Ashley Rindsberg, author of The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times' Misreporting, Fabrications and Distortions Radically Alter History, spoke to an April 19 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about "how the New York Times gets the Mideast wrong, and why it matters."
Rindsberg wrote his new book to explain "how false media narratives are created and how they shape the world around us ... generally, not for the better." By "false media narratives," a term that he prefers to the "highly politicized" phrase "fake news," Rindsberg is referring to the "promulgation of facts, storylines, and ideas that are designed to suit an ideological or interest-driven agenda of some kind."
In contrast to journalistic mistakes, a false media narrative has a "network structure" requiring "a lot of coordination, a lot of collaboration, and a lot of buy-in from lots of different people," explained Rindsberg. "False media narratives are always the product of an institution, never a single reporter or a single article." As such, whereas "a single lie ... on its own is very fragile," a false media narrative is "anti-fragile" in that "you can remove any single node ... by debunking a news report or article, and the network remains almost entirely unaffected."
A false media narrative has a "a lot of buy-in from lots of different people."
Rindsberg found that the New York Times has promoted a multitude of false media narratives during its history. During the 1930s, for example, its Berlin bureau "excus[ed] anti-Jewish riots in Germany," reported favorably on the 1936 Olympics hosted by the Nazis, and even made the specious claim that "Poland had invaded Germany" at the outbreak of World War II. For over a decade, the paper consistently provided cover for Nazi propaganda.
Rindsberg found numerous false narratives in the New York Times' reportage on the Mideast, and especially about Israel. He focused in particular on three clusters of reporting about the second Palestinian intifada.
First, when the violence erupted in September 2000, the New York Times reported that right-wing leader (and soon-to-be prime minister) Ariel Sharon "ignited the intifada" by visiting the Temple Mount, a claim repeated in three separate articles and an editorial on a single day (September 30), a technique Rindsberg calls "bolding the fact." In reality, the intifada was planned "well in advance" of Sharon's visit, as Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti later attested.
Second, the paper published a photo showing a uniformed Israeli holding a stick next to a bloodied civilian, with a caption reading "An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian civilian on the Temple Mount," the implication being that the Israeli had beaten him. In truth, the injured man, Tuvia Grossman, was an American Jewish student, the soldier was protecting him from "being lynched by a Palestinian mob," and the scene did not take place on the Temple Mount (there's a gas station in the background, of which there are none on the Temple Mount). The New York Times editors didn't make three glaring mistakes about the photo due to ignorance, but because "their implicit assumptions, their biases, [and] their prejudices about the conflict ... blinded them ... regarding the truth of the events being shown." The photo and false caption published by the paper fit the "dynamic between two archetypes ... an Israeli aggressor and his Palestinian victim" that drove the paper's "deeper narrative" about the violence.
"The entirety of the conflict had to be one of Palestinian victimhood and Israeli aggression."
The third false claim was "the lie that Israeli soldiers shot and killed in cold blood, an innocent Palestinian boy named Muhammad al-Durrah," which was later debunked. Once again, "the symbol was just too perfect for the Times to resist," said Rindsberg. "The entirety of the conflict had to be one of Palestinian victimhood and Israeli aggression. So you see that the foundational premise was set and then this top layer of the boy's death was built on top of it."
Although the claims about Sharon and al-Durrah both originated with reporters Deborah Sontag and William Oram, the false media narrative "wasn't just two reporters. It wasn't just an article or two. It was dozens of news reports, numerous reporters, including the infamous Judy Miller, who chimed in with her own claims about al-Durrah and the symbol of Palestinian victimhood he now literally embodied, as well as the roots of the conflict and the start of the intifada."
This characteristic of repeated reinforcement "from ... different angles" is seen in one of the paper's most recent false media narratives. Beginning in mid-2020, the New York Times repeatedly advanced the claim that Russia paid bounties to Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan to kill U.S. troops, and that President Trump knew about it but did nothing. Claims about the purported Russian bounties appeared in articles authored by many different Times reporters from June 2020 through April 2021. False media narratives require "a lot of hammering away again and again and again at the same claim, each time from a different angle. And this is what we saw right up until the day before news broke that the story was not true."
Media institutions must be held "accountable ... and culpable ... for journalistic malfeasance."
Rindsberg concluded that false media narratives are the product of a lack of institutional accountability in journalism. The media is "essential to a democracy ... [and] civil society," yet it is not subjected to "the same kind of examination that we put toward some institutions or fields like medicine or law." That needs to change. "As a society, we need to start making our norms, our morals, our ethics regarding journalism much more clear, more explicit, more codified," and institutions that violate those norms must be held "accountable ... and culpable ... for journalistic malfeasance." Rindsberg's exposé about the New York Times' false media narratives is a step in the right direction.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.