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New York Times Puts “Daily” Episode on Ice Amid Internal Firestorm Over Hamas Sexual Violence Article

The New York Times pulled a high-profile episode of its podcast “The Daily” about sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 amid a furious internal debate about the strength of the paper’s original reporting on the subject, Times new…

The New York Times pulled a high-profile episode of its podcast “The Daily” about sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 amid a furious internal debate about the strength of the paper’s original reporting on the subject, Times newsroom sources told The Intercept. The episode had been scheduled for January 9 and was based on a prominent article led by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Gettleman, claiming that Hamas had systematically used sexual violence as a weapon of war. 

The Times report was initially heralded in an email sent to the newsroom, conveying praise from Executive Editor Joe Kahn, who described the story as an example of the best kind of enterprise reporting the paper is capable of. 

In the past couple of weeks, as the year drew to a close and many of us were on holiday, we published several signature pieces of enterprise on the Israel-Hamas war from different teams in the newsroom. Joe spotlighted some of them: 

Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella spent several weeks and conducted 150 interviews to report on how Hamas weaponized sexual violence during the October 7th attack. The topic is a highly politicized issue and a delicate one to report, and Joe noted how the team, including photographs by Avishag Shaar-Yashuv, did it in a sensitive and detailed way.

But that message came roughly at the same time as another staff missive urging Times employees not to criticize each other on the company’s internal Slack. Many reporters and editors understood that directive to be a reference to an intense internal debate unfolding over the story — a rolling fight that is revived on a near-daily basis over the tenor of Times coverage of the war in Gaza. (A Times spokesperson, Charlie Stadtlander, said those assumptions were inaccurate, and that the email was “a release of a company-wide policy, the deliberate and measured development of which began in the beginning of 2023.”)

As criticism of Gettleman’s story grew both internally and externally, producers at “The Daily” shelved the original script and paused the episode, according to newsroom sources familiar with the process. A new script was drafted, one that offered major caveats, allowed for uncertainty, and asked open-ended questions that were absent from the original article, which presented its findings as definitive evidence of the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. 

That new draft remains the subject of significant controversy and has yet to be aired on the flagship podcast. The producers and the paper of record find themselves in a jam: run a version that hews closely to the previously published story and risk republishing serious mistakes, or publish a heavily toned-down version, raising questions about whether the paper still stands by the original report. Meanwhile, sources at the Times say Gettleman has been assigned a follow-up to gather evidence supporting his original reporting.

Internal critics worry that the article is another “Caliphate”-level journalistic debacle. “There seems to be no self-awareness at the top,” said one frustrated Times editorial staffer. “The story deserved more fact-checking and much more reporting. All basic standards applied to countless other stories.”

The critics have highlighted major discrepancies in the accounts presented in the Times, subsequent public comments from the family of a major subject of the article denouncing it, and comments from a key witness seeming to contradict a claim attributed to him in the article.

Stadtlander said the paper doesn’t comment on ongoing reporting and, that no piece of its journalism is final until it’s been published: 

As a general matter of policy, we do not comment on the specifics of what may or may not publish in The New York Times or our audio programs. Just like our print report, The Times’s audio editorial process is a result of independent consideration of newsworthy topics, and not in response to any criticisms. The Daily’s production team is constantly looking at the scope of The Times’s news report, with many efforts in various stages of development at any given time. There is only one “version” of any piece of audio journalism: the one that publishes.

The dissent within the Times comes as the paper is also facing serious external scrutiny for its coverage of Israel’s war on Gaza. Since October 7, the New York Times has shown deference to Israel Defense Forces sources while diminishing the scale of death and destruction in Palestine. An Intercept analysis found that in the first six weeks of the war, the New York Times, alongside other major publications, consistently delegitimized Palestinian deaths and cultivated “a gross imbalance” in coverage to pro-Israeli sources and voices. The paper’s coverage of South Africa’s charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice played down severity of the case at the outset and downplayed Israel’s defeat on Friday. Just last week, the Times ran a headline touting the “Decline in Deaths in Gaza,” even as Israel continues to kill Palestinians in shocking numbers on a daily basis. 

“Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, The Times’s journalists have reported with sensitivity, independence and unflinching detail on destructive events that have generated strong reactions, including the piece of journalism from Dec. 28 about allegations of sexual violence committed by Hamas,” the Times spokesperson wrote. “We continue to report on this matter as part of our broader coverage of the conflict, capturing both the global implications and deeply personal stories of those affected by the ongoing fighting.”

New York Times leadership has long taken a reflexively pro-Israel stance, and it is no surprise that the paper’s coverage has not been swayed by the criticism. Yet it’s done more than double down on its existing reporting: The Times has also succumbed to pressure campaigns by a pro-Israel media watchdog to change or soften its coverage of Israel.

2K3X1MH Austin Texas USA, September 24 2022: Executive editor of the New York Times, JOE KAHN, makes a point during an interview session at the annual Texas Tribune Festival in downtown Austin. ©Bob Daemmrich

Executive editor of the New York Times, Joe Kahn, during an interview session at the annual Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 24, 2022.

Photo: Alamy

Pressure From CAMERA

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, or CAMERA, was founded in 1982 in response to what it claims was anti-Israel bias in the Washington Post’s reporting on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Since its inception, CAMERA has successfully lobbied for hundreds of corrections in major media outlets, seeking to streamline a pro-Israel line in news reports and editorials. It has smeared journalists whose work it disagrees with and launched boycott campaigns against news organizations it believes are not responding with enough deference to its requests. 

In the past few months, the group has forced at least two changes in the New York Times, which sometimes responds to CAMERA with quiet edits and sometimes with formal corrections. The Times removed the use of the term “occupation” from a description of Israeli military forces and made a correction to language describing Palestinian deaths in Gaza

Emblematic of CAMERA’s influence at the Times is the fact that Kahn’s father, Leo Kahn, was a longtime member of CAMERA’s board — though before Kahn rose to prominence at the paper. By the time Leo Kahn joined the group as a board member in 1990, it was already famous for its aggressive pursuit of corrections and wording changes in the media to reflect a more pro-Israel stance. And, according to the Times’s profile of Kahn when he was elevated to his current post in 2022, he and his father often “dissected newspaper coverage” together. 

CAMERA, which boasts more than 65,000 members, campaigns against coverage in a wide variety of U.S. news outlets, but it has been particularly aggressive in its targeting of the paper of record. For over a decade, CAMERA has paid for billboards across the street from the Times headquarters criticizing the paper for its allegedly biased coverage. At times, it has even used its billboards to equate the paper of record with Hamas. All that pressure has had an impact. Dating back to 2000, CAMERA’s website records dozens of successful corrections issued by Times editors after concerted harassment campaigns. 

Kahn began his career at the Times in 1998 after making a name for himself as a China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He reported on Wall Street for the Times before returning to China, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on China’s legal system. In 2008, Kahn returned stateside to work for the Times as a foreign editor, quickly rising to oversee the entire foreign desk by 2011, where he managed all aspects of foreign reporting, including the Middle East. In 2016, he was promoted to managing editor before finally ascending to the newspaper’s top role in 2022.

Leo Kahn studied journalism at Columbia University before building his fortune as a business owner. He was a co-founder of Staples and multiple New England grocery chains, in addition to a brief stint as a co-owner of SuperOffice, a major office supplies retailer in Israel. As late as 2008, the year Joe Kahn was promoted to editor on the foreign desk, Leo Kahn was listed on CAMERA’s board of directors.

Stadtlander, the New York Times spokesperson, denied that CAMERA gets special treatment. “The Times handles all requests for correction from outside sources through discussion among our Standards team and the relevant editors familiar with the reporting in question. Feedback from any group, including CAMERA, is not treated any differently nor would it warrant any unique involvement from masthead editors,” he wrote in an email to The Intercept. “Joe Kahn has worked at The Times for more than 25 years, during which time he had — and still has — no relationship whatsoever with CAMERA. His father’s role on their board ended before Joe held any editing role at The Times.”

The Times’s record of acquiescing to CAMERA’s relentless requests, however, is striking in contrast to its historic resistance to correcting its stories. 

“It has always been extremely difficult to get corrections placed in the Times, and it’s even harder since they got rid of their public editor, which was a way of taking complaints to a person whose job it was to respond,” Jim Naureckas, senior editor at the media oversight organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, told The Intercept. “You didn’t need to have a friend inside because you had a person whose job it was to take your complaint. With that position gone, it’s much more of a black box. It’s hard to get a hearing for your complaint. You can send an email, but it’s often like dropping a stone down a well. You might hear a splash, or you might not.”

CAMERA did not respond to a request for comment. 

While there is no evidence that Kahn himself has changed the paper’s overall handling of requests from CAMERA, between 2011 and 2016, when Kahn oversaw the foreign desk, CAMERA successfully initiated more than a dozen corrections on issues ranging from Israeli settlements to the blockade of Gaza. And in 2012, he quickly made a minor, but telling, correction at the group’s request, according to CAMERA’s website.

In March 2012, the New York Times published an article interrogating the way the Arab Spring uprisings had undermined support and attention to the plight of Palestinians. The piece drew CAMERA’s attention because it included a photograph depicting Israel Defense Forces soldiers firing on Palestinians, and the photo caption did not specify that they were using rubber bullets. While rubber bullets are less deadly than live ammunition, they can result in serious injury and even death.

According to CAMERA’s account, they quickly notified Kahn, then an international desk editor, who “agreed the caption needed correcting.” The Times soon issued a correction: “A picture caption on Thursday with an article about the increasing marginalization being felt by Palestinians in the West Bank referred incompletely to the action of the Israeli soldiers shown. While the soldiers, whose activity was not recounted in the article, were indeed firing rifles at stone throwers in the West Bank town of Al Ram last month, the rifles contained rubber bullets.”

A Softer Tone

Long before the Hamas attack on October 7, critics have voiced concerns over the New York Times’s approach to covering Israel, as well as family connections between New York Times employees and the Israel Defense Forces. Over the past 20 years, the children of three Times reporters enlisted in the IDF while the parents covered issues related to the Israel–Palestine conflict. In addition, Times Israel reporter Isabel Kershner was scrutinized for citing work from an Israeli security think tank where her husband worked, without disclosing the connection. 

CAMERA’s criticism, meanwhile, comes from the perspective that the Times is not sufficiently deferential to Israel. Taken together, many of the changes the Times has made following lobbying by CAMERA do not fundamentally alter the premise of the reporting. With some exceptions, they instead alter the tone and tenor of the reports, steering coverage toward CAMERA’s preferred perspective. 

Over the past few years, the Times made a CAMERA-inspired change to an article describing Jesus as living in Palestine, a change to an article that failed to describe the Western Wall as the holiest site in Judaism, and a correction for conflating property seizure with violence. 

CAMERA scored an editor’s note for an article on Gaza’s ailing fishing industry in 2022 that omitted certain statistics about the annual catch of Gaza fishermen operating under Israel’s yearslong blockade. 

The group secured one of its most substantial changes in 2021, when Kahn was serving as managing editor. In response to a demand by CAMERA, the Times appended a lengthy explanatory editor’s note to the top of an article, a type of alteration that almost always has to pass through a member of the masthead leadership.

The article in question was a profile of the celebrated Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer. According to CAMERA, the piece, written by correspondent Patrick Kingsley, described Alareer in too positive a light. The Times was quick to agree, appending a 267-word note that described comments that Alareer had made about Israeli poetry in 2019, when he took a tone much more critical of Israeli literature than he had in Kingsley’s presence. The note concluded:

In light of this additional information, editors have concluded that the article did not accurately reflect Mr. Alareer’s views on Israeli poetry or how he teaches it. Had The Times done more extensive reporting on Mr. Alareer, the article would have presented a more complete picture.

Almost exactly two years later, Alareer was killed in what the human rights group Euro-Med Monitor deemed a targeted strike by the Israeli Defense Forces. He had received direct threats by phone before his apartment was bombed. Pinned to his Twitter profile was a post with his now-famous poem: “If I must die, let it be a tale.”

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This content originally appeared on The Intercept and was authored by Daniel Boguslaw.

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