Talk about too little, too late. On Monday morning, The New York Times finally copped to a huge error: Despite its earlier coverage to the contrary, there is no available evidence that Israeli forces attacked the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City.
This is my interpretation. The Times never comes right out and says they got it wrong, but the “editors’ note” does say, “American and other international officials have said their evidence indicates that the rocket came from Palestinian fighter positions.”
You wouldn't know it by reading the stilted and benign language of the editors’ note but The Times’ original Oct. 17 headline read, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds at Hospital, Palestinians Say.” The phrasing was irresponsible, to say the least.
The Times now admits they “relied too heavily on claims by Hamas.” Sit with that statement for a minute. You know the old reporter’s maxim, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out”? Well if that’s true, what should you do when a terrorist organization tells you something?
Of course, The Times weren’t the only ones not to thoroughly vet “The Gaza Health Ministry’s” evidence-free allegation—despite Israel’s quick disavowal of responsibility. Numerous outlets—including AP, Reuters, and The Daily Beast—originally reported that Israel was responsible for the strike on the hospital. Such supposed “confirmation” made it sound like a fact, rather than an early unvetted report. Regardless, the news sparked “thousands of protesters shouting anti-Israel slogans gathered in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, and Tunisia.”
In fairness, The Times’ title was eventually bowdlerized. “Within two hours,” The Gray Lady’s editors’ note tells us, “...the headline and other text at the top of the website reflected… the dispute over responsibility.” But the damage was done.
The problem with retroactively changing a story? “Once we have heard misinformation, it is hard to uproot even when we want to know the truth,” explained neuroscientist and journalist Richard Sima in The Washington Post last November. “Multiple studies have found that misinformation can still influence our thinking even if we receive a correction and believe it to be true, a phenomenon known as the ‘continued influence effect.’”
When it comes to right-wing propaganda—whether about Trump election fraud lies or anti-vaxx messaging—the media is keen to warn about the dangers of misinformation. But if QAnon’s claims about JFK, Jr. making an appearance in Dallas are hard to deprogram, imagine trying to set the record straight in the Arab street after the paper of record purveys said propaganda.
In the viral age of social media, a lie is more than halfway across the world before the truth gets its pants on.
Even a strongly worded mea culpa couldn’t have shoved this toothpaste back inside its tube. But The Times didn’t even really try, and instead provided a passive explanation (which could hardly be mistaken for an actual apology) that, “Times editors should have taken more care with the initial presentation, and been more explicit about what information could be verified.”
It’s impossible to know why this error occurred in the first place, but prominent figures wasted little time attempting to divine their motives.
For some, the clickbaity nature of today’s media environment is to blame.
“I agree the @nytimes didn’t ‘botch’ the Gaza hospital story,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, on Thursday. “They did something worse. They intentionally wrote an attention grabbing headline that falsely pointed the blame at Israel to generate clicks during breaking news, without waiting for confirmation or the actual facts.”
For others, this was an inevitable result of worldview bias.
Appearing on Fox Business, my friend Batya Ungar-Sargon, author of Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, called the press corps “stenographers of terrorists.” According to Ungar-Sargon, to media elites, “Israel is the oppressor… and they were just desperate to get Israel back into the oppressor position of the bad guy.”
It seems likely that our fast-paced, shoot-from-your-hip media environment, coupled with a sort of progressive worldview bias that is predominant in today’s mainstream media newsrooms, work in tandem to create these errors.
Certain allegations are treated skeptically. Others are credulously believed.
In recent years, we have seen numerous examples of media relying on their own priors to shape their reporting.
Remember when the notion that coronavirus might be the result of a lab leak was labeled a “conspiracy theory”? Remember when we were assured that the story about Hunter Biden’s emails were “Russian disinformation”?
Yeah, there’s a reason that half of America has tuned out the establishment media. They don’t trust us, and it’s hard to blame them.
For the sin of publishing a controversial op-ed written by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) in 2020, The New York Times’ staff revolted, forcing the outlet’s opinion editor to resign. Will anybody who works at The Times start a revolt over a news headline that erroneously blamed Israel—a nation who just days earlier was the victim of a brutal terrorist attack—for blowing up a hospital? Will anyone be fired?
Our trust in institutions, including the media, is crumbling, and Americans have no trusted gatekeepers or referees to adjudicate reality. In such a time as this, you would think that major outlets would take their responsibility—if not to the public, then at least to themselves—seriously.
I’ll be over here not holding my breath.