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The Times Jumps the Gun
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The Times Jumps the Gun

Was there, in fact, an airstrike on a Gaza hospital? Maybe, maybe not.

The New York Times headquarters in New York City. (Photo by: Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

I have a theory that the people who own the New York Times are going to make a lot more money on their investment than they had expected. The only thing in their way is the people who work at the New York Times.

Allow me to explain. 

The recent controversy about coverage of the explosion at the Gaza hospital—in which the Times and others took a culpably credulous position toward Hamas’ unsubstantiated claims that the blast was the result of an Israeli airstrike and that it killed nearly 500 people—offers only the faintest prefiguration of where the disinformation project is headed. There are five distinct relevant factors at play, none of which has reached its full maturity: 

  1. The growth in scope and quality of professional, well-funded disinformation programs; everything from troll farms to more sophisticated creators of counterfeit news.
  2. The complementary growth of unpaid, freelance activist disinformation operatives motivated by commercial interests, ideology, racism, religious hatred, and/or nihilism.
  3. Social media’s ability to successfully bend critical institutions—ranging from national newspapers to major political parties—in the direction of servicing their most immediately profitable customers by feeding their appetites for cathartic, performative rage.
  4. The generational shift in attitudes among younger staffers at media outlets such as the Times, who believe that their own narrow—and often hysterical—conception of social justice, rather than journalism, is the true fundamental mission of the institution. This is an attitude they are taking with them as they rise through the org charts.
  5. The fact that all of these destructive and warping trends are going to be supercharged as radically more sophisticated generative-AI disinformation operations create a tsunami of lies and bespoke fever dreams that will be large enough to simply overwhelm legitimate journalism and other forms of intellectually honest information-gathering and analysis if allowed to go unchecked. 

Media outlets such as the New York Times—and The Dispatch—will have the opportunity to play a critical role in the emerging communication environment by offering a service that hasn’t really been fashionable to speak about in technological and media circles since the 1990s: curation. As we discussed on a recent episode of Dispatch Live, the Times does great reporting on any number of important subjects, but it also has real problems when it comes to a handful of very big issues: Israel and the Middle East, the so-called social issues in domestic politics (notably sexuality and guns), and religion—especially in traditional, conservative, orthodox forms. The Times knows this. When he was executive editor, Dean Baquet observed that the paper and its New York- and Washington-based peers simply “don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.” 

But even where their points of view warp their analysis and disfigure their reporting, institutions like the Times perform an irreplaceable service simply by confirming that particular events either did or did not happen. If a suspect dies in the custody of the New York Police Department, the Times may cover that event in a way that is informed by certain biases, but readers would be shocked to learn that the event simply never happened, that the story was made up for propaganda purposes or just because it was a slow news day. That isn’t how media bias works, and it isn’t how media sensationalism works.

The ability to simply confirm that a certain purported fact is a fact and to do so authoritatively is already enormously valuable, and it is going to get more valuable every day. The Times, having as it does the most famous and most prestigious brand in American newspaper journalism, is the company best positioned to play that curatorial role when it comes to the biggest stories, the ones that only the major news organizations really have the resources to cover. The news organization that ultimately wins the credibility race will end up, I suspect, being one of the most valuable media companies in the world. That isn’t some high-minded, idealistic dream—you can sell prestige, which is why even now so much of the Times’ class-war commentary is underwritten by advertisements from luxury-goods firms such as Cartier. But doing all that takes some real work—and some real honesty. 

The Times’ account of the Gaza hospital explosion was headlined, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.” The truncated version that initially appeared on Google News and in many social media posts even omitted “Palestinians say.” But “Palestinians say” isn’t the kind of cover the Times editors seem to think it is. For one thing, it may very well be the case that there was no Israeli strike and no hundreds dead, and you need more than a “sources say” to hang an airstrike on. “Please note it did not read ‘Missile Strike Kills Hundreds at Hospital; Investigation Ongoing,’” Commentary’s John Podhoretz wrote. “The formulation of the headline sentence was designed to make Israel the motive actor, even if the final clause acknowledges it as a Palestinian claim.”

The formulation also raises the question of which Palestinians? In this case, the source was a health ministry in Gaza controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization that is not exactly known for being scrupulous with the truth. The Times headline appeared over a photo of a wrecked building that most readers would conclude was the hospital in question—but it wasn’t. The actual site of the explosion seems to have been the parking lot at the hospital, and experts looking at the evidence have cast doubt both on the claim that the damage was the result of an Israeli bomb or missile strike and the claim that nearly 500 people were killed. 

The Wall Street Journal offered this headline, later updated: “U.S., Experts Cast Doubt on Palestinian Claims of Israeli Strike on Hospital; analysts say deadly explosion was more likely due to misfire by local militant group, but anger in Middle East builds.” 

Every newspaper—and every reporter—makes mistakes. If you aren’t running regular corrections, you probably aren’t doing enough work. But genuine errors are random. When the errors follow a particular pattern, generally run in the same way, and almost always serve the political interests of one of the involved parties in the controversy being covered, that is bias. And if it seems to you like the Times’ Israel-Hamas coverage takes a distinctly sympathetic view of Hamas and a distinctly hostile posture toward Israel—especially when Israel is being governed by a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu—then there’s a reason for that. 

As others have noted, one of the Times reporters named in the byline of the story being discussed here is Hiba Yazbek, who is, by any reasonable account, deeply anti-Israel. She is a former intern for progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan who is vocally and vindictively anti-Israel. Yazbek describes herself as being personally a victim of Israeli policy (“mental occupation”), has referred to the killing of senior Hamas commander Saber Suleiman by the Israeli military as a “murder,” declared herself “livid” over the Hamas commander’s death, things of that nature. She probably didn’t write the headline—reporters don’t normally do that—but she exemplifies the kind of internal culture that informs how the newspaper covers Israel. 

People interested in journalism tend to be interested in politics and have views about public issues. That isn’t necessarily a problem, though it can be a problem for reporters who cannot set aside their personal biases enough to do their jobs. But this is an asymmetrical phenomenon: You are not going to find a lot of New York Times coverage of the Middle East written by former Ted Cruz staffers who are members of the Zionist Organization of America. Avi Mayer, editor of the Jerusalem Post, noted yesterday that Israeli media was reporting on a supposed IDF recording of a “conversation between Islamic Jihad terrorists confirming that they launched the rocket that hit the Gaza hospital.” That recording may or may not settle the issue definitively—but you can be sure that the New York Times will not report on it with the kind of credulousness that it did Hamas’ (probably untrue) assertions about the hospital explosion. Obviously, what’s needed isn’t more credulousness all the way around—not a fairer distribution of credulousness—but less credulousness. You won’t get less credulousness from people who simply want to believe what Hamas is telling them.

Rush Limbaugh used to say that he’d read something interesting in the New York Times and say, “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder if that really happened?” That is, generally speaking, hyperbole, a very considerable overstatement of the actual bias problem at the Times and similar institutions. But was there, in fact, an Israeli airstrike on a Gaza hospital? Maybe, maybe not. Was there any airstrike? Maybe, maybe not. Were nearly 500 people killed? Maybe, maybe not. We don’t really know. What we know is that there was an explosion and that Hamas has made certain claims about that explosion, which are disputed by Israeli authorities (as one might expect) and also by high-ranking American officials, including the president of the United States

Sometimes, “Hamas claims x” really is news all on its own; sometimes, it isn’t. But surely claims from Hamas deserve to be treated with the same level of skepticism as claims from, say, Donald Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr., or other members of the Liars’ Hall of Fame. Treating these liars with skepticism comes naturally to Times writers and editors—it feels good, and, more important, it feels right. Doing the same with Hamas doesn’t, for some reason. But consider, for a moment, that a university scientist doing peer-reviewed climate research after receiving a grant from an oil company would be treated with a great deal more skepticism by the New York Times than a group of avowedly genocidal terrorists. That is a weird place to be, intellectually. And not because we should have more faith in the good intentions of oil companies. 

If the Times gets so easily wrongfooted by this kind of amateur-level disinformation—similar claims of official atrocities while at war have been a staple of martial propaganda for centuries—how is it going to deal with the avalanche of radically more sophisticated and voluminous disinformation that is headed its way? I am a Times subscriber, and, like many other readers, I do not count on the Times for a neutral or unbiased account of hot-button issues, but I do count on being able to assume that events I read about underneath that big blackletter “T” are things that actually happened. That is not the same as things Hamas claims have happened. This matters, because the Times does enjoy that prestige I mentioned above, and for that reason, it has real power to shape readers’ understanding of public events—well beyond its own pages. 

Add a little bit of intellectual laziness and ideologically motivated analysis into the mix, for example, and you get this statement from Sen. Bernie Sanders in which he writes “the bombing of a Palestinian hospital is an unspeakable crime.” We don’t know for a fact that there actually was a bombing of a Palestinian hospital at all, but Sanders—and many others—write and speak as though this were an established fact, thanks in part to the credulous headline writers and social media editors at the Times and elsewhere. Sanders may think he is being clever by omitting explicit blame for Israel from that sentence, but that is just intellectual cowardice. I wouldn’t put anything past Hamas, but nobody is seriously suggesting at this time that there was, intentionally at least, a Palestinian bombing of a Palestinian hospital; to claim, as Sen. Sanders does, that there was a bombing of a hospital makes the anti-Israel case without going to the trouble of naming Israel. 

Some of what Sanders is indulging here is just laziness and stupidity, but some of it is malice. And when the Times’ headline writers do get pushed into acknowledging the news, the verbal contortions that result are damned well positively hilarious: “Biden Affirms Evidence Backing Israel’s Denial of Causing Hospital Blast.”

We can already feel the lack of an authoritative and trustworthy news media in the current environment. That environment is about to get a lot more challenging. One hopes that if the Times cannot rise to the challenge that another outlet can. But there’s a lot to stack up to: The Times is as widely known as any newspaper in the world, it currently has two dozen overseas bureaus and employs some 1,700 journalists—and it was founded when there was a Whig in the White House. The arbiter of credibility cannot be a state actor, and the big tech companies—Alphabet, Meta, etc.—have even worse internal cultural and personnel problems than the Times does. Among newspapers, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have names that mean (with apologies to my friends at both papers) almost as much as that of the New York Times, and there are a few non-U.S. players that have something like the necessary standing, the Financial Times and the Economist prominent among them. And, of course, ultimately the work will fall to more than one institution—specialization will be necessary and desirable. But we need somebody to do what the New York Times pretends to do, promises to do, and, more often than critics might admit, actually does. Like Congress, the New York Times suffers from an excess of self-importance and a deficit of self-respect, both of which undermine its ability to do its job. And the job needs doing.

Click here for more coverage of the war in Israel.

Kevin D. Williamson's Headshot

Kevin D. Williamson

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.