Wednesday, May 29, 2024

NYT Brass Takes Action to Stop Leaks on Gaza Coverage


Since Israel began its war on the Gaza Strip after the October 7 attacks, internal strife has wracked the New York Times. The intensity of the debate reached its zenith in late December and January, amid a sustained fight over the paper’s claim that Hamas had systematically weaponized sexual violence on October 7.

Published on December 28, the story, headlined “Screams Without Words,” instantly served as a powerful reference in a mounting campaign waged by Israel and its supporters to convince the world that Hamas had implemented a systematic rape campaign against Jewish women on October 7. The article by Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz, and Adam Sella also was met with skepticism by independent journalists and other analysts who combed through each line of the story highlighting inconsistencies and credibility issues with people presented as witnesses and experts.

Since the story’s publication, the internal dispute led to the shelving of an episode of “The Daily,” the paper’s flagship podcast, that was to be based on “Screams Without Words.” The fight over the podcast episode spilled into the pages of The Intercept, prompting a far-reaching leak investigation that the New York Times’s union alleged was carried out in a manner that singled out and discriminated against reporters of Middle Eastern and North African extraction. A Times spokesperson denied that it engaged in racial targeting.

On Monday, executive editor Joe Kahn told staff the leak probe was ending. “We did not reach a definitive conclusion about how this significant breach occurred. We did identify gaps in the way proprietary journalistic material is handled, and we have taken steps to address these issues,” Kahn wrote on a Times Slack channel message seen by The Intercept. “The breach that occurred should upset anyone who wants to have transparency in our editorial processes and to encourage candid exchanges. We work together with trust and collegiality every day on everything we produce, and I have every expectation that this incident will prove to be a singular exception to an important rule.”

In weeks leading up to the announcement that the probe was over, however, top officials in the Times newsroom justified the investigation and its conduct, according to newsroom sources and remarks at an April 4 meeting reviewed by The Intercept.

Internal concerns about the “Screams Without Words” article have been borne out by subsequent reporting from several media outlets, including The Intercept and the New York Times itself. The Times has not appended any major corrections to the December 28 story. Instead, the paper took the unusual step of inserting a bracketed “update” within the body of the story, with a link to a recent Times news article that undermines the original reporting.

Defending Leak Probe

Roughly 20 Times staffers were interviewed in the probe, which was led by Charlotte Behrendt, the chief of the paper’s internal investigations unit. Initially, Times leadership said, “The inquiry is focused narrowly on how internal materials were shared with outsiders.” In a March 5 statement, however, the New York Times Guild said this was not true and filed a grievance with the newspaper for discrimination against employees of Middle Eastern or North African background.

“Members faced extensive questions about their involvement in MENA ERG” — employee resource group — “events and discussions, and about their views of the Times’s Middle East coverage,” the union said. “Group leaders were asked to turn over the group’s membership list, as well as the names of all New York Times colleagues who had ‘raised concerns’ — in private discussions — about a published New York Times article.”

Times spokesperson Charlie Stadtlander said, “The claim that anyone was singled out based on ethnicity or associations is completely untrue.” (The New York Times Guild did not respond to a request for comment about whether the grievance process was ongoing.)

In the weeks leading up to the closing of the probe, the intensity of the internal debate over Gaza coverage in the newsroom calmed, several Times staffers have told The Intercept, and interviews that were supposed to take place as part of the leak investigation never did. This led some employees to speculate that the investigation was winding down.

In an April 4 meeting, however, staffers were left with the impression the leak probe was continuing, according to three newsroom sources. During the all-staff meeting, Kahn, the executive editor, was asked for an update on the investigation and whether any staffers had been disciplined.

“There is nothing really concrete that we can say about it right now beyond the fact just to re-emphasize that this inquiry was very narrowly focused just on one issue which was making sure that we can protect the confidentiality of the journalistic process,” Kahn said. “It’s just very important that we be able to have that process unfold with the full confidence that that will remain internal to our staff and not be revealed or leaked externally. So that’s really the focus of it.”

Times managing editor Carolyn Ryan told staffers at the meeting that the internal probe was more than a simple leak investigation.

“It doesn’t really capture the gravity of what occurred here and the kind of extraordinary nature of it,” she said. “You’re talking about sharing pre-publication, pre-broadcast materials that were clearly internal, confidential, and sensitive.”

Times editorial leaders alluded to new internal policy initiatives aimed at staunching leaks and external criticism of the paper by staffers. They also emphasized that criticism and attacks on colleagues or the journalism of the Times were prohibited “outside of the proper channels.”

Cutting Ties

At the same April 4 meeting, Times international editor Philip Pan told the staff that the paper had cut ties with Schwartz, an Israeli filmmaker who freelanced with the paper. Hired by the Times to work with Gettleman, one of its marquee reporters, Schwartz did much of the on-the-ground reporting and interviews for “Screams Without Words,” which purported to show a systematic pattern of rape and other sexual violence by Hamas on October 7.

“Anat was a freelancer that we worked with in Israel,” Pan said. “She made valuable contributions to our report. We didn’t see anything amiss with her work for us, but we learned about social media activity that predated her time working with us that was unacceptable and she’s not working with us right now.” (Neither Pan nor Schwartz responded to requests for comment.)

Schwartz’s social media history intensified the controversy around the “Screams” story. Following October 7, Schwartz liked a post on the platform X, saying that Israel needed to “turn the Strip into a slaughterhouse.” Another post on X liked by Schwartz repeated a since-debunked viral claim about beheaded babies in the October 7 attack and she also liked a post called for creating a narrative that would support Israel’s war aims.

After the posts were brought to light, the Times announced it was reviewing Schwartz’s social media activity. “Those ‘likes’ are unacceptable violations of our company policy,” said a Times spokesperson in February.

The Times had previously stood by Schwartz’s reporting publicly. “Ms. Schwartz was part of a rigorous reporting and editing process,” Pan said in a statement provided to The Intercept for a late-February story about the controversy. “She made valuable contributions and we saw no evidence of bias in her work. We remain confident in the accuracy of our reporting and stand by the team’s investigation. But as we have said, her ‘likes’ of offensive and opinionated social media posts, predating her work with us, are unacceptable.”

On March 5, according to chat records reviewed by The Intercept, Times Jerusalem bureau chief Patrick Kingsley removed Schwartz from the WhatsApp group used by the paper’s journalists for communicating about Gaza coverage. (Kingsley directed questions to the Times communications team.)

The day before Schwartz was removed from the group, The Intercept published a story challenging one of the central allegations of sexual assault featured in “Screams Without Words.” In its article, the Times had cited an anonymous Israeli special forces paramedic who claimed that two teenage girls were sexually assaulted in Kibbutz Be’eri, offering a graphic description of the scene.

A spokesperson for the kibbutz, however, told The Intercept that, based on the information they had been provided, the story was flatly false. Family members of the two girls also disputed they were sexually assaulted. A spokesperson for the Times told The Intercept the paper continued to stand by its reporting.

Schwartz would only author one more story for the paper after “Screams”: a co-byline with the “Screams” team on a January 29 story about the arrival of a United Nations team in Israel to draft a report about sexual violence on October 7.

“Screams” Falls Apart

When the U.N. report finally arrived on March 4, the Times story about it wasn’t written by any of the “Screams” reporters. What the U.N. had found seemed to undermine the December story: Two high-profile cases sexual assault alleged to have happened at Kibbutz Be’eri were “unfounded.”

Yet the Times stuck by its reporting. The paper’s story on the U.N. report said the special forces paramedic’s account in “Screams” was not in question: “First responders told The New York Times they had found bodies of women with signs of sexual assault at those two kibbutzim, but The Times, in its investigation, did not refer to the specific allegations that the U.N. said were unfounded.”

The newspaper never explained the basis for its assertion that the U.N. had not actually debunked the paper’s reporting on the incident, but evidence soon came to light indicating that the reporting was false: There was video. On March 25, the Times itself reported that it had reviewed video taken by an Israeli soldier of the scene’s aftermath, showing three fully clothed bodies with no signs of sexual violence — making clear the paramedic’s description offered in “Screams Without Words” was false.

The Times’s new article on the video did not feature Gettleman’s byline. “New video has surfaced that undercuts the account of an Israeli military param

Latest stories