Can The New York Times, probably the US’s most influential media outlet, get basic facts right in its coverage of Israel and Palestine, and does it have an objective and accountable process in place to correct factual errors when they are flagged?
A review of some recent cases of New York Times “corrections,” one of which I initiated relating to the Nakba – the forced displacement of between 750,000 – 1 million Palestinians from their homes by Zionist paramilitaries and later the Israeli army between 1947-50 – raises serious doubts about The New York Times commitment to getting the facts right in its reporting on Palestine and Israel.
In one instance, Charles Manekin has explained convincingly that The New York Times published an incorrect “correction” on February 20, by removing the description of Atarot as a neighborhood “in occupied Palestinian Territory” from a February 11th article. The “correction” instead claimed that the current neighborhood of Atarot in East Jerusalem had been a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem prior to 1948. But Manekin shows that the pre-1948 Jewish neighborhood of Atarot was not in Jerusalem and did not overlap with the neighborhood currently called Atarot that was mentioned in The Times story. Thus The Times original description of Atarot as occupied was factually accurate, but the paper succumbed to pressure from the right-wing group CAMERA and published a factually incorrect correction. Yousef Munayyer has documented added examples of recent “incorrections” by The Times that absolve Israel of responsibility and expunge history in Palestine.
I wrote the paper on March 3 expressing concerns about the prevalence of anti-boycott views in two recent news articles about the movement for boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) against Israel. I acknowledged The Times then did better in its next article on BDS. On March 5 I also emailed The New York Times department that handles corrections about one of those articles, the February 28 Mark Landler article, requesting a correction of the description of the BDS movement’s demands about the rights of Palestinian refugees who were expelled during the Nakba. The article had incorrectly suggested that Palestinians were expelled from their homes and became refugees only after the founding of the state of Israel. Here are excerpts of my email to Senior Corrections Editor Greg Brock:
In Mr. Landler’s article he writes that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement targeting Israel “aims to allow Palestinians to return to places from which they were displaced in 1948 after the founding of the state of Israel.” (My emphasis) 
In fact, the BDS Movement says nothing about the timeframe when Palestinian refugees were displaced, though they are referring broadly speaking to the period from 1947-1949. The BDS Movement says specifically that its aim with respect to Palestinian refugees (with no stated timeframe) is “Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” (http://www.bdsmovement.net/bdsintro) Mr. Landler has imposed an incorrect timeframe on the BDS movement’s demand and on the displacement of Palestinian refugees.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Mr. Landler, like other New York Times reporters including Ethan Bronner, appears to be repeating a popular, but false narrative put forth by supporters of Israel who wish to deflect responsibility by claiming that Palestinian refugees fled only after five Arab armies chose to attack Israel after it declared statehood on May 14, 1948.
In fact, it is well-documented by Palestinian and Israeli historians like Salman Abu Sitta, Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris that around one-third to one-half of all Palestinian refugees were driven from their homes prior to the founding of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, as a result of attacks or threats of attacks by Zionist paramilitaries…. The large-scale expulsion of Palestinian refugees before May 14 is even confirmed by The New York Times’ own reporting at the time. …
I do hope that New York Times editors will put in place safeguards put an end to the repetition of this historical misrepresentation.
Inaccurate descriptions of the Nakba’s timeframe and extent, and obfuscation of the Jewish paramilitaries forcible expulsion of Palestinian refugees from their homes are common in the mainstream US discourse and similarly common in The New York Times (The Times also recently said a Palestinian refugee had “moved” to Gaza in 1948). Some supporters of Palestinian rights refer to this phenomenon as “Nakba denial.” The related failure to acknowledge that Palestinian refugees right of return is protected by international law is also common in the US and in The Times, as also illustrated by Landler’s article and by a series of Roger Cohen columns. But I thought the case for a factual correction was simple and clear here. So I was surprised to receive this March 6 email from the Assistant to Greg Brock:
Thank you for your email. We appreciate your point that the goals of the B.D.S. movement are complex and perhaps warranted more nuance than we had space to give them in the passing reference in our article. However, after consulting with the International desk and the senior editor for standards, we remain comfortable with the language of our article as published.
As you note, the third aim of the B.D.S. movement calls for “[r]especting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” However, as U.N. Resolution 194, which “[r]esolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,” was both proposed and adopted in 1948, the year Israel declared statehood, it’s reasonable to extrapolate that the resolution was drafted in response to the founding of Israel.
All the same, we thank you for taking the time to make this point. We will certainly have your comments in mind when writing on the subject in the future.
In commenting generally about 1948, the response completely avoided the factual issue raised about the article’s incorrect timeline of events before and after May 14, 1948, the incorrect suggestion that refugees were only expelled “in 1948 after the founding of the state of Israel,” and the incorrect implication that the BDS movement was somehow only concerned with rights of refugees who were expelled after the founding of the state of Israel. UN Resolution 194, cited by the BDS Movement and in The Times response, deals with “the refugees” and also makes no comment on or distinction between refugees expelled before or after May 14, 1948.
I shared my email and The New York Times’ response with eight people, including a disinterested newspaper editor, all of whom said that The Times response made no sense and avoided the factual issue. I emailed back to Greg Brock, ccing Mark Landler, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan and Foreign Editor Joe Kahn, with more background information and in frustration wrote that The Times response was ”illogical, bureaucratic and actually shows little commitment to factual accuracy, but rather appears to be a rather obvious effort to bury the issue and the error.” The Times Greg Brock then responded, saying in part:
We are not going to revisit the decision or the issue. We took your query very seriously. Not only did we talk to the top foreign editor [Joe Kahn] and Mr. Landler, but my assistant took a great deal of time researching this: reading the United Nations resolution, checking BDS’s website, and more.
The Times can be faulted for many things, but our commitment to accuracy is not one of them. No other publication in the world has the extensive corrections process we do…. But this reference in Mr. Landler’s article was not factually incorrect and does not merit a correction.
My subsequent follow-up query received no response.
The Times rejection in this case of a very valid factual concern, its non-sequitur explanation of the rejection, assertion that its “commitment to accuracy” cannot be faulted, and refusal of further comment creates for me the impression that it is unaccountable and in reality not committed to factual accuracy.
My experience, on top of the incorrect corrections raised by Charles Manekin and Yousef Munayyer, all provide solid evidence that on issues relating to Palestine and Israel, one of the most influential US media outlets – from its reporters, to news editors, to standards editors – is simply not a reliable source of information. Instead The Times makes choices almost daily in its reporting that tend to absolve or obfuscate Israel’s responsibility for the Nakba, for Israeli military occupation, and for violence and human rights abuses.
Just yesterday reporter Isabel Kershner summarized the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, writing, “Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets at Israel during the 2006 war, which began after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Lebanon border. More than 1,000 Lebanese and dozens of Israelis were killed in the fighting.” Kershner made no mention of thousands Israeli rockets, bombs and shells, completely obscuring Israel’s massive 2006 military assault on Lebanon. A reader is left to wonder if more than 1,000 Lebanese were killed by the thousands of Hezbollah rockets?
Though New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has done a lot of good work on other issues, it seems a lot to hope that one person can manage to deal with the volume and depth of the problems in The Times’ reporting on Palestine and Israel.
 I misplaced my initial quotation mark, though this does not alter the sentence’s meaning. I should have written: aims to “allow Palestinians to return to places from which they were displaced in 1948 after the founding of the state of Israel.”