier, “because these lies, fabrications, distortions, half-truths, and exaggerations of facts are intended to generate political consent for Israel’s genocidal assault in Gaza. They need to be called out.”

Is there a truer way to make the point?

Credit when due.

The Times has published a handful of pieces over the past couple of weeks that are exceptional, at least relatively so, for their balanced treatment of the Israel–Palestine crisis in all its fullness. Suddenly there is a history to it that extends back more than four months. Suddenly Palestinians have voices that have things to say. Suddenly they are living, breathing human beings. How rare is this in the pages of The Times?

I was alerted to this spate of pieces—they cannot be read as a purposeful series—on the last day of January, when Roger Cohen published a long report from the West Bank under the headline “‘We Are Not Very Far From an Explosion,’” in which the paper’s Paris bureau chief, long sympathetic to Israeli perspectives, describes the vicious ugliness of fanatical Israeli settlers and IDF soldiers incessantly attacking West Bank townspeople simply trying to hold on to what they have. It is a moving piece of work. 

A day later The Times published “The Road to 1948,” which consists of a many-sided debate moderated by Emily Bazelon, who lectures in law at Yale. The people talking to one another in this lengthy presentation—and Bazelon manages the exchange with a light, unintrusive hand—take the Israel–Palestine question back to the British Mandate in 1920. There are many perspectives here, not all worthy of endorsement.The piece is good, certainly, in explaining how the British favored Zionist organizations as precursors of a state while giving no such status to Palestinians. But the simplifying thought that “this is a national conflict with religious elements,” or that arriving Zionist settlers and Palestinians have something like equivalent claims, seems to me an insidious gloss. Still, The Times has taken readers back a century. 

The next day came a news piece, “In the West Bank, Palestinians Struggle to Adjust to a New Reality.” In it, Yara Bayoumy and Rami Nazzal describe onerous new restrictions the Israelis have placed on the movements of West Bank residents since Oct. 7. Last Sunday The paper published “Portraits of Gazans,” photographs by Samar Abu Elouf with text by Declan Walsh and Abu Elouf. These pictures seem to me a little sanitized, as if they are meant to disturb liberal American sensibilities but not enough to disgust them or get them into the streets with placards. Good enough, but too tame next to the images that land the horror in one’s gut as one finds easily enough on social media and in independent publications.

On Tuesday morning, something interesting. “What Israeli Soldiers’ Videos Reveal: Cheering Destruction and Mocking Gazans,” featuring a small parade of bylines, has The Times finally getting around to publishing some of the astoundingly crude video IDF soldiers make of themselves as they rampage through the Gaza Strip.  Why now? There is no avoiding this question, given how assiduously The Times has indeed avoided this kind of material until this week. Why this string of pieces somewhat or more out of character for a newspaper that has so long stood among American media as Israel’s most influential apologist?  

It is a good question, and I do not have a certain answer. Looking at this phenomenon narrowly, these rapid-fire pieces might reflect the pandemonium and ire abroad in the newsroom. Have those reporters and editors disgusted by the Gaza coverage and riled by the Gettleman piece prompted an editorial change of heart? Maybe. Possible. Did the paper rush these pieces into print as a form of post–Gettlman damage control? Very possibly. Maybe The Times has at last decided Israel has asked too much of it. A little far-fetched, but let’s keep it on the list. 

We should recall The Times’s coverage after the al–Aqsa Mosque crisis in the spring of 2021. Just as it is doing now, it published a lot of pieces sympathetic to the Palestinians and sharply critical of the conduct of Israelis. But over time it became clear this was merely a temporary shift, a back-foot defense the moment required. Three years later The Times gives us Jeffrey Gettleman. Plus ça change.    

My mind goes back to the Vietnam war in search of an explanation for these pieces. Some readers may recall that The Times—a much different newspaper then—began in the late 1960s to publish highly critical work by correspondents who were soon noted for it: David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne, Neil Sheehan. In the trade and in the reading public these people were awarded badges of courage for their integrity, and fair enough, although they opposed the war less out of principle than a shared judgment the U.S. could not win it. 

I have long thought the tenor of The Times’s Vietnam coverage changed because, by the time the above-mentioned correspondents and others like them were filing stories with Saigon datelines, a deep divide had appeared among the policy cliques in Washington and its was permissible to write against the Pentagon’s Southeast Asia folly. 

Is The Times responding similarly now? The mood has changed in Washington, or is changing. There is a divide on Capitol Hill that grows gradually more evident. Think of all these open letters U.S. officials, some senior, are signing and circulating to express their objections to the Biden regime’s reckless support for a reckless nation’s crimes. Has The Times, in its typically indirect way, written and sent a letter of its own by way of the pieces that match not at all the Israel Jeffrey Gettleman offers Times readers? 


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