A business of lies: Shireen Abu Akleh and the New York Times' pro-Israel disinformation
On May 11, within an hour of the murder of veteran Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh at the hands of Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF), the New York Times (NYT) published a lie. The piece falsely reported that Al Jazeera and the Palestinian Health Minister said that Shireen Abu Akleh was shot during “clashes between Israeli military forces and Palestinian gunmen.”
This oversight is not minor – it was disinformation, casting “Palestinian gunmen” as instigators, while omitting that the fabricated “clashes” were actually illegal raids by the IOF into Palestinian Authority-controlled territory. Journalists, activists, and organisations – myself included – created an online uproar that resulted in mild change.
The Times issued a correction 11 hours later, while adding to the byline the name of Patrick Kingseley, NYT’s Jerusalem bureau chief, who is a skilled Hasbara (Israeli propaganda) writer. But the blatant lie in the lede was accessible to millions of subscribers and non-subscribers across the world, as was the related tweet, which has since been deleted and reposted with a correction.
It is not uncommon for newspapers to publicly post corrections about published articles. Corrections usually consist of typos, misspelled names, dates, or, in the worst cases, factual errors. It happens. But it is difficult to fathom that the NYT got a statement made by two groups wrong.
"NYT’s coverage of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh is but a guiding example of the paper’s editorial policies surrounding Palestine: Use passive voice. Omit facts. Do not make Israel the aggressor. Israeli violence is justified. Israeli sources are to be believed. Do not challenge or verify Israeli officials’ claims. Limit the use of Palestinian sources"
This was not NYT’s first correction regarding reporting about Shireen. In an obituary written by the same reporter and published on the same day, the headline read “Shireen Abu Akleh, Trailblazing Journalist, Dies at 51.”
It omitted that her death was murder, which incited public pressure from various groups, including an email campaign by Jewish Voice for Peace. The next day, the headline was corrected, stating that Abu Akleh was killed and did not simply “die.”
In contrast, on March 13, NYT published an obituary titled “Brent Renaud, an American Journalist, is Killed in Ukraine.” The careful choice by the editors to be as vague as possible when reporting on Palestinian death is no coincidence.
NYT’s coverage of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh is but a guiding example of the paper’s editorial policies surrounding Palestine: Use passive voice. Omit facts. Do not make Israel the aggressor. Israeli violence is justified. Israeli sources are to be believed. Do not challenge or verify Israeli officials’ claims. Limit the use of Palestinian sources.
Fixed it for you, @nytimes.— JVP #SaveMasaferYatta (@jvplive) May 11, 2022
Shireen Abu Akleh dedicated her life to exposing Israeli military violence in a hostile, biased media landscape that reports Israel’s lies as facts and erases Palestinians’ truths — now, including the truth of her own assassination.
Do. Better. NOW. pic.twitter.com/isEzwt8qxU
The abhorrent coverage didn’t end there. On May 12, the Times turned the killing of Shireen into a debate about ballistics, which has the dual effect of entertaining readers and dehumanising Palestinians.
On May 13, the Times justified the attack by Israeli police on Palestinian mourners carrying Shireen’s casket in Jerusalem. They reported a claim by the Israeli police that the attack was provoked by the throwing of “plastic bottles,” and that police “intervened” by beating mourners, causing them to momentarily drop the casket.
The Times proceeded to publish a false claim by Israeli police that an agreement made with Ms. Abu Akleh’s family had not been honoured. NYT did not reach out to Ms. Abu Akleh’s family for verification. This lie was refuted by Ms. Abu Akleh’s brother in a separate interview with AFP.
The New York Times has frequently been criticised for giving permanent space to anti-Palestinian voices. From Patrick Kingsley, who routinely distorts facts, to Isabel Kershner, whose son and husband served in the Israeli military, pro-Israeli reporters are enabled to whitewash the occupation. And the pro-Israel stance of NYT goes right to the top.
NYT, since its foundation, has been run by the Sulzberger family. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. was Chairman of The New York Times Company from 1997 until 2020, when he passed the position on to his son. Sulzberger Jr. spent time in Israel as a high school youth, which, given the anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab tone of his paper, makes it fair to assume that this visit to a settler-colonial state influenced his outlook on the world.
Several members of NYT’s Board of Directors lead or have led companies that have extensive financial interests in Israel. Amanpal S. Butani, the CEO of GoDaddy, runs ads on Israeli TV. Manuel Bronstein is the CPO at Roblox, which hosts Israeli gaming companies. Beth Brooke was formerly the Global Vice Chair of Ernst & Young LLP, a firm that has offices in Tel Aviv. Hays N. Golden served in various roles at AIG, which sells insurance to Israelis.
Reporting on the human rights abuses of Israel would hurt the propaganda that Tel Aviv puts out, subsequently impacting the business interests of most of the NYT board. This surely influences editorial decisions.
"Shireen was not an exception. NYT’s coverage of her murder was part of a pattern of erasure and pro-Israel propaganda"
Most damning is that the current CEO of NYT, Meredith Kopit Levien, has close personal and professional ties to Israel. She was married to Jason Levien – a sports agent and franchise owner who spent time in Israel as a child, has represented Israeli athletes, and has extensive investment interest in Israel.
Kopit Levien was a fellow with the pro-Israel Aspen Institute, and she was mentored by Mark Thompson – a notoriously pro-Israeli media executive, who ran both the BBC (2004-12) and The New York Times (2012-20). Kopit Levien succeeded him, and she has continued to enforce his editorial decisions.
Under the management of the publisher – A.G. Sulzberger – and Kopit Levien, the New York Times Company has invested tens of millions of dollars into OpenWeb, an Israeli social media community engagement platform.
NYT is clearly interested in using Israeli technology to bolster their online reach, which only deepens the mass media company’s aversion to criticising a key business partner. This intertwining of financial interests between the two parties is extremely troubling, especially considering the enormous reach and influence of the Times.
NYT has covered human rights abuses committed by an array of states, from Venezuela to Cuba, from Hungary to China, bragging about their courage, and incentivising major media outlets across the world to join the so-called “Trust Project.” The paper has a monopoly on space; even Palestinians are forced to submit op-eds to NYT due to the massive global reach that the outlet has among “higher brow” readership.
Yet, despite wanting to benefit from its virtue-signality and inclusiveness, NYT is incapable of taking a stance on the assassination of one of the world’s most-known journalists, simply because she was Palestinian, and because she was targeted and killed by an IOF sniper.
Shireen was not an exception. NYT’s coverage of her murder was part of a pattern of erasure and pro-Israel propaganda. Had she been killed by a soldier or militant from any other institution or regime, it would have been front page news, and the editorial board would have railed against the criminals. Instead, they tarnished the story, buried it, and washed their hands of her blood.
Laura Albast is a Palestinian-American journalist and media analyst. She is currently with the Institute for Palestine Studies-USA. Her articles have been published by The Washington Post, Arab American News, and other outlets. She has appeared on Al-Jazeera, WEAA, WMNF, and the Black Star Network.
Follow her on Twitter: @Lau_Bast
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.