How to Spin an Atrocity: Lessons from the NY Times

More than a dozen civilians die under a barrage of fire at a United Nations shelter, and The New York Times is faced once again with a dilemma: how to report the news and at the same time deflect any blame directed at Israel.

In today’s story about the tragic shelling of a school in Gaza, the Times draws on its own arsenal of spin: blurring the focus of the article and withholding information that is crucial to understanding what happened.

Although the event merits a breaking news story with a direct statement of the facts, the Times begins with a “soft” opening about families seeking shelter. This provides a broader (and fuzzier) emphasis and delays mention of the actual event until the third paragraph.

Even before the relevant information comes to light, however, the story by Ben Hubbard and Jodi Rudoren tells us that “war approached” the area where the shelter, a UN school, was located. In fact, it was the Israeli army that was approaching the area, and it was Israel that had invaded Gaza in the first place.

Times readers are told that “the source of the blasts remains unclear,” and the paper quotes an Israeli army source who said, “There was combat there.” He also suggested that the shells may have come from Hamas rockets.

Careful readers will note that this claim is thrown into doubt by the quotes at the end of the article where the families of victims “all denied that there had been Hamas fighters in the area.” If they had been present, one Palestinian told the Times, “We would have died a long time ago.”

The story omits a significant development: The Israeli army later stated that it had fired in the area of the school (claiming that Hamas was shooting rockets there). It also omits crucial information found in other news reports.

In The Christian Science Monitor we hear from those who were present at the scene: “Multiple witnesses described multiple explosions in the attack on the shelter, and said they appeared to be shelling from Israeli tanks positioned within range of the school.”

And in The Guardian we get a firsthand inspection of the site: “There was no visible evidence of debris from broken Palestinian rockets in the school. The injuries and the number of fatalities were consistent with a powerful explosion that sent shrapnel tearing through the air, in some cases causing traumatic amputations.

“The surrounding neighbourhood bore evidence of multiple Israeli attacks, including smoke from numerous artillery rounds and air strikes. One building was entirely engulfed by flames.”

A simple look at the scene of a crime should be basic journalistic practice, but the Times, with all its resources and staff in Gaza, failed to give its readers anything like this. In its eyes, it is better to stick with officialdom, no matter how far from the scene these spokespersons are and no matter how biased.

The Times also runs an editorial today, insisting that “there are competing claims” over who was responsible and “that could take time to sort out.” The editors certainly knew of the Israeli army admission and the reports from the scene, but they preferred to look the other way.

Fortunately, readers do not have to rely on the Times with its obfuscations and unconscionable omissions. The real news is available elsewhere, only a few clicks away on the Internet.

Barbara Erickson

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