US media experts demand review of New York Times story on sexual violence by Hamas on Oct. 7

CHICAGO: Sixty-four American journalism professionals signed a letter sent to New York Times bosses expressing concern about a story published by the newspaper that accused Palestinians of sexual violence against Israeli civilians during the Oct. 7 attacks.
It concerns a story headlined “Screams Without Words: Sexual Violence on Oct. 7” that ran on the front page of the newspaper on Dec. 28 last year.
In the letter, addressed to Arthur G. Sulzberger, chairperson of The New York Times Co., and copied to executive editors Joseph Kahn and Philip Pan, the journalism professionals, who included Christians, Muslims and Jews, demanded an “external review” of the story.
It is one of several news reports by various media organizations that have been used by the Israeli government to counter criticisms of the brutal nature of its near-seven-month military response to the Hamas attacks, during which more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and most of the homes, businesses, schools, mosques, churches and hospitals in Gaza have been destroyed, displacing more than a million people, many of whom now face famine.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Arab News, states that “The Times’ editorial leadership … remains silent on important and troubling questions raised about its reporting and editorial processes.”
It continues: “We believe this inaction is not only harming The Times itself, it also actively endangers journalists, including American reporters working in conflict zones, as well as Palestinian journalists (of which, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, around 100 have been killed in this conflict so far).”
Shahan Mufti, a journalism professor at the University of Richmond, a former war correspondent and one of the organizers of the letter, told Arab News that The New York Times failed to do enough to investigate and confirm the evidence supporting the allegations in its story.
“The problem is the New York Times is no longer responding to criticism and is no longer admitting when it is making mistakes,” he said. The newspaper is one of most influential publications in the US, he noted, and its stories are republished by smaller newspapers across the country.
This week, the Israeli government released a documentary, produced by pro-Israel activist Sheryl Sandberg, called “Screams Before Silence,” which it said “reveals the horrendous sexual violence inflicted by Hamas on Oct. 7.” It includes interviews with “survivors from the Nova Festival and Israeli communities, sharing their harrowing stories” and “never-before-heard eyewitness accounts from released hostages, survivors and first responders.”
In promotional materials distributed by Israeli consulates in the US, the producers of the documentary said: “During the attacks at the Nova Music Festival and other Israeli towns, women and girls suffered rape, assault and mutilation. Released hostages have revealed that Israeli captives in Gaza have also been sexually assaulted.”
Critics have accused mainstream media organizations of repeating unverified allegations made by the Israeli government and pro-Israel activists about sexual violence on Oct. 7, with some alleging it is a deliberate attempt to fuel anti-Palestinian sentiment in the US and help justify Israel’s military response.
Some suggest such stories have empowered police and security officials in several parts of the US to crack down on pro-Palestinian demonstrations, denouncing the protesters as “antisemitic” even though some of them are Jewish.
New York Mayor Eric Adams, for example, asserted, without offering evidence, that recent protests by students on college campuses against the war in Gaza had been “orchestrated” by “outside agitators.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the protests against his country’s military campaign in Gaza are antisemitic in nature.
Jeff Cohen, a retired associate professor of journalism at Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, told Arab News The New York Times story was “flawed” but has had “a major impact in generating support for Israeli vengeance” in Gaza.
He continued: “Israeli vengeance has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. That’s why so many professors of journalism and media are calling for an independent investigation of what went wrong.
“That (New York Times) story, along with other dubious or exaggerated news reports — such as the fable about Hamas ‘beheading babies’ that President Biden promoted — have inflamed war fever.”
Cohen said the US media “too often … have promoted fables aimed at inflaming war fever,” citing as an example reports in 1990 that Iraqi soldiers had removed babies from incubators after their invasion of Kuwait. The assertions helped frame anti-Iraqi public opinion but years later they were proved to be “a hoax,” he added.
“On Oct. 7, Hamas committed horrible atrocities against civilians and it is still holding civilian hostages,” Cohen said. “Journalists must tell the truth about that, without minimizing or exaggerating, as they must tell the truth about the far more horrible Israeli crimes against Palestinian civilians.
“The problem is that the mainstream US news media have a long-standing pro-Israel bias. That bias has been proven in study after study. Further proof came from a recently leaked New York Times internal memo of words that its reporters were instructed to avoid — words like ‘Palestine’ (‘except in very rare cases’), ‘occupied territories’ (say ‘Gaza, the West Bank, etc.’) and ‘refugee camps’ (‘refer to them as neighborhoods, or areas’).”
Mufti, the University of Richmond journalism professor, said belligerents “on both sides” are trying to spin and spread their messages. But he accused Israeli authorities in particular of manipulating and censoring media coverage, including through the targeted killing of independent journalists, among them Palestinians and Arabs, and said this was having the greatest impact among the American public.
“Broadly speaking, a lot of the Western news media, and most of the world news media, do not have access to the reality in Gaza,” he said. “They don’t know. It is all guesswork.
“They are all reporting from Tel Aviv, they are reporting from Hebron, they are reporting from the West Bank. Nobody actually knows what the war looks like. It is all secondhand information.
“Most of the information is coming through the Israeli authorities, government and military. So, of course, the information that is coming out about this war is all filtered through the lens of Israel, and the military and the government.”
Mufti said the story published by The New York Times “probably changed the course, or at least influenced the course, of the war.”
He said it appeared at a time when US President Joe Biden was pushing to end the Israeli military campaign in Gaza “and it entirely changed the conversation. It was a very consequential story. And it so happens it was rushed out and it had holes in it … and it changed the course of the war.”
Mohammed Bazzi, an associate professor with the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, told Arab News the letter demanding an “external review” of the story is “a simple ask.”
He added: “This story, and others as well, did play a role” in allowing the Israeli military to take action beyond acceptable military practices “and dehumanize Palestinians.” Such dehumanization was on display before Oct. 7, Bazzi said.
“In the Western media there seemed to be far less sympathetic coverage of Palestinians in Israel’s war in Gaza as a consequence of these stories,” he continued.
“We have seen much less profiles of Palestinians … we are beyond 34,000 Palestinians killed but we don’t have a true number or the true scale of the destruction in Gaza — there could be thousands more dead under the rubble and thousands more who will die through famine and malnutrition. This will not stop, as a consequence of what Israel has done.”
Bazzi said the Western media has contributed to the dehumanization of Palestinians more than any other section of the international media, while at the same time humanizing the Israeli victims.
“The New York Times has a great influence on the US media as a whole and sets a standard” for stories and narratives that other media follow, which is “more pro-Israel and less sympathetic to Palestinians,” he added.
Bazzi, among others, said The New York Times has addressed “only a handful of many questions” about its story and needs to do more to present a more accurate account of what happened on Oct. 7.
The letter to New York Times bosses states: “Some of the most troubling questions hovering over the (Dec. 28) story relate to the freelancers who reported a great deal of it, especially Anat Schwartz, who appears to have had no prior daily news-reporting experience before her bylines in The Times.”
Schwartz is described as an Israeli “filmmaker and former air force intelligence official.”
Adam Sella, another apparently inexperienced freelancer who shared the byline on the story, is reportedly the nephew of Schwartz’s partner. The only New York Times staff reporter with a byline on the story was Jeffrey Gettleman.
Media scrutiny of the story revealed that “Schwartz and Sella did the vast majority of the ground reporting, while Gettleman focused on the framing and writing,” according to the letter.
The New York Times did not immediately respond to requests by Arab News for comment.

By admin

Leave a Reply