Skip to Content

The New York Times Ignores Reality In Pursuit Of Objectivity

New York Times Managing Editor Joseph Kahn gives the keynote speech at the Andrew Olle lecture 2017 at ICC darling Harbour on October 27, 2017 in Sydney, Australia.
Getty Images|

New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn.

There are many options to choose from, but a New York Times article from April 1, with the headline "Israeli troops pull out of a major Gaza hospital after a two-week battle," serves as a useful example of how the newspaper has covered Gaza within its own intentional framework. The report cites death toll and arrest numbers provided by an Israeli military official, adopts the IDF claim that its siege of Al-Shifa Hospital was a legitimate military operation aimed at rooting out "terrorists," and reinforces the notion that the total obliteration of the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip was the byproduct of a battle between military forces.

This framing does not square with any further context: Survivors described horrific scenes including drones with speakers telling those in the hospital to "come out, you animals," executions of children, and the systematic sorting and killing of hundreds of people. Palestinian doctors continue to find bodies outside the hospital complex. But the primary objective of this article is that it adheres to the standards set by the New York Times.

On Monday, The Intercept published excerpts from an internal Times memo from standards editor Susan Wessling and international editor Philip Pan. The memo's ostensible purpose was to ensure that Times journalists use standardized, accurate language when covering the Israeli military's destruction of Gaza, although the memo's authors would phrase it rather differently. Writers are discouraged "except in very rare cases" from using the words "genocide," "ethnic cleansing," and "Palestine." They are not supposed to use the phrase "refugee camps," even though the United Nations recognizes eight of them in Gaza. From the memo:

"Words like ‘slaughter,’ ‘massacre’ and ‘carnage’ often convey more emotion than information. Think hard before using them in our own voice. Can we articulate why we are applying those words to one particular situation and not another? As always, we should focus on clarity and precision — describe what happened rather than using a label."

The Intercept

Of course, these guidelines are applied differently among the paper's various departments. A breaking news writer isn't there to compare the Middle East to bugs, but Thomas Friedman can. Bret Stephens is allowed to label anyone he disagrees with as supporting Hamas. David Leonhardt has the imprimatur to cook the numbers and suggest that the situation in Gaza is improving, because the dead-Palestinian line went down for a week.

If the Times were to actually describe what happened, rather than what it's currently doing, its coverage would look much different. Any portion of the endless footage of maimed or dead Palestinians could fit the requirement for "carnage"; the word "massacre" would properly represent, for instance, Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinians trying to receive aid. How would something like the destruction of Gaza's largest IVF facility cheapen the definition of "genocide" that the Times is committed to preserving?

The clarity and accuracy that Wessling and Pan are striving for is supposed to be clear and accurate, but only to certain groups. When 17-year-old Palestinian-American Tawfic Abdel Jabbar was shot and killed in the occupied West Bank in January, the Times headline was "He Loved Basketball and Wanted to Help His Family Stores. A Bullet Ended It All." After Israeli tanks killed more than 20 people in mid-March while they were waiting in line for an aid delivery, the Times headline was "Another Gaza Aid Convoy Ends in Violence, With at Least 20 Killed." In 2022, when an Israeli soldier fatally shot Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh in the head, the same publication originally headlined the article as if she had died of an illness. By the standards of the Times, Palestinians can do bad things, but bad things tend to happen to Palestinians, with minimal explanation.

The intended effect of this selective language is to cover up what anyone can plainly see, under the veneer of objectivity. By narrowing the scope of available words, the Times can prevent its reporters from describing reality. Somewhere between an Israeli soldier firing a gun at a Palestinian, the bullet acquires agency. The passive voice can dissipate when a different kind of victim is the subject.

And when the Times stretches that objectivity far enough that it becomes journalistic malpractice, management has chosen to menace its own workers who speak up. After The Intercept reported in great detail on the shoddy reporting and inaccuracies in a Times feature on sexual violence on Oct. 7, the newspaper's leadership stood by its story and instead focused on finding the source of the leak. (The followup article did not mention The Intercept, nor any of the previous errors.) Management conducted a sweeping investigation decried by Times union members as a "racially targeted witch hunt" that singled out Middle Eastern and North African staffers. Executive editor Joe Kahn defended the investigation on the grounds that the leak represented a "breakdown in the sort of trust and collaboration that’s necessary in the editorial process." On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Times had concluded its internal probe without finding the source of the leaks.

The Times has status, money, and an authoritative voice. It is seen as the standard for accuracy, and is also one of the few newspapers in good financial standing. It uses this perception to set the terms of objectivity in situations like these, even if that clashes with all other relevant facts. The ostensible job of the paper of record is to hold power to account; instead it finds a way to turn every atrocity in Gaza into a mystery. The Times' prestige is not incidental or in conflict with its mangled sense of objectivity. Rather, it's how the company gets away with it.

"Can we articulate why we are applying those words to one particular situation and not another?" is a wholly relevant question for Wessling and Pan to ask of its reporters. Can they answer it themselves?

Already a user?Log in

Welcome to Defector!

Sign up to read another couple free blogs.

Or, click here to subscribe!

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter