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Journalismism

The New York Times’ David Leonhardt Turns In A Nasty Piece Of Work

10:48 AM EST on January 25, 2024

David Leonhardt’s self-appointed job, as writer of a daily newsletter for the New York Times, is to make things seem better than they are. This is often misinterpreted as "objectivity," but it’s actually even less helpful than that: Leonhardt is there to allay the concerns of a certain subscriber who pays vague attention to the news and hopes not to be forced to pay any more. There is an audience of millions for this. In recent years, Leonhardt has applied his it's-not-as-bad-as-it-seems perspective to COVID and reproductive rights, with appalling results. This week, he turned his rheumy eyes to Gaza and concluded that things are getting better, because only 150 Palestinians are dying per day.

Acknowledgement of Palestinian death in Western media can inspire perversion of the English language. Leonhardt provides further evidence for this phenomenon in the Jan. 22 edition of The Morning. This is not the first time he has written about Gaza; I suggest this recent episode of the podcast Citations Needed for a breakdown of Leonhardt's greatest hits, as well as a broader look at the dubious purpose of the News Nugget Distributor. But “The Decline of Deaths in Gaza” is absurd syntax as a headline—Leonhardt is referring to a rate but presenting it as a total, which cannot decline—and the sensible information that this sensible writer sensibly includes does not demonstrate that there has been any marked change to Israel’s strategy of killing people.

“Over the past week, an average of 151 Gazans, including both Hamas fighters and civilians, have died each day,” Leonhardt wrote on Monday, one day after Gaza’s health ministry reported that 178 Palestinians had been killed within the past 24 hours. On the day the newsletter was sent out, 195 were reportedly killed. On Wednesday, the published death toll for the previous 24 hours was 210. The decline identified by Leonhardt at the time was visualized with a graph inserted in the middle of the article, citing data from Gazan officials. After three-plus months of unfounded skepticism about its accuracy, the ministry can apparently be trusted if it can be used to give the appearance that the slaughter is slowing down. Leonhardt still made sure to mention the data was from a “Hamas-controlled” source.

The analytical view can't really be found beyond that point, and anyway it is fundamentally flawed: The daily death rate in Gaza is based not on something uncontrollable, but a deliberate choice by the Israeli government of where and how much it wants to bomb. Leonhardt does not know how many of the dead were civilians. He has no answer beyond speculation, but believes that Israel's aim has probably gotten better, too.

Earlier in the war, Gazan officials suggested that more than 70 percent of victims were civilians, while an analysis by an Israeli sociologist put the figure at 61 percent. It seems plausible that the share remains similar today, but also plausible that a lower percentage of deaths are among civilians now that Israel’s attacks have become more targeted and the daily toll has declined.

From here, Leonhardt introduces his own point-counterpoint on the latest death figures: “Is it enough?” vs. “Or too much?” It'd make more sense for this to be an evening newsletter, because anyone who would analyze Gaza in this fashion is a vampire. In the first section, he acknowledges that “the death toll in Gaza remains high, and some of the victims continue to be civilians, including children.” In the counterpoint, Leonhardt gives equal weight to the idea that Israel should commit even more genocide.

Then, we reach Leonhardt’s conclusion (emphasis mine):

Even with the caveats, the changes in Israel’s war strategy have been significant — and somewhat overlooked. Israel has responded to international pressure in ways that suggest its harshest critics are wrong to accuse it of wanting to maximize civilian deaths. Yet the war is not over. Israel continues to inflict enormous damage on Gaza, and Hamas continues to attack Israel and call for its destruction. The war’s next phase will almost certainly include further tragedy.

Leonhardt has provided little to no evidence for the bolded claim. It's purely wishful thinking from an incurious stooge presenting himself as a disinterested authority: Because a line has gone down, Israel is showing restraint. What Leonhardt fails to include is the dozens of journalists who have been killed by Israel, which could conceivably—even plausibly—be affecting up-to-date death tolls; those who have fled Gaza for fear of ending up dead; the severe risk of famine to half a million Palestinians; the rapid spread of disease exacerbated by the total destruction of numerous hospitals; and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow on Jan. 13 that “no one will stop us, not The Hague, not the axis of evil and not anyone else.” All these factors put together suggest that Israel is not suddenly showing restraint, but that there are fewer people in Gaza left to kill.

Earlier this week, Gaza-based photographer Belal Khaled spoke to a 13-year-old girl, with hemorrhages in both of her eyes, who said that an Israeli tank crushed her home, killing her father and sister. Since this resulted in two deaths and not three, Leonhardt must see it as progress. He doesn't interrogate anything beyond the numbers, because that's not his job. Leonhardt is there to reassure an audience that already doesn't want to think about the news any more than necessary. When he writes that the situation is getting better in Gaza, there's a crucial followup question left unanswered: Better for whom?

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