Unfortunately in the upside down world of the New York Times’ reporting on Palestine and Israel, where Palestinian voices often count less than Israeli voices, bringing exculpatory evidence to light and requesting a correction doesn’t always result in greater clarity. It can instead result in further impugning the always-accused Palestinians.
In an article datelined May 1 about a viral April 27 video of an Israeli soldier cocking his gun at Palestinian youths in Hebron,NY Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren reported as fact that, “It also turned out that one of the teenagers in Hebron had brass knuckles.” This supported a narrative that, while the soldier visibly behaved in an aggressive manner using his gun to threaten Palestinian civilians, the soldier himself acted because he felt threatened by an armed Palestinian youth.
The accusation that one of the boys was wearing brass knuckles seemed to stem from a cursory viewing of a video posted by the Hebron-based Palestinian human rights group “Youth Against Settlements.” The Times of Israel, for example, noted on April 30th that, “While officials said that the soldier could face dismissal after he finishes his prison sentence, they stressed that IDF soldiers have the right to draw their weapons in situations where they feel threatened, and that pictures from the incident clearly show the Palestinian boy had brass knuckles in his hand.” In the Youth Against Settlements video, something is visible in the right hand of a young man in white pants and a black shirt, but it is difficult to see what. Still, the claim that the youth had brass knuckles made its way into one of the US’s most important media outlets, The New York Times, unsourced and stated as fact.
Following these accusations, Youth Against Settlements from Hebron, which had posted the original video, looked into the issue and then posted a second video on May 2nd showing that the same young man in white pants and a black shirt was holding prayer beads in his right hand in another related encounter with the same Israeli soldier, and showing a close up of the original video displaying the same prayer beads in his right hand. Youth Against Settlements wrote, “This Video shows that the palestinian had was a set of small, hand-held prayer beads, more info, please call issa amro 0599340549.” The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz posted the video, under the headline, “Video sheds new light on fight between soldier, Palestinian: After first video goes viral, second video shows Palestinian to have held prayer beads, not brass knuckles.”
After seeing the Ha’aretz article and the video, I, among others, emailed on May 4th to The New York Times corrections staff, Jodi Rudoren and others at The Times requesting a correction. With no response, I wrote again on May 7th, and on May 8th I received this response from Jodi Rudoren, “Patrick, I believe a clarification is in the works. Sorry for delay.”
Having witnessed a number of troubling “corrections” by The New York Times on Palestine and Israel, after Ms. Rudoren’s email, a friend joked with me that the correction would accuse the youth instead of having a gun in his pocket, rather than brass knuckles. Sadly, his joke turned out to be not far from the truth.
The sentence in the article’s text was changed yesterday to: “There were also widespread reports that one of the teenagers in Hebron had had brass knuckles.” And the following note was added at the bottom of the article:
Correction: May 8, 2014
An earlier version of this article overstated what is known about one of the Palestinian teenagers pictured in the video. Local media initially reported that he had brass knuckles, but the youth later said he was holding prayer beads instead. The Israeli military is still investigating the incident, including whether any of the youths had weapons.
The correction noted “local media” (translation, Israeli media) reports that the youth had brass knuckles, and the Palestinian youth’s subsequent denial, but it gave the last and implicitly authoritative word to the Israeli military that is “still investigating the incident” and has not yet concluded whether any of the youth had “weapons.” So instead of one boy accused of having brass knuckles, all of the youth are now ominously under investigation for possessing “weapons,” with The New York Times passing on the Israeli militaries typical, vague, dark innuendo, which could of course include guns or explosives.
And what about the investigation by the Palestinian organization “Youth Against Settlements” that produced actual and convincing video footage that was the basis for the original story, and shows clearly that the youth was holding prayer beads? This Palestinian “investigation” and video were not deemed worthy of mention by The New York Times in its correction, even though Youth Against Settlements and Issa Amro have a long history of documenting human rights violations. Instead the “official” Israeli military investigation was highlighted, with the implication that it would provide the final word, though groups like Human Rights Watch have documented repeatedly that “Israel has a poor record of military investigations into alleged violations against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.” My personal experience with Israeli military statements about events that I’ve witnessed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is that they are typically spin, designed to exonerate the Israeli military and cast blame on Palestinians.
While now acknowledging the youth’s denial, with this correction The New York Times ignored the investigation and video evidence from the Palestinian civil society organization “Youth Against Settlements,” implied reliance on an unreliable Israeli military investigation, and granted legitimacy to the Israeli military’s new and ominous innuendo that the Palestinian youths may have had “weapons.” This case provides a small echo of The Times’ deference to Israeli government authority recently critiqued by New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan when The Times complied with an Israeli government gag order on publicizing the detention of Palestinian journalist Majd Kayyal. And it serves as one more of many examples of how Palestinian voices and views are sometimes marginalized or excluded in the New York Times.
As a footnote, also today, in yet another small example of this ongoing problem, The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren disappeared the voices and agency of 13 Palestinian human rights organizations in a brief article noting that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had urged the Palestinian Authority to join the International Criminal Court. AP, for example, found it fit to note that 13 Palestinian organizations also signed the statement.
UPDATE: When I asked Issa Amro of Youth Against Settlements by email if the two videos were from the same day, Issa responded, “It is the same day and the same video.” When I asked Issa about his discussions with The New York Times, because the original article does quote him, Issa responded, “They called me before they made the report and I told them that it was not brass knuckles. They were very biased.“ But Issa’s assertion that the youth did not have brass knuckles was not reflected in the original New York Times article that stated as an uncontested, unsourced fact that he did. Issa told me it was Jodi Rudoren who called him about the original article. Issa said that no one from The New York Times called him about the correction or about the second video he posted. Issa also told the Palestinian news outlet Ma’an that the Youth Against Settlements office was raided and searched three times since they posted the original video.