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Beyond levity: The New York Times’s 2019 ethical failures

If only goofing the caption of an Israeli political poster was the most egregious anti-Israel error by the paper of record
A caricature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump published in The New York Times international edition on April 25, 2019, which the paper later acknowledged 'included anti-Semitic tropes.' (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
A caricature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump published in The New York Times international edition on April 25, 2019, which the paper later acknowledged 'included anti-Semitic tropes.' (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

The New York Times’s “Best Corrections of 2019” is a lighthearted review of mishaps at The Paper of Record, highlighting corrections that left editors “red-faced” and “readers chuckling.”

“When The Times makes a mistake, we publish a correction,” assures senior staff editor Alexandria Symonds in the December 30 year-end review. “It’s more than a procedural obligation: According to our style guide, it’s ‘an ethical responsibility.'”

But make no mistake: a roundup about misreporting on the number of bacteria inhabiting a toilet seat, the confusion of Ivanka Trump (the daughter) with Ivana Trump (the ex), the erroneous reference to poppy seeds as opposed to sesame seeds on Whopper buns, or the mistaken assertion that Rep. Rashida Tlaib took her oath of office with a Quran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, is in no way an exculpatory mea culpa. It’s a cover up.

By highlighting the amusing and the inconsequential, Symonds obscures the paper’s devastating ethical failures: whitewashing, mainstreaming and peddling of the world’s oldest hatred: anti-Semitism. The most notable instance was the publication last April of an anti-Semitic cartoon indistinguishable from the most vile Nazi propaganda: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog wearing a Jewish star collar leading a blind, kippah-clad President Donald Trump.

Following an uproar, editors published a cold-blooded Editor’s Note, stating that the cartoon, which “included anti-Semitic tropes,” originated with the paper’s cartoon syndicate and was subsequently deleted. As the outcry persisted, the next day, editors finally apologized: “We are deeply sorry for the publication of an anti-Semitic political cartoon,” and promised: “We are evaluating our internal processes and training. We are anticipating significant changes.”

Later that month, media watchdog CAMERA called on The Times to implement five steps to ensure that the media giant does not continue to purvey anti-Jewish hatred, toxic incitement fueling the flames of bigotry that translated this year into murderous attacks from Jersey City to Poway, California.

“Each day of 2019, the journalists of The New York Times strove to bring readers information about the world clearly, concisely and — most important of all — correctly,” Symonds soothes, in her “Best Corrections” column.

Yet, as CAMERA highlighted in its recommended “five steps,” accuracy is routinely overlooked at The Times, particularly in coverage of the Jewish state. “The New York Times has promised to fix the issues that led to its publication of the antisemitic cartoon. But it’s hard to trust this promise when the newspaper doesn’t adhere to its most fundamental promise — that of factual accuracy,” CAMERA noted at the time.

Indeed, numerous substantive factual errors about Israel went uncorrected this year. Among the notable uncorrected falsehoods at The New York Times this year is the absurd assertion that “most of Jaffa’s Arab residents were forcibly removed from their homes,” when in fact Arab witnesses themselves recounted in detail the overwhelming Arab flight; the unfounded claim that Palestinians are barred from entering 85 percent of the Jordan Valley; the false depiction of Palestinians killed in the act of shooting Israelis and planting bombs as “demonstrators”; and the counterfactual charge that the United States and United Nations dubbed Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank “unlawful,” and many others. Indeed, The Times’ unflattering rap sheet of uncorrected falsehoods about Israel rivals Symonds’ “Best Corrections” in length, if not levity.

Balance was another key point in CAMERA’s “five steps” plan. “A New York Times columnist argued that the cartoon’s blatant anti-Semitism was not detected by editors because of ‘the almost torrential criticism of Israel and the mainstreaming of anti-Zionism’ by his newspaper and others, including treatment of the country that rises to ‘demonization.;’ This is correct,” CAMERA wrote. “If the newspaper begins to treat Israel as it does other countries, it will be more likely to treat anti-Semitism, including the variety that invokes Israel, as it does other forms of dangerous bigotry.”

The paper’s obsession with Israel and its wrongdoings, real or imagined, was also apparent in the corrections the paper was compelled to issue. Thus, after falsely reporting that Israel “demolished Palestinian communities in the West Bank last year,” The Times was forced to correct that “Israel had proposed demolishing Palestinian homes, not entire communities and had not conducted the demolition.”

Rafi Eitan’s obituary stated as fact that the Israeli spymaster played a key role in the theft of highly enriched uranium from an American company, though the disappearance remains an unsolved mystery, as a subsequent correction later acknowledged.

A photo caption before Israel’s elections in April misidentified a billboard showing Netanyahu alongside far-right politicians as “a campaign ad for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies.” In fact, as yet another CAMERA-extracted correction indicated, it is an ad for the competing Blue and White party, keen to paint Netanyahu as a close ally of racist extremists.

“While Times editors make a point of promising to cover the news ‘without fear or favor,’ its habit of favoring Israel’s opponents is glaring,” CAMERA “five points” stated, noting the paper’s glaring lack of impartiality. Indeed, the paper minimized broad criticism of anti-Semitic comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, wrongly suggesting that only “some Jewish Democrats” were behind the condemnation, which was in fact issued by the entire Democratic leadership, none of them Jewish. The Times likewise censored out the anti-Semitic segment of Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s tweet evoking the vitriolic anti-Jewish “dual loyal” canard. Similarly, the paper fabricated that the unprecedented rebuke by British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of Jeremy Corbyn for the anti-Semitism gripping the Labour party provoked “fierce debate” among British Jewry, when in fact support for the rabbi’s position is a consensus issue.

Coming clean about the whitewashing of anti-Semitism and the demonization of the Jewish state might not be as fun and easy as baring all on too many or too few zeros. But it indicates utmost ethical responsibility.

About the Author
Tamar Sternthal is the director of the Israel Office of CAMERA
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