In journalism schools across America, students are often instructed to read and purchase the New York Times every day before class. It is hailed as the “paper of record” and something every young pupil should aspire to. But in the Middle East, the Times is increasingly providing a great example of what not to do as a journalist and how irresponsible reporting can really skew a story and misinform the public. (This blog has previously debunked problematic or completely false NYT stories published recently on Lebanon and Gaza.)
Today, the Times provides a great example on how not to write a lead sentence, the first and most important sentence in a news article. The lead is a place where the facts of a story are summarized in a succinct and compelling way so that readers can get a very good sense of what the piece is about before reading the whole thing. The lead is not a place for opinion or vague speculation.
Yet here is today’s lead sentence:
The lead here contains no facts. It contains no specific information about the recent air strikes and serves only as a vague, unsourced general and polemical argument that portrays Israel as a victim of Hamas. This is despite the reality that Israel has killed 2,000 more Palestinians than Hamas has killed Israelis.
In fact, the Times writer Jodi Rudoren is actually mimicking a near verbatim talking point made constantly by Israeli officials: i.e. ‘Hamas is the bad guy that breaks all the rules and keeps this war going.” I would not be surprised if someone found a soundbite from an Israeli official that sounds exactly like what Ms. Rudoren has so vaguely and polemically written.
But there is more.
Another important aspect of good journalism is listening to a variety of sources so that one can attempt to produce a balanced story. This gives readers a sense of the many different aspects of the reality on the ground and how they can be interpreted very differently, especially when there are two parties at war.
Yet Ms. Rudoren quotes only Israeli sources in the first 18 paragraphs of her story. No Palestinian analysts are ever interviewed.
The Israeli sources include former Israeli ambassador, a former Israeli general and a former Israeli intelligence chief. The tone of their quotes sets the tone of the story, a tone of defiance and victory for Israel:
“Israel’s entire existence has been a war of attrition, and we’ve won that war.” The killing of Hamas members was “a very important operational achievement… this will badly hurt Hamas’s military wing.” ‘You want attrition? You are welcome. You lost your strategic military tools against Israel. Our firepower and our intelligence and our capability to sustain more days is much bigger than yours.’ This is the strategy.”
But Ms. Rudoren doesn’t even need to quote Israeli officials, she makes the case for Israel in her own words. These are direct quotes from her own paragraphs in the piece:
Israel’s advantage has never looked more lopsided. Israel deployed its extensive intelligence capabilities and overwhelming firepower in targeted bombings with limited civilian casualties less likely to raise the world’s ire. Israel dealt a profound psychological blow to the enemy while giving the home front something clear to celebrate. Israel was able to avoid the large-scale collateral damage that has provoked international outrage. Diplomatic pressure appeared to be easing, if only because the world’s attention seems focused on other crises As the conflict grinds on, Israelis see time as on their side.
Palestinians are only quoted in the last 3 paragraphs of the 27 paragraph story. But those quoted are not analysts or prominent intellectuals. They are mainly bystanders, given a token one-line quip of sadness or anguish. By prioritizing Israeli official views and featuring virtually no equivalent Palestinian voices, many readers will walk away from Rudoren’s piece with the impression: ‘Hamas is bad, Hamas has caused all this suffering. Israel is winning. Israel is doing the right thing.’ But by failing to question the price and long term sustainability of such an aggressive military strategy, by downplaying the dozens of innocents killed in recent days as minimal “collateral damage,” by failing to note the deep seated hatred the high-profile killings may inspire for generations to come, by failing to question why Israel has not sought a political solution and basic rights for Gazans, Rudoren is providing a public service not to her general readership– who deserve answers to all of those questions– but to war hawks, who prefer to silence dissenting views. *** Thanks to Massoud for pointing out this Times piece. For an alternate view on why air strikes were chosen over peaceful negotiations, see this recent interview with writer Ali Abunimah, who reminds viewers the Israeli air force–not Hamas–has killed the vast majority of civilians by dropping what he claims is the equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb on Gaza: